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Memphis Grizztory Part VI: Sounds brought to silence

Sounds and Stax Records provide Memphis’s Last Dance before a 26 year pro basketball absence

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Sounds Forward George Carter

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.

Upon the conclusion of Part 4, of the Memphis Grizztory series the Memphis ABA franchise was at an impasse. The team once again found itself as bottom feeders in the ABA standings as the team once again found itself on the auction block as previous owner decided to cut his losses with the struggling franchise. The ABA was not ready to give up on the city though due to the rave reviews the city received from players and team staff. ABA Commissioner Mike Storen, who successfully built up ABA franchises in Kentucky and Indiana in the past, stepped down from his role in hopes to revitalize the ABA franchise in Memphis. His tenure running team operations showed promise early as he got local heavy hitters like musician Isaac Hayes, Stax Records owner Al Wilson, Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson & local businessman Avron Fogelman to partner together to buy the team.

ABA Memphis (The Remix)

(From L-R) #19 Roger Brown, #6 Freddie Lewis, Sounds Owner Mike Storen, #9 Mel Daniels, #2 Rick Mount

Under Storen, the franchise was given a complete makeover. The first order of business was rebranding the team from the TAMs to the Memphis Sounds with a new red and white color scheme and logo. While no true reason has ever been given for that particular names like the prior two incarnations of the ABA team, I believe that the name change was more reflective of the city as it represented the city’s reputation as influential city in the music industry, more specifically the team’s connection to Stax Records. It was appropriate because the Sounds ownership group hosted two of the biggest names in Memphis music in Hayes and Wilson. Even if this was not the reason, it was a step in the right direction of being a respectable franchise as Jim O’Brien noted in The Sporting News,

The next course of action was to completely remake the roster which was done by clearing out young players in favor of veterans with playoff experience. The Sounds would also bring in respected ABA coach and former Los Angeles Lakers coach Joe Mullaney in hopes that the team’s luck would change. Memphian and Memphis State basketball legend Larry Finch would be the only holdover, holding the distinction as the only player to ever wear a TAMS and Sounds jersey as he attracted a crowd as a local fan favorite.

Sounds Head Coach Joe Mullaney

Injuries hindered the team on the floor as the team struggled to find its identity. The Sounds would only win 5 of their first 20 games resulting in the team losing any interest the influx of veteran players acquired in the offseason garnered. It didn’t help that they struggled at home losing 9 of their first 10 games in the Mid-South Coliseum. Between injuries and trades there was a ton of inconsistency on what the Sounds displayed on the floor but the one player who was a consistent presence was Stew Johnson.

Sounds Power Forward Stew Johnson

Stew Johnson would be an All-Star alongside his point guard Freddie Lewis for the Sounds in their lone season due in part to performances to one’s like the one he put in against the St. Louis Spirits on January 15, 1975 (Enjoy the first quarter below and yes that is a young Bob Costas on the call). The Sounds would lose this game but Stew Johnson would pour in a record setting performance scoring 40 points in their 104-99 loss, including 16 field goals in the 2nd half as he attempted to will the Sounds to victory. This would tie an ABA record held by teammate Mel Daniels. A few nights later he would score his 10,000th career point. Johnson would finish the season averaging 17.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game only coming 2nd to George Carter’s 18.4 PPG.

As the season drew on, financial issues once again hovered over the franchise. The lease was up between the team and the Mid-South Colisuem and negotiations to renew were going nowhere. This drew frustration from Storen as he saw a future with the franchise as the team began to improve as the end of the season drew near. The ABA began to pay the bills just to keep the team afloat as the struggling team took care of business on the floor. After early struggles, the Sounds eventually put it all together by season’s end. The Sounds won 6 of their final 9 games including a win over future NBA legend Julius Erving in front of 8,417 fans, the largest crowd of the season and the largest Memphis crowd since the Pros inaugural season. The team would finish with 27 wins, the second largest total in the franchise’s five year history. Their tenure in the ABA playoffs would be short as they would be eliminated by the eventual champions , the Kentucky Colonels in five games.

Despite what would be deemed a successful season, the Sounds were turned down and denied another run after their lone season in 1974-75. The city of Memphis was given a strict deadline by the ABA to do the following: sell 4,000 season tickets, find new investors, and secure a new lease, none of which was accomplished. The Sounds were sold to an ownership group in Maryland, renamed the Baltimore Claws, and folded three months later due to lack of funds without ever playing a game.

After the Sounds folded, professional basketball did not return to Memphis until 2001 when the Vancouver Grizzlies were relocated to the city. This left a twenty six year gap with no professional basketball in the city. In the meantime, the desire for professional basketball’s return stewed. The passion for the sport never wavered as fans were held over by the local high school basketball circuit and the Memphis Tigers.

The Memphis Grizzlies would honor the Sounds throughout the 2015-16 season donning their red away uniforms.

Catch up on the rest of Memphis Grizztory below:

Part 1 ABA comes to Memphis

Part 2 Rise and Fall of Memphis Pros

Part 3 Memphis Grizzlies opening night in the Pyramid

Part 4 Memphis TAMS chaotic two year tenure

Part 5 Memphis Grizzlies first win in the Pyramid

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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