Wood, Keith Brian. Memphis Hoops: Race and Basketball in the Bluff City, 1968–1997. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2021. Pp. 218. $35.00 hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
The first integrated high school game in Memphis took place on September 15, 1965, between all-white Catholic High and all-black Father Bertrand High. The game functions as an integral part of the city-created story of overcoming racial barriers, even though it would take the city still a couple of decades to consider the process complete (one can argue that the process is still ongoing). Three years after the game, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered at the city’s Lorraine Motel. There were a lot of wounds that needed healing, and organized sports were one of the tools used to achieve such reconciliation. Integrated basketball games were supposed to prove the city’s progressiveness.
Keith Wood uses the story of Larry Finch, first as a high school basketball player and later as head coach at Memphis State University, as the frame for his book, Memphis Hoops: Race and Basketball in the Bluff City, 1968-1997, showing how the icon of Memphis basketball was involved in the city’s complicated racial history. Finch not only experienced firsthand how race relations changed in Memphis, but, as a Black man who could be appreciated and supported by people of all races, also was tasked with serving as a sort of “racial unifier,” as Wood refers to him.
Finch’s counterpart, and privately his friend, was Johnny Neumann, an immensely talented white player, who, like Finch, became a local basketball legend. He played in a manner similar to inner-city Black players, whose style, as pointed out by Wood, was “flashy, creative, and required self-confidence” (p. 21). However, due to the fact that Neumann was white, he was seen by white fans as worthy of rooting for solely on the basis of his skin color. Equally as talented, but not as eccentric, Finch was considered the second-best recruit in the city to Neumann. When Finch’s school emerged victorious in the city high school championship game, beating Neumann’s, his status was elevated, but he still did not become the most sought-after prospect in Memphis. That was because Neumann, as an athletic white player who played as if he was black, was simply too marketable for colleges and, later on, for professional teams.
He attended Ole Miss but left after his sophomore season to return to Memphis to play for the ABA’s Memphis Pros. Finch stayed at Memphis State, first as a college player and then as a coach. As a result, he became a respected figure in the city. While Neumann’s neurotic play and unprofessional approach alienated fans, Finch’s respectable demeanor brought the community closer together. Or rather, Finch served as a figure around which the Memphis community was organized and, finally, integrated.
As proven by Woods in his book, this is a convenient myth that is only partially true. Proof of that can be found in the failure of the local ABA franchise. According to the author, the relatively short history of the ABA franchise in Memphis mirrors the division within the local politics. The ABA reinforced stereotypes of African Americans being flashy (because of wearing afros and dunking the basketball) and violent (because of their physical play). When the Memphis team acquired Neumann the local hero was supposed to bring fans to the Coliseum, where the Pros/Tams/Sound (during its five years in Memphis, the franchise changed its name three times) played. Initial interest quickly faded, as Neumann clashed with his coach and relied on individual heroics. The predominantly white fans preferred the college games. In 1975 the Sounds relocated to Baltimore and folded before playing a single ABA game. The city of Memphis had to wait 26 years for their next professional basketball franchise.
When the Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis in 2001, they moved to a city different from the one that had housed an ABA franchise. While still dealing with social inequalities, it was more important for Memphians for the Grizzlies to be tough and play hard on every possession rather than represent a given race. The city finally embraced its NBA franchise during the Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era (2011-2017), with Memphis proving on a much larger scale that it was a basketball city. However, the city’s identification with the team would not have happened without the local NCAA team Memphis State, which changed its name in 1994 to the University of Memphis. Thanks to its first black head coach in Finch, the emergence of local prospect in Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, and the recognition brought on by the arrival of one of the most well-known NCAA coaches in John Calipari, the program remained a local darling and a source of pride for Memphians.
Wood’s book retraces the most important moments of the city’s hoops history, putting them into proper context and delivering a fascinating account of the race relations in Memphis through the prism of basketball. It shows that even in small markets, the sport can be a vital part of community building and local myth creation.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).