James Wiseman is all smiles during happier times with the Tigers. (Photo: Warren Roseborough)

The James Wiseman situation has become a tragic love story for Memphis basketball fans. Almost everyone has only great things to say about Wiseman.

He was known for doing the little things to bring joy to people. He didn’t mind taking a selfie with you. He made appearances at community service events. He speaks Mandarin Chinese for fun. He has a smile that can take over a room.

Oh, and he can even play a little basketball.

Wiseman is the type of player that can reverse the fortunes of a program, which isn’t something most people can say. Wiseman had been a top target of many Division I programs, but two in particular – Kentucky and Memphis – just riled up the fan bases of both schools.

Some Memphians are still upset with John Calipari leaving Memphis and taking some top recruits with him with to Kentucky. So when Wiseman picked Memphis over Kentucky in late 2018, it gave Tigers fans a little extra sprinkle of revenge.

Once Wiseman announced his choice, he put on a different hat: recruiter. Sure, Hardaway, a former NBA superstar himself, had assembled a coaching staff who could prepare any player for life in the league. But it was Wiseman who worked text threads and social media to help reel in players like Precious Achiuwa, Lester Quinones Jr. and Boogie Ellis. By Spring, Memphis had recruited the No. 1 class in America.

On Jan. 1, 2019, Wiseman was expected to lead a ridiculously deep Tiger team to a deep tournament run, maybe even a championship.

And on Jan. 1, 2020, Wiseman’s collegiate career is over, and the team built around him soldiers on.

“Obviously, I didn’t want it to happen,” said Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway in his first media availability since the news. “But I support James. I’m not going to say I was happy about it. But I’m with James. I’ve been with James from the very beginning since he first stepped into this city. So I’m with him now, and I’m still gon’ be with him.”

 


Wiseman’s dustup with the NCAA wasn’t the first time his eligibility to play caused problems. Without his knowledge, Wiseman’s family accepted $11,500 from Hardaway to help move him to Memphis, where he played for Hardaway at East High School. The TSSAA challenged his eligibility then, but he finished out his career before the case could be resolved.

It was that same gift from Hardaway that set off the NCAA. The NCAA approved Wiseman to play in the spring of this year and later after further investigation that later ruled his ineligible. Wiseman was hit with a 12-game suspension that was set to expire on January 9.

The hopes and expectations for some Tiger fans came crashing down when Wiseman expected announced via Instagram that he was not going to enroll for the spring semester at Memphis.  Before releasing that post, he sent a group text to his teammates informing them of his decision.

View this post on Instagram

Today I formally withdrew from the University of Memphis and I will be preparing for the next chapter of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been a dream of mine to play in the NBA. Throughout this process, I’ve asked God to ordain my steps and lead me in the right direction. God is my lord and salvation, and throughout this process he has comforted me. This was not how I expected my freshman season to be, but I’m thankful for everyone who has supported my family and me throughout this process. I want to thank the coaches and staff for all their support and my teammates for pushing me everyday at practice. I feel blessed for the opportunity to be a Tiger and for having the honor to play with these special group of guys. I can’t wait to see what all they accomplish this season. The friends and fans of Tiger Nation will always hold a place in my heart. #GoTigersGo 🐯🔵🐯

A post shared by James Wiseman (@bigticket_j13) on

The reaction from this teammates were very supportive. The masses on social media and most fans don’t blame Wiseman for his decision. Both the UofM and Hardaway issued brief statements after the announcement.

“Although disappointing, the UofM supports James and his family in his decision to leave to prepare for the 2020 NBA Draft,” said a statement posted at gotigersgo.com, adding the UofM “will continue to follow James in what will certainly prove to be a successful career.”

Hardaway faced the media on Dec. 20, one day after the announcement. Wiseman’s teammates were taken aback, just as Hardaway was.

“The team reaction was a little shock, because they didn’t see it coming,” Hardaway said. “But they supported him right away. Said, ‘We’re going to call him, text him and wish him well.”

Some Tigers fans point the finger directly at former coach Calipari and the NCAA. Many have felt that Wiseman was unfairly punished with the 12-game suspension. After the initial act of defiance, The UofM cooperated with the NCAA and hoped they would be fair in their handling of this case.

The NCAA always preaches about how they want to protect the student-athletes. But the words don’t match the actions.  Nor does the way the NCAA treats its member institutions.

Many people blame how the University of Memphis handled the Wiseman situation – specifically, playing him while his eligibility was in question. But there is no guarantee that the NCAA would have cleared Wiseman if he’d sat out, or if the suspension would have been reduced.

History has shown that the NCAA has been slow to act even on some issues that are clear cut situations.  The Wiseman case is just another example of the NCAA flexing its muscles against a less powerful institution.

The NCAA indicated Wiseman’s lawsuit against the UofM and the NCAA would need to be dropped before they would issue any ruling on Wiseman. Wiseman complied, but the NCAA turned around and hit Wiseman with the suspension – and according to the NCAA rules, a suspended player can’t travel with the team.

This rule may have led to Wiseman’s departure. Though he practiced as usual with his teammates, teams often bond on the road – both off the court, and in hostile arenas like the Tigers faced at UT-Knoxville. Wiseman had to watch on TV as his team celebrated wins without him.

It is no secret that “outside noise” –  influences outside of the team – is real. That goes for all programs, not just elite ones. That noise eventually got to Wiseman and his family.  It has not been confirmed, but many believe that someone convinced the family that it was in James’ best interest to leave school.

Wiseman has always been a prized student.  He even stated that he wanted to be an architect.  James loves school and he loved his teammates. That is why it is a shame the NCAA punished Wiseman for as harshly as they did.

The team will be fine. With their conference-opening win over Tulane, they are now riding a 10-game win streak and have moved into the top ten rankings in the latest Associated Press basketball poll.

Barring any major injuries, the team will make a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.

“In our mind and in James’ mind, it wasn’t because of us (that he left),” Hardaway said before the Jackson State game. “So I don’t think it should affect us.”

“I would not say we have moved on, but we are trying to learn and get adjusted to not having James no more,” added freshman D.J. Jeffries after beating Jackson State on Dec. 21.

And disappointments and what-ifs aside, James Wiseman will be fine. He signed with Excel Sports Management and is preparing for the NBA Draft. He will have the opportunity to sign contracts with a shoe company and make a boatload of money if he is picked in the top three next year.

The Memphis fans will be fine. Even without playing, Wiseman has helped return Tiger basketball to national relevance, while helping the Memphis vs. Nashville rivalry to die down.

But it’s those “what-ifs” that fans will wonder about – especially if the Tigers don’t advance to the Final Four, let alone win the National Championship. Wiseman’s talent made that more than a pipedream.

Now, it’s just . . . what if.