Memphis blues

I’ve written about Memphis before. It’s a city where I spent a lot of time in my job with the Delta Regional Authority and a city I’ve always enjoyed visiting.

It’s a city blessed with that great location on the Mississippi River and a fascinating history. It also has been a city cursed in recent decades with high crime rates, spiraling poverty rates, rapid outmigration and racial tension. Little Rock has its own problems, but those problems often pale in comparison to what’s happening two hours down the road in Memphis.

As a place that’s important to tens of thousands of people who live in east Arkansas, it’s important to all Arkansans that Memphis does well. The late Willie Morris of Mississippi, who might just be my favorite writer, once said that the two most imporant cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans. In that vein, it would be safe to say that the most important city in east Arkansas is Memphis.

I sometimes find myself feeling sorry for Memphis, even in the realm of sports. Memphis residents love to talk about sports. The city, in fact, has three all-sports radio stations. Driving around the Delta, I often would alternate between shows on 560 AM, 680 AM and 730 AM out of Memphis.

I was in a hotel room in downtown St. Louis on the night of April 7, 2008, watching the Memphis Tigers blow that big lead down the stretch and lose to Kansas in overtime in the NCAA title game. I grieved for the city, knowing what a boost in morale this would have been for people who were hungry for something good to happen.

Having failed in its long effort to secure an NFL franchise — the old Houston Oilers went to Nashville after one lonely season in exile at Memphis — Memphis finally secured an NBA franchise. But that team has been terrible. It has a bad owner and has been poorly managed. The Fed-Ex Forum is a gorgeous downtown facility, but most seats are empty these days whenever the Grizzlies play. The recent effort to bring Allen Iverson to the team was a disaster. The 34-year-old guard played only three games with Memphis, all in California. He began an indefinite leave of absence on Nov. 7 to deal with a “personal issue” and then was waived by the team earlier this week.

Over at the University of Memphis, head football coach Tommy West was fired earlier this month and went out firing at the school. During a news conference, he said: “Put something in it, or do away with it. One or the other. That’s what they should do. … There’s a negativity here that, in the end, eats you up. It’s hard to win. In today’s game, it’s harder to win than it has ever been. And if you have to fight battles around your own program and around your own campus and around your own city, it’s hard. It makes it very difficult.”

Take that, Memphis.

This all comes in the same year that John Calipari took off for Kentucky, leaving forfeited games in his wake.

There simply are no bright spots when it comes to the Grizzlies. But, at the college level, the Tigers appear to have a bright young basketball coach in Josh Pastner. The Tigers came close to knocking off Kansas earlier this week, falling 57-55 in a nationally televised game and proving that Memphis basketball is still relevant. And Pastner’s recruiting efforts have been outstanding thus far. At least one recruiting ranking now has Memphis at No. 1 based on current commitments.

Columnist Geoff Calkins wrote in The Commercial Appeal earlier this week: “In the seven months since Pastner was given the Memphis coaching job by default, he has persuaded half a dozen elite recruits to play for the Tigers. Imagine what Pastner will do when he has a full year to recruit. Which is a joke, of course. The guy can’t do better than this. Because this is impossible. This was the job that couldn’t be done. There was no way anyone could replace John Calipari. There was no way any other coach could get national recruits to come to a Conference USA school. Without Calipari, Memphis would go back to being a nice, plucky regional program. Instead, Memphis is No. 1.”

By the way, central Arkansas basketball enthusiasts will have a chance to see this Memphis team when the Tigers play UALR at 2 p.m. on Dec. 12 in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

The city received another dose of great news Wednesday when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $90 million grant to the Memphis public schools. The seven-year project is designed to raise teaching levels. Under the plan, the most talented teachers will be moved into the classrooms where they are needed most. The district will now pay top-tier salaries approaching six figures.

The best news of all, though, is that Memphis has a new mayor. Finally. It’s not that he’s a fresh face. The city’s new mayor, A.C. Wharton, previously served as Shelby County mayor. Wharton is not spring chicken, either. He’s 65. But after 18 years, the controversial, often incompetent Willie Herenton is gone from the Memphis mayor’s office, having retired from his fifth term on July 30 under the cloud of a federal investigation.

Wharton cruised to victory last month with 60 percent of the vote against 24 opponents (that’s right — 24) in the special election to replace the man they called King Willie. Memphis badly needed a change at the top, and Wharton provides just that as he serves the final two years of Herenton’s term. Wharton said his victory marked the end of an era “apathy, of divisiveness, of hatred, of discord.”

Once can only hope he’s right. A Commercial Appeal investigation revealed that between 2004 and July of this year, Herenton managed to steer an extra $240,000 of government money into his pockets. Herenton’s salary as mayor was $171,500.

As Calkins wrote back in August: “Willie Herenton wants you to know that he is not crazy. Just as Richard Nixon wanted you to know that he was not a crook. Just as Roger Clemens wanted you to know that he did not take steroids. Just as Bill Clinton wanted you to know that he did not have sexual relations with that woman. Just as Larry Craig wanted you to know that he was not gay. All these centuries later, that other Willie — Shakespeare — had it right, didn’t he? Thou dost protest too much.”

Good luck, Memphis.

The Grizzlies stink. Your college football team is just as bad. You will never have an NFL franchise. Razorback fans are hoping for the Cotton Bowl rather than your Liberty Bowl. The Pyramid is still empty. And you even lost the Mid-South Fair.

But Mayor Herenton is out of office. Something positive finally happened in your public schools. You stumbled upon one of the most exciting young coaches in college basketball. So stop being so down on yourselves, Memphis residents. You’re beginning to make the infamous Arkansas inferiority complex seem minor.

Your city is authentic, funky and fun, far from one of those manufactured New South cities. I’ll be back soon.

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3 Responses to “Memphis blues”

  1. arktom says:

    eating in memphis is a lot less interesting since the demise of justine’s

  2. Kirkley Thomas says:

    Sad, but true. Growing up in Lepanto in east Arkansas we spent a lot of time in Memphis.

    Think of the importance of tourism there — without music fans flocking to the city in numbers of nearly 750,000 to 1 million annually it could be much worse. At least they’ve got that.

    Which brings up the idea that we (Arkansas) need to be pulling those same tourists across the River to experience our musical heritage.

  3. rexnelson says:

    Kirkley: Amen to getting many of those tourists across the Mississippi River to learn about the Arkansas music heritage — Rex

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