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Hope City: Spring has arrived for Memphis basketball

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Will the energy of Penny Hardaway’s return to the U of M help everyone who inhabits FedExForum?

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Three Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Chances are, if you read this blog regularly you are at least familiar with the University of Memphis and their men’s basketball program. “Hoop City” isn’t just a moniker, it’s a fact - the city of Memphis loves their basketball, and long before the Memphis Grizzlies called the 901 home there were the Memphis (State) Tigers. There were generations of fans who grew up bleeding Tiger blue, going to games with their families and making memories that would be passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Whether they succeeded or failed, the Memphis basketball Tigers were the heart of the city.

That is, until, they weren’t.

John Calipari came and went, bringing success and scandal. Then upon his departure his replacement, Josh Pastner, could not fill his shoes and never really was a fit. The same could be said for his eventual replacement, Tubby Smith. These are two coaches, one inexperienced at the time of his hire (Pastner) and one with about as much experience as you can have (Smith), that for a variety of reasons just didn’t fit what the Memphis Tigers needed in their program.

And through this time, the Tigers lost fans to the Memphis Grizzlies as their decline almost directly lined up with the rise of “Grit and Grind”. The memories and moments were no longer happening for the Tigers like they were for the Grizzlies, and the university fell to the background as a generation of Memphians held up yellow growl towels and chanted for Tony Allen and Zach Randolph. Fans chose to spend their hard earned cash on a team in blue on Beale Street...it just wasn’t the Tigers.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Three Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As that era ended for the Grizzlies this past summer, and the Tigers continued a spiraling downturn of popularity, it led to this season being one of the darkest for the city basketball wise in a long time. While the Tigers won 20+ games, they were not overly impressive victories in terms of who they beat and they once again missed out on postseason basketball while having some of the worst attendance numbers in their history. And of course, you know how the Grizzlies season has gone.

Tank GIFs. Lots of Tank GIFs.

It all felt hopeless, for a long time, for just about everyone. The NBA Draft Lottery is so far away, losing 19 games in a row just sucks, and so many are nervous that this bad season will not equate to acquiring an elite talent due to the history of the Grizzlies when it comes to selecting prospects. The Tigers seemed locked in to Tubby Smith, a good coach and man who just wouldn’t play the game in recruiting and didn’t seem engaged with the city. It seemed it would get worse until it got better.

Then, there was hope in Hoop City. The departure of Tubby Smith all but guaranteed the arrival of Penny Hardaway as the next head coach of the Memphis Tigers basketball program, which will be officially announced today. Penny, a son of Memphis, a former Tigers star who went on to a too short (but very good) NBA career, a state championship winning high school coach who became that because of the dream of a dying friend. He was who some wanted to get the gig when Tubby did two years ago, but the time just wasn’t right.

The time is now right.

Sears Shooting Stars Competition 2014 Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

And the energy in the city is as high as it has been in some time. Hardaway will bring recruits, Hardaway will put butts in the seats, but even more than that for many is the satisfying feeling in Memphis that Penny GETS IT. He is one of us, and while there are tough questions to be asked of the administration and fair questions about Penny’s ability to coach at the highest level of college basketball that fact matters a hell of a lot for the city considering where the Tigers are at as a program. It’s like when Zach Randolph’s number was “retired” this past summer and so many outside the 901 were critical of the move - it’s a Memphis thing, folks. If you didn’t experience it, you don’t get it.

And that is where Penny comes in to play for the Tigers and the city at large. A generation of Memphis basketball fans, like me, didn’t experience Penny’s time as a Tiger, back when the school was Memphis State, and simply won’t be able to fully understand what today will mean for so many folks who grew up on Tiger Basketball. Our connection to the city was built in the mud, not with Penny’s daring style and dominant play. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate what this day is for that fan base and the city at large, because our memories are fresh of what these types of beloved figures can mean to so many. We can share in the excitement, and the energy, and the potential of what is to come.

Optimism is a funny thing. It can be contagious. Sure, Penny’s arrival as the leading man for the Tigers program won’t make the Grizzlies draft lottery odds any better, it won’t make their roster more talented or their draft pick collection more impressive. What it can do, though, is signal a rebirth of the city’s basketball prospects at large. When both the Tigers and the Grizzlies are thriving, it makes for a much happier time for the city of Memphis. The BBQ tastes better, the sun seems a bit brighter, and the passion of a basketball-hungry town can truly shine through. A city who adores basketball like Memphis does can, and will, support both squads. They just need direction.

Today the Tigers start out in theirs. Hopefully the momentum that it builds can rub off some on the Grizzlies, and the darkest night becomes the brightest dawn sooner rather than later for both squads who inhabit FedExForum. Penny Hardaway cannot save the Tigers by himself, much less the Grizzlies. But he can bring a very valuable commodity to a city that desperately needs it on this fitting first day of spring-

Hope.

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