Memphis Grizztory is a Grizzly Bears Blues Series that details the extensive pro basketball history in the city of Memphis from the 5 years of ABA basketball to the 20 years the Grizzlies have called Memphis home. Read Part 1 here.
As was discussed in Part 1 of Memphis Grizztory, the ABA’s Memphis Pros arrived in the city of Memphis in 1970 thanks to Mississippi businessman P.L. Blake. After many hoops and hurdles they would eventually find a home in the Mid-South Coliseum.
The Pros inaugural season was a success on the floor finishing 3rd in the ABA Western Division with a 41-43 record. This was due in part to hosting the number one defense in the league with a team defensive rating of 101.9 and holding teams to 109.9 points per game. The team produced three All-Stars in Steve Jones, Jimmy Jones and rookie Wendell Ladner. Their strong performance saw them make a playoff appearance in their first season but that would result in a first round sweep courtesy of the Indiana Pacers. On the floor, the franchise seemed like a franchise well on its way to long term success especially after acquiring Memphis native Johnny Neumann - who was a consensus 2nd Team All-American, SEC Player of the Year, and the NCAA leading scorer at Ole Miss the year prior. The same could not be the same off the floor as front office operations were in turmoil.
Fans to the Rescue
Due to low attendance numbers, financial issues hung over the franchise. Owner P.L. Blake walked away from his position as owner after losing $200K in the franchise’s inaugural season in Memphis. The team would be turned over to the American Basketball Association, who struggled to find a new owner and plans began to relocate the franchise a year after relocating from New Orleans to Memphis.
Memphians weren’t ready for that to happen. In an unprecedented move, 5,000 Memphians formed “Memphis Area Sports, Inc.” an ownership group of Memphis elite and fans alike that came together to buy the team in 1971. The mighty group of 5,000 persuaded the ABA to reduce their financial requirements allowing them to purchase the team for $700,000 in what would be known as “The Memphis Miracle.” This was to the delight of many including Memphis Pros coach Babe McCarthy who stated,
So yes, now the Memphis Pros were owned by the fans of the city they called home. Ownership meetings composed of a 24 person board were held at Christian Brothers University, a college a few blocks away from the stadium. Memphis bond broker Albert Hart was named Team President as fans attempted to restore order to the franchise.
As one might expect, this was not a sustainable model for a professional sports franchise. While fan interest increased, the Pros did not find success on or off the floor. Pros ownership resorted to desperate moves to generate money. This included selling 65,000 shares in the franchise for $5, $10, or $50 per share. There were some positives as the team was able to set new attendance records but the team was just as in flux on the court as they were off of it.
The Pros Last Dance
The Pros sophomore season lacked all of the promise that showed in their first season. After losing All-Stars Steve & Jimmy Jones in the off-season as they could no longer afford them due to the teams financial situation, the Pros were a whole new team with Neumann now the face of the franchise. The Pros were no longer the elite defensive team of last season while continuing to have one of the worst offenses in the league leading to them finishing last in the ABA’s Western Division and missing the playoffs with a 26-58 record - losing 22 of their last 25 games. Memphis Pros coach Babe McCarthy stepped down at the end of the season as the franchise seemed to be heading in a different direction as the roster was changed throughout the season mostly for cost cutting measures including trading guard Larry Cannon, the team’s second leading scorer, as well as All-Star and fan favorite Wendell Ladner mid-season.
The lone bright spot for the Pros, it was the play of Johnny Neumann who was named to the 1971-72 All-Rookie Team after leading the team in scoring his rookie season pouring in 18.3 points per game.
The 1971-72 season was a struggle for the Memphis Pros on and off the floor which did nothing to help a franchise in financial trouble. Throughout the season, Memphis Area Sports Inc. made efforts to sell the team with a concerted effort to make sure the next owner had local ties in order to keep the team in Memphis. This, along with owners beginning to run out of funds to keep the team afloat, led to the group caving on their local owner demands and selling the team to Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley for $310,000 thus starting a new era for basketball in Memphis and marking the end of the Memphis Pros as fans knew them.
The Memphis Grizzlies would honor this era of Memphis basketball history by wearing the Pros uniforms in 2005 as a part of the NBA Hardwood Classic series.
Thanks to the Benjamin L. Hooks Library and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, TN for making the resources available to make this project possible.