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Memphis Grizztory Part 4: Tennessee-Arkansas-Mississippi train wreck

Memphis TAMS 2 year train wreck is something that is impossible to replicate and something you have to read to believe

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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 Parts 1, 2, & 3.

Mark Cuban. Steve Ballmer. Jeanie Buss. James Dolan. These are all current NBA owners that have enjoyed varying degrees of success and evoke different level of emotions from their respective fan bases. There are also owners like current Memphis Grizzlies majority owner Robert Pera who operate in silence rarely to be seen by the fan base. Now for the Memphis TAMS, take the worst qualities of the former with the the presence of Robert Pera and you get Charlie Finley.

Oakland Athletics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

After the financial struggles of the fan run 1971-72 Memphis Pros, the team was in need of a hero to prevent the team from being relocated. That “hero” was Charlie Finley, owner of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics and the National Hockey League’s California Golden Seals. Finley would buy the Memphis Pros for $310,000 with an agreement to keep the team in Memphis but with this agreement came a number of drastic changes.

A Brand New Look

Charlie Finley launched a new era in Memphis basketball by appointing legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp as team President and sending the franchise in a new direction by swiftly abandoning the Pros nickname that he despised within his first week of owning the team. In order for his teams to have a consistent identity, the team’s colors were changed from the Pros’ navy blue and red color scheme to green and yellow to match his other major league franchises in California. After studying Memphis’s history, Finley allowed the fans to enter a contest to choose the team’s new nickname in which the winner would receive $2,500 & the name TAMS was chosen. This was chosen to represent Memphis’s Scottish heritage and represent the region itself as TAMS was short for Tennessee Arkansas Mississippians. The homage to the city’s Scottish heritage would also appear in the team’s logo – a green, gold, & white tam-o-shanter.

With a new identity, came new uniforms and these are ok at their best and at their worst - which was most of the time – a fashion faux pas. The TAMS had green, white, and gold jerseys to go along with green, white and gold shorts. On the surface this sounds fine given these are the team colors, the problem is instead of the uniform look employed for most of basketball history, the TAMS closed their eyes and chose random combinations every game opting to wear different combinations of jerseys and shorts every game. The best part of the uniform was the pregame warmups that saw the team fitted in green and yellow Harlem Globetrotter style pants with warm up jackets and green, white and gold tams on their heads. The Memphis Grizzlies would revive this look throughout the 2011-12 season sans the groovy warm ups.

Memphis TAMS 70’s warm ups
Remember the ABA

A Series of Unfortunate Events

After all of the grand remodeling, the TAMS were ready to make to their debut in all of their highlighter colored glory in front of 4,500 fans in the Mid-South Coliseum against the defending ABA champion Indiana Pacers. Finley couldn’t be bothered to attend after giving the franchise a home makeover that would have made Ty Pennington jealous as he was busy with the Athletics but it did see the debut of the live band that played at TAMS games and offseason acquisition point guard George Thompson who would score 34 points to keep the TAMS competitive in their 4 point opening night loss.

Guard George Thompson
Remember the ABA

The opening night loss was just a harbinger of things to come as the team continued its losing ways from the previous season losing 8 of their first 10 games including a 151-98 loss to the Utah Stars as fan support rightfully waned. Then from October 28-December 28, the TAMS managed to achieve something that could only make the 2017-18 Grizzlies jealous as they managed to make 24 transactions over the 2 month period with 19 different players dressing out for the team as players were moved around for cost cutting measures. This extreme level of turnover amazed the league. Utah Stars PR Director Harvey Kilpatrick stated, “The whole thing reads like something out of Gulliver’s Travels. Finley has set some sort of pro basketball record, if not a standard for all of sport, with the manner which he has added and deleted names from the Tams’ roster this season.” The team was in such bad shape financially that the wife of star Center Randy Denton was told she would have to pay to get pictures of her own husband.

The roster eventually stabilized but the losses continued to pile up and fan support continued to go down the drain. In an odd move, to increase team morale amidst the cost cutting and losing, Finley began to offer $300 bonuses to team personnel to grow a mustache. This same facial hair affinity carried over to the fans as the team offered the odd “Mustache Night” promotion on multiple occasions that allowed any fan with a mustache to enter the game for free just to get people in the building.

The 1972-73 season ended with the TAMS finishing with a 24-60 record that placed them at the bottom of the ABA standings and most statistical categories with the only positive being that this would be the first season the Memphis franchise played a full 42 home game schedule in the Coliseum. Little did team employees and the few remaining die-hard fans know the fun was just beginning with the franchise.

Upon season’s end, the team’s offices were closed and phone lines were disconnected. Coach Bob Bass resigned and joined the ABA league office. Owner Charlie Finley, who spent the latter half of the first season trying to sell the team, was MIA. Charlie Finley became a pariah to fans in Memphis. Prior to the season, the team was in complete dysfunction as Finley attempted to sell the team as the TAMS could not hold up to his much more successful investments in California. Finley attempted to sell the team to an investment group in Providence but it fell through. With players and front office members under the impression the team was going to either be sold or cease to exist, they were released from their deals or took jobs elsewhere. This left Finley a mere weeks to reassemble a brand new team before the season as the Memphis Press-Scimitar ran “Help Wanted” ads mocking the poorly ran franchise and its absentee owner with one ad giving the requirements for the new coach as,

This type of coverage is uncharacteristic of a local news outlet but it showed just how much the wheels had fallen off for the TAMS as a franchise.

After an offseason that saw two (2) practices before the season started, new coach Butch van Bread Kolff was somehow able to lead the TAMS to a season that had a one win improvement over last year’s team but overall was just as bad on the floor going 21-63 on the season once again finding a home in the cellar of the ABA standings. Fans stayed away as the franchise became more embarrassing by the game. Financially the team got so bad that it eliminated game programs for home games instead opting to give out mimeographed lineup sheets. The lone bright spot was the play of All-Star guard George Thompson, who averaged 19 points and 5 assists per game and the presence of young, local stars Ronnie Robinson (Memphis State), Larry Finch (Memphis State), & Charles Edge (LeMoyne-Owen College) although it wasn’t conducive to winning or consistent fan attendance as the yearly attendance neared ABA record lows.

Even after years of dysfunction, the ABA did not give up on the city of Memphis. This may be partially due to the rave reviews that the city received even with the franchise’s poorly run past. Memphis TAMS coach Butch van Breda Kolff stated, “The TAMS would be a good franchise if they had a solid backing.” Kolff’s theory was put to the test as ABA Commissioner Mike Storen, who had successfully built up ABA franchises in Indiana and Kentucky, stepped down from his role to run the Memphis ABA team potentially making it a viable franchise as the Memphis Sounds.

Thanks to the Benjamin L. Hooks Library and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, TN for making the resources available to make this project possible.

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