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Is It Racist To Root Against Memphis?

I'm usually a sucker for race-based arguments about college basketball. (For instance, my hatred of Duke actually predates my love of Carolina basketball, as it blossomed in the the late '80s when I was a Georgetown fan and got fed up with announcers hailing the disproportionately white Duke teams as a group of gentlemen scholars while disparaging the predominately black Georgetown teams as a band of semiliterate thugs.) But I'm left unconvinced by John Feinstein's WaPo column arguing that the notion that Memphis is a "renegade program" is racist.

Feinstein writes: 

All of Calipari's players are African Americans, a number of them from so-called "tough" backgrounds. Like virtually every top-level college basketball team, UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas are dominated by African American players, but each also gets significant contributions from white players.

That shouldn't matter even a little -- and thankfully it matters less now than it did 20 years ago when John Thompson was labeled a racist in many quarters for not having any white players at Georgetown -- but ask yourself this: If Memphis had flown out to a 40-12 lead only to let its opponent get back to 54-50 -- as Kansas did against North Carolina because it "kept taking stupid shots out there," as Brandon Rush put it -- would the Tigers have been portrayed as kids whose enthusiasm got the best of them or as an out-of-control group with more athleticism than basketball sense?


Still, the sentiment lingers that a team made up of black kids who play up-tempo basketball can't possibly play the game the "right" way and can't possibly be the beloved "student-athletes" the NCAA won't stop trumpeting. In other words, they can't possibly be the "best" kids.

But I think Memphis's "renegade" reputation has a lot more to do with its white coach than its black players. After all, as Feinstein concedes in the same column, Calipari arrived at Memphis with some pretty serious baggage--having committed enough NCAA violations during his tenure as the University of Massachusetts's coach that UMass had to vacate its 1996 Final Four appearance. And Calipari hasn't done much to allay suspicions since he was hired at Memphis, recruiting some pretty borderline players (Shawne Williams, anyone?) and employing some pretty borderline recruiting tactics (like hiring DaJuan Wagner's dad Milt as an assistant**). Combine all that with Memphis's miraculous reversal of fortune under Calipari--prior to his arrival eight years ago, the school's program was in the dumps--and it's no wonder people are suspicious that something's rotten in Memphis.

Indeed, the comparison of Calipari's Memphis team to Thompson's old Georgetown teams is a bad one. Not even the most strident Georgetown critics--and Feinstein was certainly one of them back in the day--ever accused Thompson of running a dirty program. Just the opposite, Georgetown's critics thought Thompson was too controlling of his players. But because Thompson was a black coach with an all-black team--and a hardnosed all-black team, at that--a lot of people thought that Georgetown couldn't possibly have the "best" kids. By contrast, a lot of people think Memphis can't possibly have the "best" kids because there's no way the "best" kids would wind up playing for Calipari.

Now, granted, I don't for a second think race doesn't still have a pernicious effect on discussions about college basketball. (Even as a Carolina fan, I'm sick of hearing announcers gush about Tyler Hansbrough's "will exceeding his skill," as if a white player's success has more to do with character than talent.) But, I think when it comes to Memphis's bad reputation, the explanation isn't the black players on the floor but the white guy on the bench.

**--Of course, Kansas's Bill Self pulled the same trick with Mario Chalmers's dad, Ronnie. Which was a replay of the trick Larry Brown pulled 20 years ago when he hired Danny Manning's dad, Ed, as an assistant at Kansas. In other words, it's hard to know who to root for tonight. What I wouldn't give for a Carolina-Duke national championship game, where the line between good and evil is so clearly defined!

--Jason Zengerle