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The new kings of Memphis

John Calipari's Tigers have given the city something to rally around by making their first Final Four since 1985 with another shot at UCLA.

April 02, 2008|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Take Elvis Presley Boulevard past the sign for the Days Inn with the guitar-shaped pool and you'll see it on the left.

There is Graceland, bathed in blue light at night in honor of the Memphis Tigers and their trip to the Final Four. (See it at elvis.com).

Across town on Monday night, Coach John Calipari was holding court on his radio show in front of a standing-room only crowd at Cal's Championship Steakhouse.

A woman phoned in.

"You are now the King," she said. "Not Elvis."

Yes, the scene is a little different here than in Los Angeles. UCLA goes to the Final Four every year -- or three in a row, anyway.

Memphis has not been since 1985, and that ended badly. Then known as Memphis State, the school was put on NCAA probation the next year for violations under coach Dana Kirk and others, and Kirk was fired and served four months in a minimum-security prison for tax evasion and obstruction of justice.

Now Memphis is back for a third appearance. The first was in 1973, when the Tigers lost to Bill Walton and UCLA in the title game after Walton scored 44 points and made 21 of 22 shots.

"Coach Cal" took another caller.

"UCLA beat us, and I've been waiting 35 years for my dreams to catch up to me," the man said.

For that man and many others, seeing Memphis in the Final Four is good news in a city that sometimes seems as if it has seen nothing but the blues.

Memphis basketball has become a rallying point in this city of 643,000 that is 63.5% African American and has a 23.5% poverty rate -- higher than the 19% rate in Los Angeles -- according to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

"You know how a town needs something?" Calipari said before his radio show, sitting on the back patio at his house after the players filed out from a meeting.

"This town needed something. The mayoral race was just ugly. The senate race before that [won by Republican Bob Corker over Democrat Harold Ford Jr.] was ugly in this town. And we had the Tennessee Waltz," a federal corruption sting that led to the conviction of 12 public officials or aides.

Gas prices are up, like everywhere else. So is crime. People are struggling.

"I think this is one of those things that brings everybody together," Calipari said. "My players represent a lot of what people have had to live through. And they see them as them."

Calipari, back in college since 2000 after a three-season stint as the New Jersey Nets coach, also has known scandal. He took Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996, an achievement more remarkable than getting there with Memphis. But the NCAA vacated the UMass appearance after star Marcus Camby admitted taking money and gifts from an agent, something Calipari said he was unaware of at the time.

Calipari always has been a personality, cultivating an underdog's mentality in his team even though the Tigers are 37-1 and one of four No. 1-seeded teams, and playing his audience for laughs at the expense of the big state university, Tennessee, after defeating Texas to reach the Final Four.

"I tell you what, I could deal with burnt orange," he told the restaurant crowd and radio listeners. "I could see myself wearing burnt orange. It's that other orange. Burnt orange almost has a classiness. You could wear a burnt orange tie. But orange?"

Hoots and cheers.

Calipari knows, too, which players' stories resonate. There's Derrick Rose, the impossibly athletic and mature freshman point guard. There's Chris Douglas-Roberts, the first-team All-American guard who has grown as a player since he was held to six points as a freshman against UCLA in the Elite Eight two years ago.

And then there's Joey Dorsey, the fierce and unpredictable big man Calipari hopes won't provide UCLA's Kevin Love with any extra motivation the way he did by calling Ohio State's Greg Oden "overrated" last season.

So far, so good. Dorsey responded the same way each time he was asked about Love after the Texas game.

"He's a great player," Dorsey said.

Dorsey was among the featured players last summer when Memphis put up 13 billboards around town to sell season tickets.

They put a huge rose on one to signify Rose, whose image could not yet be used under NCAA rules because he was an incoming freshman.

For Dorsey, the slogan was simple, "That's Mister Dorsey to you."

To Calipari, Dorsey is emblematic of the image of upward mobility he likes to foster. A senior from Baltimore, Dorsey was the first in his family to graduate from high school. Now he is within sight of his college degree, though he'd have to return to Memphis or complete other work to earn it.

Exactly one week before the NCAA championship game and five days before the UCLA game, Calipari seemed relaxed on the air Monday, reveling in the feeling around town as the game approached.

"At 5 o'clock on Saturday, you can go down Poplar and do fishtails," he told the listeners.

"You can drive backward, drive frontward, and then drive home, because no one will be out. Am I right?"

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