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Memphis basketball legend Larry Finch dies
by Ron Higgins
Larry Finch, who rose from the playgrounds of Orange Mound to become the greatest icon in University of Memphis basketball history and the city's most beloved sports figure, died Saturday afternoon at Saint Francis Hospital.
Mr. Finch, 60, who became the program's winningest coach from 1986-97 after leading the Tigers to the 1973 NCAA championship game as an All-America guard, had battled health problems for a decade. He suffered the first of multiple strokes in 2001 and more recently was hospitalized with pneumonia.
"It's sort of a relief that he can rest now. He'd been fighting a long time, since the first stroke," said Mr. Finch's wife, Vickie. "We had planned some things for later, and it didn't come to be. But that's OK because I really believe he was tired."
Elliot Perry, a star guard under Mr. Finch and a great favorite of the coach, was summoned by his brother Ronald to St. Francis just past noon, about three hours before his death.
"I always appreciated his honesty," Perry said. "He had his favorite sayings and one of them was, 'It's hard but it's fair.'
"He told me like it was, and you had to respond or suffer the consequences. He demanded a lot of you on and off the court, but he made you a better person."
Current U of M coach Josh Pastner, speaking later Saturday afternoon at the hospital, said, "Talking to his family, they talked about how he looked at Memphis as larger than life. He looked at Tiger basketball as larger than life. He lived through Memphis basketball."
To many, he was the embodiment of Tiger basketball.
"I've watched Memphis teams the last 50 years, and in my mind Larry Finch was the best Tiger player ever," said Gene Bartow, who coached Mr. Finch as a player and was later his boss when he got his first college assistant's job under Bartow at Alabama-Birmingham in 1977. "And I know nobody will probably equal John Calipari's coaching record, but I also think Larry was the best coach they've ever had out there.
"The thing I'll remember most about Larry is that he was a great person. I don't think I was ever around Larry when he played for me at Memphis and when coached for me at UAB that he wasn't happy or upbeat. He was a thoughtful and gifted person in many ways. His teammates loved him."
Though he had a 220-130 record in 11 seasons as a head coach, going to six NCAA tourneys, including a regional final in 1992, he will be most remembered as part of the Tigers' first Final Four team.
Along with Ronnie "Big Cat" Robinson, Mr. Finch was a figurehead on a squad whose success helped heal a racially divided city still reeling from the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in April 1968.
The '73 Tigers brought together white and black Memphis, cheering for the blue and gray, all the way to the national title game when they lost to Bill Walton-led UCLA, 87-66. Mr. Finch scored 29 points against the Bruins in his final college game, and he still has the two highest scoring averages in school history, 24.0 as a senior and 23.9 as a junior.
"Larry contributed to the university and the community his whole life as a player and a coach," said Ted Hansom, Mr. Finch's longtime attorney. "People never looked at Larry as a black player or a black coach. They looked at him as Larry. When he was a player, he made a big difference pulling this city back together after King's assassination. I'm not sure people ever fully appreciated that."
After his pro basketball career with the Memphis Tams and Sounds of the American Basketball Association was cut short after two years because of knee problems and other nagging injuries, he went to work for Bartow at UAB.
He then joined Dana Kirk's staff at then-Memphis State in 1979, and immediately proved himself an adept recruiter. Mr. Finch attracted homegrown Memphis talent that eventually got the Tigers back to the Final Four in 1985.
Mr. Finch stayed true to that formula when he became head coach just before the start of the '86-87 season, after Kirk was fired for violating NCAA rules and becoming the subject of a federal investigation.
"Coach recruited all of us," said Kenny Moody, who played for Mr. Finch from 1985-87. "He knew our foundations and he didn't allow us to deviate from our upbringings. A lot of us were from single-parent homes, so he was also a father figure."
Mr. Finch's teams won 20 or more games seven times. His 1991-92 team, led by All-America guard Penny Hardaway, came up one game short of advancing to the Final Four, losing 88-57 to Cincinnati.
Eventually, Mr. Finch's inability to sign the best high school players in Memphis led a new U of M school administration and athletic director to make a coaching change.
After Mr. Finch's contract was bought out for $413,660 at the end of the 1996-97 season, he never coached again.
He interviewed for head coaching vacancies at Tennessee State, Georgia State and South Alabama but didn't get the jobs.
Mr. Finch also tried politics, losing by 127 votes to Guy Bates in the registrar's race in August 1998.
And before Mr. Finch suffered an initial stroke in August 2001, he worked six months for Bartow in the front office of the Memphis Houn'Dawgs, a minor league team located in Southaven. The franchise folded after one season.
Mr. Finch seemed lost without wearing a U of M coaching shirt.
"When you hold on to something when you're upset about it, when you feel like life is not treating you right," said Vickie Finch, in a March 2007 interview, "it's going to work on you more than anybody else. I think that's what happened to Larry.
"All I know is my husband gave 100 percent, he gave his all for the University of Memphis. When his teams were going good, other schools didn't approach him for head coaching jobs, because they knew Larry Finch loved the University of Memphis. It was written all over him."
In recent years, the university made gestures to acknowledge his place in Tigers basketball history, such as naming the multimillion-dollar basketball practice facility in his honor in February 2000.
Also, some of his former players, like Moody and Perry, organized a fundraising golf tournament in his honor, as well an annual high school basketball tournament played at his prep alma mater, Melrose.
To the end, his former players loved him and he loved his players.
"Coach Finch was tough on me and the rest of the guards, because that's what he played," said Perry, who went on to play 10 years in the NBA. "And if you weren't strong enough to handle some of the things he said to you, you'd probably break down. But I'll forever appreciate that he mentally prepared me to handle anything."
Mr. Finch is survived by his wife; his daughter, Shanae; and sons Larry Jr. and James. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.