No surprise that Memphis loves its Tigers

July 23rd, 2013

They didn’t have the singer, Drake. But they did have Austin Nichols winning the informal dance contest.

They didn’t have Justin Timberlake. But they did have Bruce Pearl putting on a blue warm-up jacket. They didn’t have the most memorable start to the season ever. But they might yet have the most memorable ending.

And that really is the point, right? That’s how this year will be measured?

JT couldn’t make it to FedExForum Friday night. But I bet he’d make it to watch the Tigers in the Final Four in Dallas.

“That was a lot of fun,” said Memphis big man Shaq Goodwin, after the evening was done. “But now we’re ready to get down to business.” Or ready to continue getting down to business. The Tigers have been practicing for more than two weeks at this point.

It used to be that Memphis Madness meant the start of practice. Now it’s just a big, civic party.

It’s a challenge, too, because how are the folks at the university supposed to keep topping themselves? How do you follow the best party ever with the best party ever with the best party ever?

So this year, Memphis decided to keep the entertainment a surprise. This was not necessarily a good idea. It enabled people to dream about Timberlake and Drake. Instead, they got someone named Jimi Jamison. Jamison is the frontman for Survivor, the band that sang “Eye of the Tiger.” They had Jamison walk down the FedExForum stairs while singing the piece. At age 62, the guy didn’t trip and fall. So that was a good thing.

Oh, and there was also the dance group, iLuminate. They dance around in the dark wearing lightup uniforms. On this night, they let Pastner wear oneof the light-up uniforms too, possibly because he brings so much positive energ y.

“I’ve got a little shake and bake,” said Pastner, offer i ng a less l i kely expla nation.

Turns out Nichols has some shake and bake, too. He submitted the most impressive dancing introduction .

“How much work did that take?” a media member asked Nichols.

“No work,” Nichols said. “Natural talent.” This is how the evening went. It was a pleasant enough hodgepodge. There was a chicken-wingeating contest (the fattest guy won). There was a slam-dunk contest (congratulations, Goodwin).

Pearl, the former Tennessee coach, came out wearing orange suspenders and an orange tie. Hewas booed lustily. Whereupon, Pastner offered Pearl a blue warm-up jacket, which Pearl put on over the orange hideousness.

He was still booed, but not quite as lustily.

“To get a Tennessee person to switch from orange to blue is the eighth wonder of the world,” said Pastner. “That’s unbelievable recruiting.” Speaking of which: Yes, all the recruits were there, including the much-coveted Cliff A lexa nder.

“We wa nt Cliff,” cha nted the fans.

Time will tell if they get him.

And maybe that is how the evening should be measured. Or maybe it shouldn’t be measured as much as savored.

It is easy to be cynical about the proceedings. Because, really, who needs another dunk contest? But the continuing miracle of Memphis Madness is the number of people who show up for it.

Eighteen thousand for a practice? Eighteen thousand to watch not much of anything?

“It’s incredible,” said Tiger guard Michael Dixon. “It’s amazing to come out and see that many people.” Dixon played at Missouri before Memphis. Not exactly a shabby basketball school. But asked to compare the two, he didn’t hesitate.

“Not to take anything away from the University of Missouri,” he said, “but you can tell this is a basketball town. It’s just better here.” So that’s the final word. Or four words: It’s just better here. Better because of the passion of the place. Better because people care so much. It’s not about the chicken wing contest or the light-up costumes or the 62-year-old rocker. It’s about Dixon running out on t he court for the first time and looking up in the stands and seeing 18,000 people pulling for him.

That’s the real Madness of the night. That’s also the real magic.

“I’m ready to get started for real,” said Dixon.

So are those 18,000.

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