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Down From The Mountaintop

The Amazing Rise and Sad Decline Of Memphis’s Finest Team

From Mid-South Sports & Leisure, March 2005

 

It’s been twenty years now. Twenty years since the finest Memphis State basketball team to wear the silver-and-blue last stepped on the floor of the Mid-South Coliseum. Twenty years, and Memphis can still close its eyes and see them: Andre Turner, the Little General, slicing amongst the tall trees for a silky-smooth layup. William Bedford yanking a rebound off the glass and slamming it back home. Baskerville Holmes tickling the twine from everywhere this side of the hot dog stand, smiling wide while he did it. And Keith Lee…Keith Lee doing anything he damn well pleased.

            For a season, they were flawless, almost mythic heroes. But like mythic heroes, many of them fell, and fell hard. Bad luck, bad environment, bad decisions, bad choice of friends…for many of the Final Four Tigers, anything that could go wrong, did.

            All of the misfortune that has befallen the team has, in the intervening two decades, obscured what was a squad of historic talent—not just in Memphis, but on a national scale. During the 1984-85 season, the team went 31-4, including a perfect 15-0 record at home, and even briefly achieved a No. 1 ranking. They blasted through the early rounds of the NCAA tournament en route to the Final Four, including wins over Boston College and Wayman Tisdale’s Oklahoma. Six of the players, including the entire starting five, were eventually drafted by NBA teams. And for a season, they held the hopes and dreams of an entire city—black and white, young and old—in their hands.

Off the court, though, there were problems that only came to light after that season. Only two of the 12 players on the Final Four roster earned degrees. Allegations of improper behavior and recruiting violations dogged the program. The NCAA eventually placed Memphis State on two years of probation, banning the Tigers from one year of postseason play in 1987 and forcing the school to return almost $1 million in postseason earnings. Worst of all, the NCAA stripped Memphis State of its Final Four designation—in official terms, the team never even played in the 1985 tournament.

            But even the tragedies and scandals can’t dim the brilliant memories. In many ways, the team was Memphis. Eleven of its twelve players came from in and around the Bluff City. Locals had watched many of the players since their youth-league days, and when these playground legends donned the Tiger blue together, something special happened.

            “These kids were beloved,” says Flynn Wallace, one of the early driving forces behind the Bluff City Classic basketball exhibitions and a longtime Tiger booster. “They always played with a smile on their face. They loved being here, and we loved having them here.” Wallace recalls in particular an appearance the team made at Hickory Ridge Mall, where twenty thousand Tiger fans treated the team like rock stars.

            In a city as torn by racial strife as Memphis, basketball bridged a gap that politics and religion couldn’t. Blacks and whites alike flooded into the Mid-South Coliseum, united in the common goal of wanting to see the Tigers lay a hurting on Cincinnati or Louisville. The Final Four season may have been the most united the city had been before or since.

            But the sorrow that followed in that season’s wake has scarred the Tigers. Of the surviving starters, only point guard Andre Turner agreed to talk about the season and its aftermath; former coach Dana Kirk also declined the opportunity to comment. Perhaps revisiting the good times is just too painful, knowing what lay ahead.

            “It’s bittersweet,” says Wallace. “One day they were on the top of the world. Then they got beat [in the NCAA Tournament], and things went so bad for so many of them. Those were the best of times, and none of us knew it at the time.”

 

 

Keith Lee

            Memphis State was a true team in 1984-85, a collection of individuals united in a common cause. But it wasn’t a team of equals—on the Memphis State Tigers, everybody knew who the Big Dog was.

            Keith Lee might just be one of the best college basketball players of all time, and that’s not just hometown hyperbole. It’s impossible to overstate the contributions Lee made to both Memphis State and the game of college basketball. The man nicknamed “Rock” leads the university in all-time points scored (2,408) and rebounds (1,336). His teams amassed a 104-24 record; he never missed an NCAA tournament; and he led the Tigers to three Metro Conference championships. He averaged a double-double for his career, with 18.8 points and 10.4 rebounds.

            “Rock was something spectacular,” Turner says. “He put Memphis on the map and made people take notice.”

“Keith Lee was the biggest thing to hit the campus in ages,” Wallace says. “Basketball fanatics had been licking their chops over him during his high school days [in West Memphis]. And then when we got him, it was like, ‘holy cow!’” Wallace vividly recalls Bluff City Classic tournaments when Turner would flash downcourt, setting up Lee for a reverse jam. The crowd would go so wild with delight that fans would actually run out of the gym in disbelief.

            Lee fulfilled the manifest destiny of the superstar: he made everyone he played with a better player. Turner recalls practice sessions where Kirk would split the team into blue and white squads. Most of the vets would play on one squad; Lee and the freshmen would comprise another. And more often than not, Lee’s team would school the veterans.

            Keith Lee was a Memphis hero, but it was a mantle that hung heavily on his shoulders. “When people would recognize him, he’d nod and smile, but then he’d put his head back down,” recalls Wallace, a longtime friend of Lee’s. “He was just such a shy guy, no matter how big he got.”

            On the court, though, Lee had few peers. He was a four-time All-American alongside mid-Eighties-era basketball immortals like Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, and Hakeem Olajuwon.

            After his college days ended, Lee was the eleventh pick in the 1985 NBA Draft—two spots ahead of Karl Malone—but could never find a home in the L. He was an early version of NBA All-Star Kevin Garnett, at once tall, strong, swift, and accurate, and had he gotten the opportunity to develop in the pro game, he could have been one of the greats. But he played only three seasons—two for the Cavaliers and one for the Nets—before leg injuries forced him to walk away from the NBA. He played in various leagues—including a return to Memphis as part of the USBL—before leaving basketball behind entirely in the mid-1990s, much to the disappointment of many in Memphis.

            “He was the biggest thing in this town since Elvis, and then, to a lot of people, he just vanished,” Wallace says. “Not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t ask me what ever happened to Keith Lee.”

The answer is: nothing at all. Lee now works security at the Breath of Life Christian Academy near Memphis. According to friends, he’s living happily with his wife Diane, herself a former All-State basketball player and captain of the Lady Tigers. Their son Deywayne recently joined Arkansas State’s basketball team.

Friends say Lee avoids the spotlight because he’s uncomfortable with being the center of attention, not because of any ill will toward any individual or the university. But many people would like to see him step back into public life and enjoy the deserved accolades that would come his way.

            “I think it’s so important for Keith to show his head now,” Wallace says. “It’s time. Can you imagine what it would be like to introduce Keith Lee during a Cincinnati or a Louisville game? People would run out of the gym all over again!”

 

 

Andre Turner

            “Hold on just a second,” Andre Turner says. He’s on the phone from Spain, and between the transatlantic delay and the happy—but very loud—sounds of his household, he’s trying to find a quiet spot to talk Memphis State hoops.

“Those days, man, they still make me smile,” recalls Turner, the only starter who consented to talk about the season. “The city came together like one big family. We were all so united. It was a great thing to be a Memphian—it’s always a great thing to be a Memphian—but there was such unity then. Everywhere you went, people were congratulating you.”

            Lee, Bedford, and Askew comprised one of the all-time great college front lines. But they still needed to get the ball to do any damage—and they counted on Turner, the “Little General,” to get them the rock exactly where and when they needed it. During the Final Four season, he averaged more than 11 points and nearly 7 assists a game, and possessed a point guard’s most valuable weapon—absolute fearlessness.

“He was probably the second-best point guard ever to play at Memphis State, after Larry Finch,” says Art Winsler, a longtime Tiger fan. “He was such a nice kid, but when it came clutch time, he wanted the ball in his hands. He always wanted to take that last-second shot.”

            His point-guard skills carried over into his off-court life, as he evaded troubles that befell his other teammates. After he left Memphis, Turner became a gunslinger for hire, playing in, as he puts it, “any league with more than one team.” He was drafted by the Lakers, and bounced around the NBA, playing for—deep breath—the Lakers, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington, Boston, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and the L.A. Clippers. He won a CBA championship and briefly reunited with Askew playing for the Memphis Rockers of the World Basketball League. He’s played in Spain since 1992, and now runs the point for Polaris World Murcia.

            He’s lucky to still be playing pro basketball, and he knows it—but he’s quick to spread the credit. “I came from a good family,” he acknowledges. “My parents were stern, and my brothers and sisters would always look out for each other. That had something to do with [his continued success].” Turner also credits his wife Desma with much of his stability. He and Desma, a former Lady Tiger, had been childhood sweethearts, and remain together a quarter-century later, now the proud parents of five daughters. He’s also begun a campaign with ATWEC Technologies of Memphis to promote child safety in day care centers.

            “Things have been good,” Turner says. “Basketball’s given me a lot. But it all started in Memphis, and that’s why I’ll always go back.”

 

William Bedford

            The mid-‘80s marked a Big Man Renaissance in college basketball, led by Virginia’s Ralph Sampson and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing. Memphis State had its own redwood, the seven-foot-tall William Bedford. Strong and swift, Bedford could swat away errant shots, yank down rebounds, and run the court like a man half his size.

“I’d go on a break, look up, and there’s Bedford right with me,” Turner recalls. “I’d throw him up a big alley oop for a dunk at the beginning of the game, and you just knew he was going to go for 20 points and 15 rebounds that game.” During the ’84-’85 season, Bedford averaged 12 points and 8 boards, and changed the course of nearly every game with his dominating presence inside.

But off the court, Bedford simply didn’t know what to do with himself. Then-assistant coaches Lee Fowler and Larry Finch have both recounted in various media the difficulty they had in keeping Bedford on the straight and narrow while he was at Memphis State.

“He loved playing basketball,” Finch told ESPN.com in 2001. “He didn't care anything about school. I could see him now, with me chasing him around this campus, making sure he's going to class. And I can see him running from me with those long legs.”

            After he left Memphis State, Bedford was drafted by the Suns in 1986, but his career there flamed out quickly. He testified before a Maricopa County grand jury that was investigating drug use among Phoenix players, receiving immunity from prosecution to do so. Five current or former Suns were indicted, and Bedford was soon dealt to the Pistons. There, he soon earned the nickname “Willie B”—as in, “Willie B at practice today?”

In Detroit for the famed “Bad Boys” years, Bedford played on two championship teams with the likes of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Even though his work ethic grated on his teammates, his boyish enthusiasm still shone through, and won him support from some unconventional sources.

 “I felt Willie needed a friend. I tried to keep him with me,” former Piston teammate Dennis Rodman told the Sacramento Bee in 2000. “I told William a lot of times that if you’re using drugs, they’re going to catch you, and when they catch you, they’re going to put you out of the league. And then your dream will be gone.”

            Rodman’s words proved prophetic. In 1988, Bedford confessed that he was addicted to cocaine and marijuana, and the NBA committed him to its Van Nuys, Calif. treatment center. But even after two attempts at rehab, Bedford couldn’t get his life together. He was jailed briefly for driving without a license, the first of many stints behind bars. The Pistons then dealt to a succession of NBA teams—the Clippers, the Bullets, and finally the Spurs, where his career ended in 1993 after Spurs players reportedly asked Coach John Lucas to cut Bedford. An attempted comeback with the Memphis Fire of the USBL ended when Bedford failed to show up for his second day of practice.

“William was very much influenced by his friends,” says Winsler, a friend of Bedford’s since his high school days. “The only thing that influenced him more was a female. But when he was around someone he liked or admired, he’d mimic them. He’s still that way.”

            “When you’re young and you’re in the spotlight the way these guys were, you need to have a mentor to keep you on the right path,” Wallace says. “[Michael] Jordan had that, Tiger [Woods] had that. I’m not sure a lot of the guys [from the ’84-85 team] had that.”

Bedford has now done nearly half a dozen stretches in prison for various drug-related offenses, and his difficulties with the law show no signs of abating. In February 2001, he was in a car stopped by Michigan police, who allegedly found 25 pounds of marijuana in the vehicle. And this past summer, he was arrested in Texas for failing to pay more than $300,000 in child support. He continues to live in Texas, but declined comment for this story.

            “He could have been one of the great centers in the NBA,” Turner says ruefully. “I just wish he could have stayed on the right path.”

 

Vincent Askew

            Sometimes, low key is the right key. Vincent Askew wasn’t the flashiest player on the ’84-’85 squad. He wasn’t the best shooter, the most accurate passer, the most dominant rebounder. Matter of fact, he didn’t lead the ’84-’85 team in any major category, with one exception: minutes played.

 Askew was one of the more complete players on the team, capable of banging down low one possession and running the point the next. And while he didn’t wow the college game the way Lee did, NBA scouts saw in Askew the kind of versatile, durable talent that kept him in the L for nine years.

After the Final Four season, Askew found himself in the midst of a debate on NCAA regulations when he briefly considered transferring to Kansas. While Askew was visiting the Jayhawks, then-coach Larry Brown provided Askew with a plane ticket to fly back to Memphis to see his dying grandmother. Regardless of motivation, the plane ticket was a violation in the eyes of the NCAA, and Kansas landed on probation for the 1988-89 season.

            Askew declared for the draft his junior year, a decision many scouts met with raised eyebrows. If he’d waited for his senior year, the thinking went, he would have been a lottery pick. But he was drafted in the second round by Philadelphia. He bounced around the NBA for awhile, having cups of coffee with the Sixers and the Bullets. He moved to the CBA and became the only player named league MVP two straight years, then played a bit in Italy. Golden State picked him up in 1992, and he eventually found his way to Seattle, where he had his most productive years, including a trip to the NBA Finals against Jordan’s Bulls.

In later years, Askew would reunite with Brown in Indiana before ending in Portland for the 1997-98 season. He finished out his NBA career averaging 20 minutes and 7 points a game.

            “I don’t know of too many guys in the league who are better defenders than him, and not everybody is as unselfish,” Brown told the Memphis Flyer in 1997. “He doesn’t worry about minutes, doesn’t worry about shots, he just worries about winning.”

            After the NBA, Askew had some difficulties establishing himself. European basketball records indicate that at least three times he signed with various teams but refused to play with them, ending in August 2001 when he signed a contract with Roseto but did not come to Italy. Askew, according to an undated Euroleague scouting report, “is an NBA veteran that has finally, according to many, reached maturity. Vincent still has a lot of basketball left in him and wants to show the basketball people in Europe that he is indeed a reliable person.”

            Last fall, Askew traded in his sneakers for a clipboard, taking the head coaching job at Elliston Baptist Academy in Memphis. But in December, an embattled Askew left the job. Allegations that he had used ineligible players have landed the school in hot water with the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, potentially costing them a chance to play in the postseason, and Askew’s players were not pleased with his abrasive coaching methods.

            “I’m a longtime U of M fan, and I always tried to catch Vincent on TV in the NBA,” says Elliston athletic director Tommy Morgan. “But the lying, using ineligible players, using profanity in his coaching—we just couldn’t have that here.” (Askew declined the opportunity to comment.)

            Even so, Morgan still believes Askew has plenty to offer as a coach. “Vincent has one of the best basketball minds I’ve ever seen,” Morgan says. “He demands the best from his players, and he takes the time to teach the right way. If he can make the right personality changes, he could be one of the top coaches in America. I have that much respect for him.”

           

Baskerville Holmes

You show up in a gym with a name like “Baskerville Holmes”—maybe the greatest handle in college basketball history—you’d better bring some game to back it up. And Baskerville—“Bat” to his teammates—was, by all accounts, the liveliest member of the Final Four Tigers.

“Bat was my man,” Turner recalls with a smile. “We were roommates all four years. He was one of our leaders, and he was very vocal. You could always hear him no matter where you were on the court.”

The former Tennessee state high-jump champion—he cleared seven feet—was a prankster of the first degree, his smiles and exuberant behavior a perfect match for the

“He was such a happy-go-lucky individual,” Turner recalls. “He was always playing jokes and pranks and having fun. But when we were on the court, there wasn’t anybody who worked harder. No matter what I did, I never had to worry—Bat always had my back.”

Holmes, who received his name when his mother went into labor with him while watching a movie of the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks but cut before playing a single pro game. He then set out on a basketball odyssey that took him all over the world, from the Philippines to Israel. But tendonitis weakened his knees and shortened his career, eventually bringing him back to Memphis. By then, his star had dimmed; he was out of basketball entirely and uncertain of his prospects. He went to work for Consolidated Freightways, and reportedly was as popular there amongst his co-workers as he’d been amongst his teammates a decade before.

But in 1997, Holmes’ story turned from frustrating to tragic. He’d been laid off from Consolidated and arrested twice for domestic violence. On March 18, 1997, Holmes accidentally shot Tonya Franklin Crossford, his girlfriend of six years, and then turned the gun on himself. He was 32 years old.

“Everyone loved him, especially the little kids,” former Tiger assistant coach Tom Schuberth told the Commercial Appeal after Holmes’ death. “They were all saying, ‘Where’s Bat? Where’s Batman?’ He never met a stranger.”

“That’s history, that’s over with,” Draper says of Holmes’ suicide, seeking not to trivialize it but to focus on other aspects of his life. “You got to remember the boy the way he was, not what happened later on.”

 

Coach Dana Kirk

            Any college basketball player in the country would give a year of eligibility to play for a coach like Dana Kirk. A genius between the lines, Kirk inspired fierce confidence and loyalty from his players and boosters, and in turn led them to ever-higher finishes. It wasn’t until later that Memphis learned what was going on behind the scenes.

            “Dana was just a darn good basketball coach,” Turner says. “He wasn’t one of those types who’d be screaming on the sidelines all night. He was more of a negotiator. He’d try to make you understand what he wanted you to do, not just yell at you.”

At Memphis, Kirk’s teams amassed an impressive record of 158-58. But few of the Tigers graduated—from the ’84-85 team, the university could only verify that Wilfong and Boyd received their degrees. And the NCAA violations that occurred during Kirk’s tenure left the program with “a black eye,” in the words of one individual closely associated with the team, and Kirk left his post in 1986.

Problems followed Kirk off the court. In 1986, a federal grand jury charged Kirk with numerous offenses, including the failure to report tens of thousands of dollars of income from sources such as television, radio, and basketball camps. The trial resulted in Kirk being convicted of tax evasion; he spent four months in a federal minimum-security prison. (Kirk spoke to MSSL for this article, but declined to comment on the record on any aspect of Tiger basketball or his current activities.)

            Since then, though, Kirk has kept active in Memphis. He hasn’t coached basketball since 1986, but has hosted a sports talk show, and regularly makes television, radio, and speaking appearances. He remains a popular figure in town—in a recent poll by WHBQ’s George Lapides ranking the best basketball coaches in Memphis history, Kirk virtually ran the table, garnering as many votes as Finch, Gene Bartow, and John Calipari combined. He still has many fans in town, and by all accounts, he’s a garrulous, genial fellow—as long as the conversation stays in the present tense.

            “People like Coach Kirk made choices, and they have to live with those choices,” says his former player Dwight Boyd. “But when it was the last two minutes of the game, he was one of the best. That man could coach.”

 

Coach Larry Finch

            From the time that he stepped onto the court as a quicksilver point guard in the early ‘70s to his forced departure in 1997, no man typified and symbolized Tiger basketball quite like Larry Finch. He holds the university’s records for both scoring average (22.3) and coaching wins (220), and once turned down a chance to play for the L.A. Lakers to stay in Memphis and play for the Tams of the American Basketball Association.

            “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around, with such a great knowledge of the game,” says longtime friend Leonard Draper. “He knew the game. He taught the game well. Maybe he could have done a better job recruiting, but he always did it the right way, the way that wouldn’t get the university in trouble.”

            Finch first made his bones playing point for the famed ’72-73 Tiger team. That squad, the only one equal to the ’84-85 team in Tiger lore, reached the NCAA Finals but fell before the buzzsaw of UCLA and Bill Walton. After a short stint in pro ball, Finch helped establish a network that would funnel top-flight players to the Tigers for decades.

            Finch served as Dana Kirk’s local point man in recruiting Bluff City talent, and the ’84-’85 team represented his greatest triumph. After Kirk’s departure in 1986, Finch took over the team, seeking to mend fences and assure the community that the team’s troubles were in the past. And for awhile, he was right—he coached 11 years, amassing a 220-130 record with five NCAA tournament appearances. He mentored a generation of future NBA talent, including Elliott Perry, Anfernee Hardaway, Lorenzen Wright, David Vaughn, Cedric Henderson, and Chris Garner.

            But the pressures of expectation and disappointment grew large. Hardaway and Vaughn could only get the team as far as the Elite Eight in 1992, and the Wright-Henderson-Garner squad—probably the most talented Tiger team in a decade—sputtered out in a first-round defeat to Drexel in 1996. By then, the team was feuding internally, and Finch’s rep as a master Memphis recruiter had taken some heavy hits when three local stars—Tony Harris, Robert O'Kelley, and Cory Bradford—all spurned the Tiger program. Finch was forced out of the Memphis State program in 1997.

            He was only 46 at the time of his resignation, but didn’t land another coaching job, and friends say that marked the beginning of his decline in health. He had a minor stroke in 2001 and a crippling one in 2002, and his rehabilitation has been a slow, grueling process.

            “He’s coming along slowly, but he remembers plenty of things,” Draper says. “He’s at a nursing rehabilitation center, and we watch a lot of basketball together. That always gets his spirits up.” Draper notes that the Grizzlies, in particular former Memphis State coach Gene Bartow, have been exceptionally kind to Finch. And the university’s Black Student Association recently presented Finch with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

            “Here’s a guy who united the Memphis community twice, first as a player, and later as a coach,” Draper says. “He gets depressed at times; we all would. But people haven’t forgotten Larry, and that means an awful lot to him.”

 

One Last Look

            Not all of the other Final Four Tigers’ stories end in tragedy or heartache. John Wilfong, who would drain some of the Tigers’ most dramatic game-winning shots in his career, now works as a managing director at Morgan Keegan. Dwight Boyd continues to work as an account executive at PepsiCo in Memphis. Dwayne Bailey, who smothered Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale in the 1985 tournament, runs a security business. “Tricky” Ricky McCoy has been a Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy for many years. At last report, Willie Becton worked at a lawn service company, and David Jenkins worked as a finance manager at a car dealership.

But reserve Aaron Price also met with a too-early end; he was shot and killed in November 1998 in an apparent carjacking. “I don’t know why all this [misfortune] happened to these guys,” Wallace says. “You could say the team was cursed with all this bad stuff, but these individuals were men, and they made their own choices.”

Draper is even more succinct: “Bad things happen,” he says with more than a touch of regret. “That’s life.”

            It’s easy to focus on what came after the season—the scandals, the violence, the lives gone off track. But the better story is what went on between the nets. It’s a tale that the city may never duplicate, even if the Tigers finally win that elusive championship. For a short time, the Memphis State Tigers of 1984-85 exemplified the very best that college basketball could be.

“These guys genuinely got along, on and off the court,” Wallace says. “A lot of teams have a star or a superstar. But when you’ve got four other guys on the court who’ll feed into what that star does—wow. That year, every player played his role to perfection.”

 

-END-

Bio

Jay Busbee is a novelist and journalist living in Atlanta. Click below for more info on his novels, articles, and comics.

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