Sunday, April 3, 2011

Larry Finch (1951 - 2011)

The Commercial Appeal* has already gone to press with what is probably one of the more complete and balanced accounts of the life and career of Larry Finch.  If you aren't familiar with Coach Finch's career, please read what Memphis' paper of record has to say about him.

Forsaken and Reclaimed By The City He Loved

While it's fitting that the Commercial Appeal would be the first to report so thoroughly about Finch's life; it is also sadly ironic. Many reading the CA on Sunday morning might not be aware of a time when Larry Finch, the kid who came up from Orange Mound, was Bluff City's favorite son. The last decade and a half was not kind to Finch.  After a disappointing year that was marked by poor recruiting and a losing track record, the powers that be at the University of Memphis fired him at a concession area in The Pyramid following the last game of his final season in 1997.  Even though he would throw his hat in the ring for a number of coaching jobs in the years to follow, no one seemed ready to give him a chance.   In all fairness, this probably had as much to do with his health problems following a stroke in 2002 as it did his later track record as the Tigers' head coach.  In 2006, his financial situation was shaky enough to require charitable intervention in order for him to continue to receive rehabilitative care.

It would take the disgraceful 2009 departure of former head coach, John Calipari to cause the university and the city to put Finch's career and his restored status as Memphis' most winning coach in perspective.   Memphis saw what could happen when someone didn't have a bone-deep love for the team, the school and the city used, abused and discarded all of the above in the name of personal career expedience.  Larry Finch would have never done that.  Memphis was home.  The man who never forgot his old neighborhood or the city he loved knew he couldn't have borne the disappointment of the people who helped raise him and saw him through his upward career trajectory.

Youth, Ideals and Phenomenal Talent Unite A Hurting City
In the late sixties, Memphis was reeling from the national attention it had garnered after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Race relations were always tenuous, but the loss of King at a time when his ability to broker peace and help to bring a new understanding to the troubled area was devastating.  In national discourse, "Memphis" became shorthand for everything that was wrong with Black and White America.  On the ground, people in Shelby County viewed each other with the suspicion.

It was in this environment that Finch, a young phenom from Melrose High School agreed to play for the MSU Tigers. There were so many compelling reasons for him to go somewhere else. Very few African-American men had worn the Tiger blue and grey at that time.  He could have easily gone to a school where he would have been more assured of being welcomed, to a place where Dr. King's dream was already starting to come true. Instead, he chose to bring the dream to Memphis State.

All of the world's problems can't be solved on a basketball court, but the amazing 1969-1970 season gave  Memphians a some respite from the issues that continued to divide the city.   When the Tigers hit the court, the questions of Black and White seemed to fade into the background. Everyone in attendance, watching at home or listening in became a Blue and Grey Tiger.   Finch ended his senior year at MSU on a high note, leading the team to the Final Four, only to be stopped by an equally amazing UCLA squad.

When his career as a player (in the NCAA and later the ABA) was done, it made sense for him to go into coaching. He spent four seasons as an assistant coach at the University of Alabama before coming back home to work as an assistant coach under the leadership of Dana Kirk in 1979.  When Kirk was removed from his position in 1986, Finch was asked to step up as head coach.  He was to coach the Tigers to 220 wins, six NCAA tournaments and in spite of the negative chatter that seemed to hound him in the final days of his tenure as head coach, ten out of eleven of his seasons could be considered successes.

Coach Finch Mattered Then And He Matters Now

When Finch took over the head coach position in 1986, there were many who expressed concerns that he was too nice, too easy going to lead the program at Memphis.  As he had come to MSU as a player in a time when the environment in Memphis was turbulent, he took on the difficult task of restoring order and discipline in a program that had been thrown into chaos as more and more bad news about the previous coach's shady financial dealings came to light.

The city had grown and progressed over the years since the sixties, but it was still light years behind the cultural climate that existed on the rectangle of land between Central and Spottswood.  The ethnic makeup of the student body at that time was almost fifty percent African-American.  Being a student at MSU in the late eighties meant living in an alternate world where cultural domination by a single group was not necessarily presumptive.** In the face of the naysayers, Finch was seen by many as the only choice for the job. He was the embodiment of the university's role in rebuilding the city during its troubled past and creating hope for the future.  He was great at what he did.  He demonstrated a dedication to the program and his home that was almost preternatural.  Most important of all, he was decent. 

Larry Finch was decent.  This is not an attempt at damning him with faint praise.Decency is too often  undervalued as a personal trait. Everyone has at least some degree of decency. It's when you meet someone who has such a degree of it that it seems to go to the marrow that it become apparent how extraordinary a quality it really is.  To meet Coach Finch, to see him in action, was to be in the presence of an example of what can happen when the good guys win.

I refuse to write that there will never be another person like him.  I hope somewhere there is a kid who is as innocent of cynicism and whose love of the game he or she is playing is equal to his or her love of home.  There has to be.

Godspeed, Coach Finch.

*Over the years the CA has come to be a source of excellent news writing in Tennessee.  It's worth a permanent bookmark as a local news source.

**Memphis State University wasn't a perfect utopia of harmony and understanding but it was the closest many would find to a recognition and celebration of differences and how everyone could find a higher degree of acceptance and belonging in a diverse community.

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