At a time when the NCAA, NAACP, IRS, FBI and who knows what other alphabet groups have been casting their probing eyes on coach Dana Kirk and the Memphis State basketball program, the Tigers are defiantly flinging back W after W after W in return—a letter-perfect 15 W's by week's end, with nary an L to their name.
And L's aren't the only letters this team goes without. Just as the Tigers have eliminated every opponent they've faced, including Arkansas State 87-64 on Saturday for their 31st straight home victory, they also have cultivated the habit of lopping off part of one another's names. Vincent Askew, the versatile sophomore, for instance, is 'Skew. Andre Turner, the talismanic floor leader born on a Friday the 13th in 1964, is 'Dre. John Wilfong, the junior third guard, is 'Fong. Senior forward Baskerville (Batman) Holmes isn't 'Ville—that one's taken—but Bat.
The 'Ville, of course, is Louisville, Memphis State's high-powered Metro Conference archrival. And the way the Tigers handled Louisville Thursday night in the Mid-South Coliseum, coming from behind and then, after center William Bedford had fouled out, turning back a late Cardinal run to win 73-71, says a lot about why Memphis State is off to its best start ever. So does Turner when he observes, "We dwell on passing, not so much on scoring."
Compared with last season's team, these are Tigers of a different stripe. Because they're not dwelling on scoring, their scoring is up, to 85.8 points per game from 72.9. They're no longer the ponderous half-court team that revolved around Keith Lee's dubious stamina and gimpy knees. Everyone can fill a lane on the break, and if it sometimes looks as though these guys have played together all their lives—was that Bedford in transition, processing the business end of a Turner lob?—that's because the Tigers, Memphians (almost) all, have played together all their lives. "We know where we are," Holmes says, "what we like and what's out in front of us."
The 5'10" Turner, who is also known as the Little General, is normally the guy who keeps track of those three variables. He'll call a play, then wipe off his right sneaker bottom, wipe off his left sneaker bottom ("To see if I can catch more grip," he says), all without losing his poise or his dribble. Now that 6'3" Dwight Boyd has replaced Lee (who was seven inches taller) in the lineup, Turner sometimes has four teammates accompanying him in his rushes up and down the floor. "Keith Lee was a great basketball player," says Louisville coach Denny Crum. "But he wasn't a great athlete. They're better athletically without him."
Memphis State spent a fidgety summer as reports about possible recruiting violations and improper payments to players swirled about the team. Also, a grand jury investigation into sports gambling in the Memphis area has looked into, among other things, the possibility of point shaving in Memphis State games last season. The grand jury, which is still in session, has also evinced interest in suspected gambling and bookmaking activities involving members of Colonial Country Club, to which Kirk belongs. A source told SI last week that both the grand jury and the Internal Revenue Service continue to be interested in Kirk's finances. Last year, Kirk was rumored to have fallen deeply into debt, possibly because of losses in high-stakes card games.
Since the season began, Kirk has refused to publicly address any of these matters, but his players have taken all the rumors, allegations and suspicions and re-addressed them, Elvis-like, return to sender. It has helped that Kirk and other school officials have taken steps to deal with complaints made last spring by three black starters to the local branch of the NAACP that they were receiving inadequate academic guidance and weren't getting enough attention from Kirk. Memphis State has since added an academic counselor just for the basketball team, and Randy Wade, a member of an NAACP fact-finding committee, says that he sees "a great change" in the players' relationship with Kirk. Adds Memphis NAACP executive secretary Maxine Smith, "They're getting more attention from the coach for some reason."
Another factor in the Tigers' strong showing this season is the coming of age of Bedford, who had problems both on and off the court last season. During 1984-85 he turned in forgettable performances against Southern Cal (four points, two rebounds) and Kansas (four points, one rebound) and had a series of motoring misadventures in an '83 Jaguar (a collision), an '84 Corvette (speeding) and an '85 Lincoln (speeding and driving without a license). All three cars had been loaned to him by boosters in apparent violation of NCAA rules.
But Bed, as Louisville center Pervis Ellison calls him, hasn't had a dog day yet this season, thanks largely to the tutelage of new part-time assistant coach George Morrow, who throws his 6'7", 260-pound frame at Bedford's comparatively sleek 7-foot, 225-pound chassis every day in practice. Morrow, a one-time Creighton captain who assisted former Bluejay coach Willis Reed last season, has also been able to rein in Bedford's occasional fits of temper. Bedford's only run-in with officials this season occurred at Hawaii Loa, where he was thumbed early from a Memphis State romp for a flagrant foul. The Tigers felt their center got a raw deal from the indigenous refs, but Bedford was still able to enjoy the game. "I made the Lawrence Welk Show," he said, "because I sat there with the old folks all night."
On several occasions this season, Bedford has blocked a shot, caught it, threw the outlet pass, filled a lane and dunked at the other end. "He knows that if he doesn't get down the floor," Askew says, "he doesn't get the ball."
Without Bedford—he drew his fifth foul with 3:45 left against Louisville and Memphis State holding a 68-67 lead—the Tigers have an NAIA team's height. But against the Cards they got a game-high 12 rebounds from—Holy Moses!—Batman, who's 6'7". And a 6'7", 235-pound freshman named Marvin Alexander, who earned the nickname Shamu from someone who swore he had seen a look-alike lurking ominously in a tank at Sea World, played a solid seven minutes. On consecutive possessions in the second half, Alexander passed to Boyd for a basket and then scored himself on a pass from Askew, after which the Tigers never trailed again.
The team's turned-around attitude is most apparent in the taciturn 'Skew, who, as one of those unhappy about their relationship with Kirk, had threatened to transfer to Indiana State over the summer. He thought again, and has hardly seemed the malcontent since. In any 10-minute stretch the 6'6" Askew may play small forward, big guard or even the point. Two weeks ago, late in Memphis State's 83-80 overtime defeat of Kansas, he conjured up the game clincher, a 6-foot, running banked fall-away from the baseline over 7'1" Jayhawk Greg Dreiling. And he's so unselfish that he has pulled up short on breakaways, foregoing an easy layup to pass back to a trailing teammate. "Even in practice, we have to tell him to shoot," says Bedford. Askew's line against Louisville included five assists, 11 rebounds (six of them offensive) and 10 of 10 from the foul line, where he scored the Tigers' final four points. Afterward, Crum questioned the strength of Memphis State's schedule, pointing out that the Tigers' games with Top 20 and conference opponents (three to date) have all come at home. "I'm not going to answer that," scoffs Holmes. "We go to Hawaii, we take care of business. We go to San Diego, we take care of business. We go to Texas, we take care of business."
A lingering question is what business the NCAA, the IRS and the grand jury will yet take care of. Kirk, for one, is perennially upbeat. Asked on one occasion by The Commercial Appeal of Memphis about his supposed participation in high-stakes gin rummy games, Kirk said, "I don't play for big money. Golly, I don't even call it gambling, because I know I'm going to win."
By that standard, the game 'Dre and 'Skew and Bat and Bed are playing right now certainly isn't gambling, either. They know they're going to win. Or, as they would phrase it in the school gyms and community centers around town, where most of the team came up: They're just runnin' with their homeboys and doin' it right fine.