The craziest thing I saw Saturday night/early Sunday morning was not Mister April, Sir Reggie Jackson, taking over the Thunder-Grizzlies Game 4. As nutty as this series has been, with three straight overtime games and the basket getting harder and harder to penetrate, it pales in comparison to Beale Street.
I guess this is the 21st century version of Dodge City on a Saturday night.
It’s hard to describe, but it’s easier to describe than it is to believe.
The revival of Beale Street – a two-block downtown stretch of music and clubs and restaurants – has been a Memphis success story in the last couple of decades. Beale Street draws visitors from all over, and Saturday night has become the big night. So big, it’s become dangerous. It has turned violent at times over the years, and city fathers have taken action.
Beale Street now is closed off to auto traffic on Saturday nights. Only pedestrians. And the entire street is barricaded. Visitors must enter through checkpoints that include security via wanding. And nobody seems deterred.
We exited the FedEx Forum somewhere around 1 a.m. Beale Street runs along the north side of the Grizzlies’ arena. We’ve been walking to the games along Third Street. But not Saturday night. Third Street is one of the checkpoints. And the line to get onto Third Street, south of Beale, was some 200 people long. We asked a peace officer what would be our best way to get north of Beale Street, up to Union, to get to our hotel. He was no big help.
We could have walked east and gone around Beale that way, but that didn’t seem like the safest trip. So we walked west, through an alley that was highly-populated, over to Second Street, which was open and packed with people itself. And we got an up close and personal view of the madness.
People everywhere. People milling about, trying to get onto Beale. People already on Beale, in a mosh pit of humanity. Thousands strong.
I was walking with RFD and A.C. Slater, and for some reason, we looked like newspaper people. A group stopped and asked us if we were with the press. They were from Chicago, county commissioners here for a convention. And they told us they had never seen anything like this. I mean, somebody from Pauls Valley or Blackwell, yeah, I can see them being amazed. But Chicago? This was a scene so full of madness, people from Chicago were stunned.
I stopped to take a picture of Beale Street, then we went on. And another group stopped us. A guy asked if we were news media. Said we ought to do a story on discrimination. Said he wasn’t allowed onto Beale Street because he was wearing animal print. “Do you know of any gang that uses animal print?” he asked. I had to admit, I had no idea. A girl with him told us she knew why they wouldn’t let him in. “Because he’s black,” she said. I didn’t really feel like asking her if that was true, how did she explain those thousands of people already on Beale Street, 80 percent of which were black.
We walked on back to Union, and there at 1:30 a.m. Sunday, the intersection of Union and Second Street was the busiest of auto traffic it had been all week.
I got up to my room, and the street noise was significant. I nodded off sometime after 3 a.m. and was still hearing the noise. I woke up around 6 a.m. and it was quiet. So there you have it. Beale Street sleeps sometime between 3 and 6.
FROM VALLIANT TO MEMPHIS
I had lunch with Wren Baker, who 10 years ago was on Eddie Sutton’s administrative staff at OSU. Wren is a super fellow, grew up in Valliant, went to Southeastern State in Durant, got on Sutton’s staff, became head coach and athletic director at Rogers State at a very young age, became AD at Northwest Missouri State and now is associate AD at the University of Memphis.
Wren always has been a swell guy to deal with. I was thrilled when he texted me and asked to get together.
He picked me up Saturday afternoon and took me to lunch at the Soul Fish Café, which is in Memphis’ Midtown area, a few miles east of downtown. An area that seems quite similar to OKC’s Midtown. The Soul Fish Cafe’ is a seafood diner. Great food. I had fried catfish. Probably the best catfish I’ve ever had.
And we had great conversation about college athletics. Memphis is a fascinating story. The Tigers have a tremendous basketball program and a big grip on the city of Memphis that only in recent years has been loosened by the Grizzlies. Memphis U. remains a big-time force in the city.
But Memphis football has been a non-entity, which has kept the Tigers from consideration with the big boys in conference realignment. Think about it. Memphis would be a great addition to the Big 12. Great basketball, major-league market, geographic proximity. But the football has been so abysmal, with little fan support, that it’s a non-starter.
Hopefully the football fortunes will change with former OU quarterback Justin Fuente as head coach. Wren is excited about Fuente and the football future.
The Tigers play basketball at FedEx Forum, which is about 15 minutes west of campus. The Tigers play football at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, which is located about a mile from campus, on the old Memphis fairgrounds.
Wren drove me over to the football stadium, and it’s undergone quite a few renovations and is a nice-looking facility, which seats 60,000 (too many for the Tigers). On those fairgrounds is the deserted Mid-South Coliseum, of pro wrestling fame and where the Memphis Tams of the old ABA played in the 1970s.
OU or OSU could be in the Liberty Bowl some season soon, since the Big 12 has signed an agreement to send a team to Memphis every bowl season.
Memphis is in the American Athletic Conference, the football remnant of the Big East, and the American remains a stout basketball league. NCAA champion Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis, now SMU with Larry Brown and Houston with Kelvin Sampson and Tulsa. Good basketball. But the football remains an outlier.
Either way, I’ll be pulling for Memphis. And I’ll be pulling for Wren.
I walked to Thunder shootaround on Saturday morning. Shootaround is what NBA teams call their game-day practice. NBA media policy demands that any time a team practices, the coach and players be made available for interviews. Including shootaround.
So on game days, Scotty Brooks and sometimes players talk to the media three times. Shootaround, pregame and postgame. No wonder they get so tired of us. Generally, no player talks in both shootaround and pregame, but I guess some do. I don’t know what you could possibly ask somebody at 11:30 a.m. and then ask something different at 6 p.m. Maybe it’s a different group of media.
Anyway, I felt compelled to attend shootaround just in case somebody said something. Which, of course, nobody did. But Clay Bennett was there. The Thunder chairman always has been low profile, but he’s really low profile in recent months. He just likes it that way.
I thought it was interesting that Bennett was at shootaround. Russell Westbrook and Brooks both said Bennett’s been there on occasion, but I’ve never seen him. To me, it spoke to the importance of the game. Bennett might have been like a lot of people. Lot of nervous energy on Saturday. Might as well while away the day watching the guys shoot.
Walking back to the hotel to meet up with Wren, I came upon three couples of 20somethings. One of the guys saw me and said, “Do you know where Huey’s is?” I guess I looked like a local. Turns out, I’d been in Memphis long enough to consider myself a local. “Sure,” I told him. “Go back up to Union, hang a left and go one block. On the southeast corner.”
When you’re a visitor and you start giving people directions, it’s time to go home.
Barry Switzer sat courtside at the game, right in front of us. He flew in Saturday afternoon on a private plane. Switzer is a big Thunder fan. Always likes to chat about the Thunder when I call him about something else.
He was a big hit before the game, with fans (and some media) coming down to get their picture made with him. The Memphis usher on the floor, probably a 50-year-old woman (probable on the 50, I know she was a woman), hit it off with Switzer. But later, she asked RFD who Switzer was. Which just shows Switzer’s charm and charisma even when someone has no idea he once coached a little football.
Switzer was part of an impressive array of Thunder fans. Looked like a bunch of Thunder fans came in for the Saturday game. Many more than were in Memphis for Game 3. For a Saturday night game, it’s not a bad trip at all. Oklahomans could have left Friday evening, driven part of the way and arrived in Memphis early afternoon without any hardship. Or the hearty could have left at 8 a.m. Saturday and been on Beale Street by 5 p.m. with no problem at all, still plenty of time for the 8:30 p.m. tipoff. And then have all day to drive the 6-9 hours home (depending on where you live).
It would be a great trip for a Thunder fan with a little money to spend. So long as you stay off Beale Street.