MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- They started gathering outside more than eight hours before the doors even opened -- old men, young women, children who looked just like the person on their right, and nothing like the person on their left. Nearly all of them wore blue. They stood there discussing and debating, but mostly they just waited. For hours and hours, they waited. And then the doors finally opened, and all those people poured inside. What happened next has now happened twice since John Calipari left Memphis, this despite the fact that it was never supposed to happen again.
|Josh Pastner is building a solid core and might add a McDonald's All-American from Memphis. (US Presswire)|
As in just like last year.
And it really was something to see.
"There's not a word to define the city's love for this team."
More than 18,000 fans filled FedExForum on Friday night for a pep rally.
They call it Memphis Madness.
It's billed as a practice.
But anybody who has ever gone to one of these things -- at Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, Michigan State or North Carolina -- knows it's really just a pep rally, and yet the people who came to this thing didn't seem to care one bit. They came for the music, for the introductions, for the autographs, and to show the nation -- and to prove to themselves for the second straight year -- that Memphis is capable of remaining a national brand in Calipari's absence.
"I always knew we had great fans, and I always knew we had loyal fans," said Milwaukee Bucks guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, a former first-team All-American who led Memphis to the 2008 Final Four. "Memphis is still on the national scene, and it's a great feeling."
And an unlikely outcome.
Memphis has a proud tradition, sure. But what Calipari did here in nine seasons was unprecedented, and the most likely scenario had nobody keeping it going -- especially not a 31-year-old first-time head coach who only got the job after Tim Floyd, Scott Drew, Mike Anderson, Leonard Hamilton and Derek Kellogg rejected overtures. At best, the program figured to return to the Larry Finch years. At worst, it would become UMass post-Calipari. But then Pastner lured a commitment from Will Barton that was followed by commitments from Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Jelan Kendrick and Tarik Black, and now the Tigers are ranked 11th in the CBSSports.com preseason Top 25 (and one), and they seem about a week away from adding another McDonald's All-American.
His name is Adonis Thomas.
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He's from Melrose High in Memphis.
MaxPreps.com ranks him third in the Class of 2011.
He was in the front row at FedExForum on Friday night, and it's worth noting that Thomas might be the first prospect in history to have a video montage assembled completely for him. No, it wasn't presented that way officially; such would be an NCAA violation. What Memphis did instead was film a tribute to Penny Hardaway -- an icon from this city who played for the Tigers before becoming an NBA All-Star -- that featured little more than Hardaway and other local products who played at Memphis (like Elliot Perry, Andre Turner, Cedric Henderson and Hank McDowell) talking about how special it is to stay home.
Thomas stared up at the screen and watched it all.
The video ended with Hardaway saying these words: "You can make a difference by staying at home."
Subtle, it was not.
As was nothing about this night.
Pastner had Yo Gotti rap, then judge the dunk contest alongside Douglas-Roberts, Hardaway, Henderson, and NBA stars Rudy Gay and Brandon Jennings. The player introductions featured fire shooting from the goals. NBA All-Star Zach Randolph was in the building, as was former Major League Baseball All-Star Brian Jordan. Grizz players Hasheem Thabeet, Demarre Carroll, Sam Young and Greivis Vasquez were courtside, all surrounded by more than 18,000 fans who seemed determined -- with the help of the school's hotshot recruiter -- to keep Memphis basketball nationally relevant for many years to come.
"The fan support is through the roof," senior Will Coleman said. "There's not a word to define the city's love for this team."