Memphis is a town that eats, sleeps and breathes University of Memphis Tiger basketball. If you look out the plane window as you approach Memphis International Airport, there is a building with "Go Tigers" painted on the roof. During the NCAA tournament, the team's games are shown in conference rooms at businesses throughout the city. For the few road games not televised, fans clamber to bars to watch grainy Internet feeds where they cheer while squinting to recognize the low-resolution, blue flashes streaking up and down the court.
Many outside of Memphis think the city's love affair with the team is a byproduct of former head coach John Calipari's recent successes. The truth though is it started before the now-University of Kentucky frontman was even born, when the Tigers first made the NCAA tournament in 1955. Since then they have made over 20 appearances in the tournament, including three Final Fours and two appearances in the national championship game.
Born out of this rich basketball tradition are demands for excellence. There are those in the city that actually believe, regardless of the circumstances that occur during a season, it is a given the Tigers will make the tournament every year and anything else is unacceptable. This of course is not a phenomenon unique to Memphis, but also occurs in cities like Chapel Hill and Lexington.
Conference tournament championships are expected and generally pass under-appreciated. Players and fans alike become jaded by their own successes. This is why it was so refreshing to see the unbridled elation from the Tiger players and coaching staff as they won the 2011 Conference USA tournament.
Cynics will say it is just the Conference USA tournament and it is what you do once you are in the NCAA tournament that really matters. In reality though, this is the pinnacle of most of these young men's playing careers. Most will not play in the NBA, and the odds of even the best teams winning the national championship are slim at best. Whether at North Carolina or East Tennessee State, conference tournaments provide a rare opportunity for players to be the best at something—to be champions.
Saturday morning in El Paso a team full of heralded recruits danced and celebrated like it was the best moment of their lives. They fully embraced the preciousness of the NCAA tournament ticket they now hold. Because they are on television so often and play the same game as LeBron and Kobe, it is so easy to forget these are just kids. Kids living the dream that we all have in the backyard, imagining ourselves burying the game-winner at the buzzer.
While the Memphis Tigers and their impassioned fanbase still have national championship aspirations, this is a win to be celebrated. At the end of the day though nothing in life is guaranteed, and every moment that can possibly be cherished should be. That is why the players danced and showered head coach Josh Pastner with Gatorade, and it is why the Memphis fans lined the tarmac at the airport last night to greet the players as they returned champions of Conference USA.