'It Feels Real': New-Look Memphis Has Fab 5 Vibes with Local Ties

Matthew FoleyContributor IDecember 11, 2019

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 5: Damion Baugh #10, James Wiseman #32 and Boogie Ellis #5 of the Memphis Tigers huddle together against the South Carolina State Bulldogs during a game on November 5, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis defeated South Carolina State 97-64. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

The drive from Memphis International Airport to the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center—the sparkling $21 million state-of-the-art practice facility that the University of Memphis unveiled two years ago—takes no more than 15 minutes. Thirty when you stop for a plate of chopped pork shoulder.

Between thunderous thwacks of the cleaver that Miss Flora uses to chop meat behind the counter at Payne's Bar-B-Q, a family-run operation that's been flipping smoked meats out of a converted gas station in the Midtown neighborhood of Rozelle since 1972, Flora's son, Ron, and his nephew are talking sports while preparing plates of food. The topic? The same one being discussed on the local sports radio show on the ride over: Memphis Tigers basketball. Particularly, whether the school's top-ranked recruiting class, led by the 5-star freshman duo of James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, can back up the national title talk from second-year head coach Penny Hardaway.

It's late July. In most media markets, with a PGA Tour event in town, football preseason days away and the newly minted face of the local NBA franchise (Grizzlies rookie point guard Ja Morant) making waves, college basketball would be low on the list of summertime sports topics. Not in Memphis. Perhaps the 2019 Tigers calendarone of the few decorations that grace the hickory-smoke-stained walls at Payne's—was a sign.

"This program means so much to people in this city," says freshman forward Malcolm Dandridge, the first class of 2019 recruit to sign with Hardaway. Like his coach, and a long line of former Memphis stars, Dandridge was born and raised in Bluff City (so nicknamed because of the many bluffs that abut the Mississippi River near Memphis). "Memphis players are aggressive. We're not letting anybody dog us. That's what we're bringing back to this program."

Luckily for a city abuzz with title talk for the first time since Derrick Rose and John Calipari were still on campus more than a decade ago, many of Dandridge's teammates are not new to that line of thinking, or to one another. Of the 14 players on the Tigers roster, six are Memphis natives. Three more—Wiseman, Damion Baugh and D.J. Jeffries—played their high school or AAU ball in the city. Of those nine players, eight played for Hardaway, either at East Highwhere Hardaway led the Mustangs to three straight Tennessee state titles before taking the Memphis job in March 2018or at the AAU level. And the team's few Memphis newcomers? New York natives Achiuwa and Lester Quinones have played together since middle school. Only San Diego native Boogie Ellis, a 4-star point guard who signed with Memphis after decommitting from Duke, has never played with his new teammates.

"I would've had the platform playing in the ACC, but ultimately none of that matters," Ellis says. "It's about who's got the best group and the best coach that's gonna let us rock."

Perhaps off-putting in some places, that type of confidence has the newcomers fitting in just fine in Memphis. "I didn't know what to expect, but they remind me of Memphis players with the toughness," said sophomore guard Alex Lomax, a two-time Tennessee Mr. Basketball (2016 and 2017) who has played for Hardaway since fifth grade. "They've got the same edge with a little different spice to it."

The result is a mix of talent and attitude that already has made Memphis a target of rival fans and drawn the scrutiny of the NCAA, which dealt the program a setback when it recently suspended Wiseman 12 games for a payment his mother received from Hardaway in 2017.

It isn't the first time the celebrated prospect has run into controversy with Hardaway. In the spring of 2017, Wiseman joined Hardaway's Team Penny grassroots program on the Nike EYBL circuit after he and his mother moved from Nashville to Memphis before his junior year of high school. He then enrolled to play under Hardaway at East High School, where he was initially ruled ineligible (largely because there was an "athletic coaching link" between the two beforehand) by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) before taking the state to court, getting a temporary restraining order that allowed him to play, and leading East to consecutive state title games.

Penny Hardaway not only has been able to revamp Memphis' recruiting efforts, but he has also reenergized a fanbase that's showing up to games just to support the former school legend.
Penny Hardaway not only has been able to revamp Memphis' recruiting efforts, but he has also reenergized a fanbase that's showing up to games just to support the former school legend.Steve Dykes/Getty Images

A year after Wiseman's AAU appearance on Team Penny, Hardaway was hired by the Tigers to revive a program that had missed the NCAA tournament for four straight seasons. Whether spoken or not, the move was made with visions of tapping into Hardaway's talent pipeline, and no recruit was more important than Wiseman. Until early November, the grand plan was progressing without a hitch.

According to Wiseman's attorney, Leslie Ballin, the NCAA deemed Wiseman eligible in May but reversed course before the second game of this season. Hours before tipoff on November 8, the NCAA ruled Wiseman ineligible after further investigation revealed Hardaway had provided Wiseman's mother $11,500 to cover moving expenses in 2017. The university says Wiseman had no knowledge of the transaction, nor did Memphis believe an infraction had taken place since Hardaway was, at the time, a high school coach.

No matter what Memphis believed, the payment was a clear infraction because Hardaway was considered a booster thanks to a $1 million donation he gave the school in 2008 to build a sports hall of fame. Following the ruling, Wiseman and Hardaway raced to the Shelby County courthouse, where a judge ruled to put a hold on the suspension, pending further litigation. With both back by tipoff, Wiseman logged 17 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in a 92-46 win over the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames. Four days later, Wiseman played again in an 82-74 Memphis loss to Oregon. But on November 14, Wiseman withdrew his lawsuit, and Memphis, while applying for his reinstatement, deemed him temporarily ineligible.

As far as NCAA infractions go, Wiseman's was mild, considering the context. The school had received feedback from the NCAA that it was playing a "likely ineligible" player. Yet, it played him anyway. Hence, what precedent suggested would be a nine-game suspension became 12, and a directive for Wiseman to pay $11,500 to charity followed. Wiseman is eligible to return on Jan. 12 at South Florida.

After a November 20 win over Arkansas-Little Rock, Hardaway told reporters he didn't think the punishments were fair. "Obviously, James should be on the floor," he said. "... [The NCAA makes] the rules, so we just have to abide by them."

None of that matters now. Wiseman is out, forced to pay back money that he doesn't make and that he apparently never knew he borrowed, and the problems for Hardaway may just be starting. According to reports, the NCAA Committee on Infractions is likely to bring more severe sanctions against Memphis in a larger investigationone that could cost the school future scholarships and derail Hardaway's recruiting-trail panache.

When asked whether the university and athletic administration took these risks into account before deciding to play Wiseman and fight the NCAA, spokespersons for the team and university president David M. Rudd declined to comment. They also passed on answering whether in hiring a prominent booster as basketball coach, they did so while accepting that eligibility issues might follow him. Was that the cost of doing business? The school referred me to only its November 14 statement on Wiseman's status. "The NCAA is fully aware of the unique nature and challenges in this particular case, and the university is confident that the NCAA will render a fair and equitable decision consistent with its mission."

For most schools, Wiseman's absence might put the entire season in jeopardy. But this iteration of the Tigers is full of one-and-done talents already oozing with chemistry.

James Wiseman, considered a candidate to be taken No. 1 in the 2020 NBA draft, was shooting almost 77 percent and blocking 3.0 shots per game before he was suspended by the NCAA in November.
James Wiseman, considered a candidate to be taken No. 1 in the 2020 NBA draft, was shooting almost 77 percent and blocking 3.0 shots per game before he was suspended by the NCAA in November.Steve Dykes/Getty Images

"It's mind-boggling to see how well everyone plays off each other," says Achiuwa, a 6'9" power forward and potential NBA lottery pick in 2020. "We're all starting with a clean slate. High school rankings don't matter anymore, but we have a chance to build something historic."

Like the Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett show at Duke last season, or the Trae Young experience in 2017-18, Memphis is this year's must-watch attraction in college basketball. With 26 nationally televised games, they've been hard to miss. And if we're talking sheer numberslike the No. 1-ranked freshman class with two 5-star and five 4-star recruitsonly one other college hoops team comes to mind: Michigan's Fab Five. These Tigers can't compete with the cultural influence of that freshman class, but a deep NCAA tournament run could reestablish Memphis as a college basketball power while solidifying the "Super Seven" as one of the best freshman classes ever. 

"I do think about that sometimes," Wiseman said in July, before the reignited interest in his eligibility threw everything in flux. "It's rare to have this much talent on one roster."

"We only have two goals," he continued. "Build everlasting relationships, and win a national championship this season."

A knowing swagger, learned from folks who've been down this road before, has bubbled over inside the Tigers' practice facility. Hardaway has been here, and a lot farther up the basketball chain, as has assistant Mike Miller.

"We're not traditional college guys," says Miller, a 17-year NBA vet and two-time champion with the Miami Heat. "We want to get these kids playing fastas close to that NBA style of play as possible. That's what we know, and that's where they want to be. We brought the talent level up; now we have to teach them the way that the game is played [in the NBA.]"

The early steps in the Tigers' basketball education began as soon as they got on campus in July. First stop? The weight room. Over the summer, Hardaway hired Darby Rich as the team's strength and conditioning coach. A former teammate of Robert Horry and Latrell Sprewell's at Alabama, Rich trained Blake Griffin at Oklahoma and spent time working in the NFL. And while this team has its share of elite athletesRich sees some of Griffin's athleticism in Achiuwa, and he was shocked at how much Wiseman reminds him of Celtics center Robert Williamsthere's no Zion-esque man-child on the roster. Not yet, anyway.

"They've got to understand that every team on the schedule is gonna try to punk them," Rich said. "What's the easiest way to beat young players? You bully them. So, we're trying to bulletproof their bodies."

No one needs more body armor than Achiuwa, who has inherited the rim-protection and rebounding responsibilities Wiseman had. He appears up for the challenge. In the six games since Wiseman's suspension began, Achiuwa has averaged 16.0 points and 11.0 rebounds, and was named AAC Player of the Week on Nov. 25.

"I've come a very long way," says Achiuwa, who was born in Nigeria, moved to the Bronx in eighth grade and finished high school at Montverde Academy in Florida. "I'm not done yet. I'm trying to make a name for myself now."

With James Wiseman sidelined until January, Precious Achiuwa has excelled as the Tigers' primary low-post presence, helping Memphis win every game since his teammate was suspended.
With James Wiseman sidelined until January, Precious Achiuwa has excelled as the Tigers' primary low-post presence, helping Memphis win every game since his teammate was suspended.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Achiuwa may possess the traditional role of enforcer, but according to Rich, the Tigers' trio of true freshman guards—Baugh, Ellis and Quinones—have taken it upon themselves to set the team's aggressive tone this season.

"They're savages," Rich said. "Their hunger is apparent in everything we do, and that attitude is bleeding over to the entire team. They'll try to kill you playing checkers."

The scene inside the Laurie-Walton basketball center is a far cry from the average collegiate athletic facility. Funded entirely by enthusiastic private donorsthe same donors who jump at the chance to let Hardaway and Miller use their private jets for recruiting trips—the "LWC," as it's called, is more like an NBA training center.

"Penny likes to say that the LWC is undefeated," says Dr. Adam Walker, Memphis' senior associate athletic director of development. "Every time he brings a recruit here, he gets the commitment."

With good reason. The center includes a 12,000-square-foot practice gym, a state-of-the-art locker room and weight room, a dining hall, film room, study hall and a recovery center complete with a hydrotherapy pool. Past the iron tiger statue and 10 towering pillars that flank the front door, the vast, glass-enclosed lobby doubles as the Hall of Traditions, decked out with memorabilia from the team's past and murals of every Tigers player drafted into the NBA.

Lucky visitors may even glimpse the "Air Penny" shrine. Beyond the lobby, toward the practice gym in a hallway reserved for players, coaches and recruits, is the "Penny Room"a circular neon blue-lit display room housing Hardaway's favorite signature shoes from over the years. Before the LeBrons and Kobes, Nike's Air Max Penny, aka Penny 1, became a sneaker phenomenon. The shoe remains one of Nike's most popular releases ever and one of the company's most successful shoes outside the Air Jordan. The Tigers, of course, have signed a deal with Nike through 2023.

"When you're an elite program, this is how you operate," Walker says. "It's the mystique of Penny, the shoe brand, the best of the best. We can't afford to skimp."

But Hardaway's icon status—and the university's willingness to let the coach operate unquestioned—is the kind of behavior that begs for NCAA oversight. Big recruits, and big money, will always bring big eyeballs. Hardaway has made "we want all the smoke" the team mantra, meaning they want the pressure or they want the fight, but so far Wiseman (who allegedly knew nothing about his coach's improprieties) is the only one who has had to pay a price for that attitude.

Those within the university and fans around seemingly welcome the heat. They've been down this road of backlogged NCAA sanctions with Calipari and Rose in 2008, and in talking to them it's easy to imagine they would much rather defend the memory of a bannerless national title than never contend at all. "We don't have the [Final Four] banner anymore, but fans in Memphis don't forget," Memphis native Alan Jankowski says.

Walker declined to comment on the Wiseman situation, but he did point out that the blemish has definitely not hindered support of the program from fans and donors. "Our support remains strong for our athletics department and basketball program," he says. "We have a loyal and passionate fanbase."

Back in the LWC lobby on this random Tuesday afternoon in late July, a few fans are milling through the Hall of Traditions. One of them, a middle-aged Memphis alum named Jim Graves, recently won an autographed basketball and a photo op with Hardaway for $750 at auction. He's hoping Hardaway will personalize the ball, and maybe even autograph the giant, cent-shaped paper Penny signs that he and his wife have brought along. They give them out to fans at the FedExForum.

"Last year, the Forum was filled just to support Penny," Graves said, "and support what he's doing. This year, it feels real. Like it did before Calipari left."

On the opposite end of the lobby, Wiseman and his mother chat it up with Coach Miller. Well, Wiseman's mother and Miller chat it up, really. The soft-spoken 7'1" teenage phenom smiles along, keeping a safe distance from the autograph seekers.

Eventually, the Graves and his family find Hardaway, and even get a tour.

Two-and-a-half months later, on an early October evening in front of 18,000 fans at Memphis Madness, Hardaway emerges from a riser, engulfed in smoke, wearing an "All the Smoke" hoodie as Future and Young Thug's "All da Smoke" blares through the Forum's speakers. The rest of the squad is there, too, of course, taking part in a team dunk contest. But it's clear Hardaway is the star.

After a season spent treading water, this marks the year that the Memphis brand is back. And to play the part, you've got to look the part. Thus, Memphis unveiled its new, blue home court. Supreme Bey, the artist formerly known as Chris Douglas-Roberts, returned to FedExForum for a Tigers function for the first time in a decade, and popular local rappers Young Dolph, Key Glock, Moneybagg Yo, plus Atlanta natives Lil Baby and Future all performed.

For the players, fans and local artists alike, a night like Memphis Madness means more than a concert or a dunk contest. It's the official sign that a program revival is about to unfold, and with it some long overdue shine for one of America's great, and at times forgotten, citieswarts and all. Tigers games are cool again, and have attracted an expanding roster of local celebrities, such as local rappers BlocBoy JB and Yo Gotti.

In some ways, record producer Tay Keith sees Memphis basketball as inspirational for a local rap scene that has too often been marred by territorial violence. "Basketball is different," he says. "It don't matter [what neighborhood] you're from, if you're from Memphis, we're supporting you."

That, in and of itself, is the most pivotal achievement of Hardaway's coaching career to date. 

With Hardaway and the Super Seven on campus, Memphis has begun to refortify tradition. A city that prides itself on being able to sniff out phonies has bought all the way back in, knowing that beneath Hardaway's bluster is the brand of swagger obtained through hard work and self-confidence.

"We've seen what this program was and what it fell to," says freshman swingman D.J. Jeffries. "All of us [freshmen] could have gone anywhere in the country. This is a great community that's been down for too long. It's time to restore the program."


Recruiting class ranking via 247Sports.

Matt Foley is a writer based in New York. His freelance work has been featured in SLAM, the New York Times, Ozy and theScore. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyfoles.