A statue of legendary former coach and star guard Larry Finch on the campus of the University of Memphis, his alma mater? Absolutely a no-brainer; should have happened a long time ago, right?
“The timing wasn’t right,” said Elliot Perry, one of Finch’s first recruits as a head coach for the Tigers in 1987. “Now we have the “Prodigal Son” in Penny Hardaway (as Memphis’ head men’s basketball coach). Now the timing is right.”
No doubt some might quibble with Perry about his timing assessment. Now, however, is not the time to entertain such a discussion. It’s Finch’s time – the recognition of which reached a crescendo with the unveiling on the Park Avenue campus of a statue and plaza in his honor on Thursday.
Vicki Finch, the late coach’s widow, read an interpretation of a poem, “How do I love thee,” saying, “This was a poem not dedicated from me to Larry but this could be a poem dedicated from basketball to Larry.”
So true, especially when “basketball” speaks through the voices of players such as Perry and Hardaway, who were recruited by – and gave their all for – “Coach.”
Standing at the podium to deliver his remarks at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, Hardaway was overcome with emotion. Fittingly, Perry – his friend and former high school teammate – stepped up to comfort him. It was a moment so touching that it likely will remain etched forever in the minds of those who witnessed it firsthand.
“I did not,” said Hardaway, responding to the question of whether he anticipated getting choked up at that level. “When you understand the last years of his life and how hard it was for him. The last few years of his life isn’t what he deserved. To get this day today is amazing.”
Finch, who had his No. 21 jersey retired on Nov. 30, 1974, competed in more than 500 games in 25 years as a player and coach for the Tigers. Finishing his three-year playing career from 1970-71 to 1972-73 as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,869 points, Finch is currently ranked fourth behind Keith Lee, Perry and Rodney Carney. His 22.3 points per game career average remains a Memphis record for those who played 50 games or more.
A product of Melrose High School, Finch was highly recruited by major universities during his senior year (1968-69). With fresh memories of the University of Memphis’ refusal to recruit African-American players, Finch fans urged him to ignore an offer from then Memphis State University.
Leonard Draper Sr., a major supporter and longtime mentor for Finch, played a pivotal role in persuading Finch to stay in Memphis. Finch played on the freshman team during the 1969-70 season, making his varsity debut in the fall of 1970.
Today, many still make the point that Finch’s decision to play for Memphis was pivotal in positively affecting race relations after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. here at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
At Thursday’s statue-unveiling ceremony, Mayor Jim Strickland read part of a Proclamation designating “Larry Finch Day.”
“One of my best honors in life was to be a friend of Larry Finch,” said Strickland. “Memphis just celebrated its 200 years anniversary. “In my opinion, coach Finch was one of the 10 most significant Memphians of all time.”
The Larry Finch statue rests in front of the Laurie Walton basketball practice facility on the Park Avenue campus. His legacy is reflected through four plaza plaques:
- One tells of Finch’s high school days and his prowess in state basketball tournaments.
- Another is of Finch as a player for the Tigers, including the run to the Final Four and the epic clash against Bill Walton and the UCLA Bruins.
- A third tells the story of Finch as a basketball coach. He had seven seasons with 20 or more wins.
- The final one tells of Finch the person.
“It is a great day for a lot of reasons. I told myself that I would cherish this day. I did not expect this many people, but I don’t know why (not) because he was loved by everybody. What a wonderful man. …
“He loved his family. He was a coach, a mentor and friend. He always talked to me about trying to keep on the straight and narrow. … I stand on his shoulders everyday and try to be great. He was the best ever for so many reasons. …
“I only see only one banner in there from the National Championship. Everyday I walk in there and see that banner, that is when I talk to him. I wish I could get to the point where I could make him proud of me to get us back to there. …
“In coaching he cared about his players like I care about my players. … It comes from the heart. You are not doing it for the job, you are doing it from your heart.”
“It is definitely a blessing to be here. Being in his first recruiting class was special to me. …
“He put the ball in my hands from day one. He showed a lot of confidence in me. He stayed with me in the times that I struggled. I am grateful for that. I am grateful to (have played) for a mentor and father-figure and my idol. …
“You are talking about an icon. You are talking about a person whose name resonates in the community and it is relevant at all times. … It is an honor to be here.
Recruited by Finch, and known as “The Little General” for his point guard play, Turner now is the Lane College head basketball coach.
“This is spectacular. We all have that same story about coming to Memphis, that coach Finch did not ask, but told you that you were coming to Memphis. That is what he did to me. Late one Monday night at 11:30 he said, “‘Son, you are coming to Memphis.’ What could else could I say? It was the best decision I could have made. …
“It is a blessing to see this statue. When you talk about coach Finch, it is legendary. Someone who mends a city and means so much to so many. Just to be in the midst … I am excited to say I am a part of it, and it is a part of me.”
With a 220-130 record that still makes him the university’s winningest coach, Finch left the UofM at the end of the 1996-97 season. In 2002, he suffered a stroke. After a long illness, and with friends and family nearby, he died at St. Francis Hospital on April 2, 2011.
He was 60.