Flashback Friday: The Kentucky Blues

I didn’t intend for Flashback Friday to become a weekly thing, but it’s a fun, easy post. Today I have an actual story about my former life from four years ago — the last week of March 2009 to be exact — that I couldn’t share at the time.

Editor’s note: Names omitted to make this post slightly less Googleable, but Wikipedia can clarify things for you if you don’t know of whom I speak but prefer to.

I was in Memphis to cover an NCAA basketball tournament regional with a sportswriting colleague from Nashville and another from Little Rock.** This bit of March Madness featured North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse and Gonzaga. Oklahoma had eventual NBA Draft first-pick Blake Griffin at the time, though his brother Taylor was more of a force in that tournament, and UNC would ultimately go on to win the championship.*** My coworkers left town after we were done with the last game on Sunday night, while I retreated to my parents’ house for what I hoped would be my first good night’s sleep in about two or three weeks and with the intention of making the long drive back to Knoxville the next day.

this was my vantage point for most of that weekend

Instead of sleeping in to my heart’s desire, I was awoken around 8 the next morning by my work cell phone. At this point, I should mention that Kentucky had fired its basketball coach four days earlier for both his inability to win a national championship (that by which all Kentucky basketball coaches are judged) and his ability to have very public personal problems. When I answered my phone, my boss told me Kentucky was trying to hire the Memphis basketball coach and asked if I had left Memphis yet. I considered saying I was already on the road, but I knew he’d just tell me to turn around. He told me to stay there and find the coach while the sportswriter located in Kentucky tried to confirm the story on his end.

I did what any Journalism 101 professor would tell you to do if you really, really, really need to talk to someone: go to his house so I could knock on his door (I did not have his cell phone number to bug him from that angle). I went to his house only to find a gate around the house and his blue-painted outdoor basketball court. A couple of other reporters staked out across the street. His car wasn’t there, so I think I left to make the short trip to the Memphis athletic department building to see if the athletic director was around to give me a standard no comment. He wasn’t.

On the way back to the coach’s house I was listening to my favorite morning radio show in Memphis, Drake and Zeke. They’re not quite shock jocks, but more two deeply sarcastic guys who like to poke fun at dumb criminals and bad baby names. They’re also big Memphis basketball fans, and so this particular morning they were starting to bemoan what they figured was the inevitable departure of the coach to what would be most ambitious basketball coaches’ dream job and the presumable decline of Memphis basketball that would follow. And they played this over and over and over:

By the time I made it back to the coach’s house, word was out. There were twice as many reporters, but they were far outnumbered by the Memphis basketball fans who had shown up with signs and shakers, in hopes of somehow urging the coach not to take the job that he’d probably already agreed to take. I was instructed to remain there for the rest of the day, in hopes of the coach showing up at some point. The other reporters and I traded our best stakeout and coaching turnover stories,**** while the fans either cracked jokes with us or heckled us. (Y’all, I urge you, don’t ever shoot the messenger.) I think someone ordered pizza or takeout from nearby. The coach never showed up, and the boss let me go home around 6 p.m. or so as the Kentucky sportswriter had made enough progress to publish a story that day, I think. (Some of the details are a bit rusty at this point.)

Instead of getting to return to Knoxville the next day, I was ordered to do a drive-by of the coach’s house again (still not there) and then was sent to the city’s private airport, where I was to keep an eye out for the University of Kentucky plane and possibly a glimpse of the coach getting on it. What I couldn’t express clearly enough to the editors that day was there was no good and legal way to stake out the property with a clear sight line of the tarmac. I ended up camping out with a few TV reporters on the edge of a busy expressway with the closest thing to a view of the tarmac and then prayed to God for my immediate release from this assignment. Lunch didn’t happen that day, nor did any sighting of the coach and the plane, and I deliriously drove back to my parents’ house that night, hungry and sick from 12 hours of exposure to car and truck exhaust from the expressway.

If I remember things correctly, I saw the coach getting on the plane that night on the 10 o’clock news. He’d apparently taken off about an hour after I left the scene. I later found out that when I’d first visited his house on Monday, he was off somewhere talking to Kentucky by phone and then later getting schmoozed by the big-time Memphis boosters in their last-ditch effort to keep him. He did spend the night at his house but was gone by the time I went by the next day in order to attend morning mass at the nearby Catholic church and breakfast at the doughnut shop. (I could have been eating doughnuts!!) While I was staked out at the airport, he was informing the Memphis athletic director and his players that he was taking the job. I was basically either a few steps behind him or a few ahead of him the whole way without ever knowing it.

I ended up leaving Memphis around lunch the next day only after I spent a few hours getting confirmation that the Tennessee basketball coach was in fact not interested in the now-open Memphis coaching position.

One more time for the cheap seats in the back:

I suppose in sharing this story, I am effectively ruining any chance I might have had at becoming a professional stalker or private investigator. But when I’m vising Lexington tomorrow I just might do a drive by of the coach’s house for old time’s sake anyway.

**The company doesn’t keep a regular sportswriter in Memphis, despite there being an NBA team there. I was offered a hybrid newswriting/sportswriting gig for the company in early 2010 but didn’t pursue it as things were getting serious with the Modern Love Machine at the time. Funny how things go.
***The only thing I passionately miss about sportswriting is covering the NCAA basketball tournament. It was hard, hard work, but it was so much fun being in the middle of it. And I saw some really great basketball.
****The thing I miss the least about sportswriting is the firing/quitting/hiring of new coaches. And I had more than my fair share of those as a sportswriter.

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2 Responses to Flashback Friday: The Kentucky Blues

  1. Wow, who knew sportswriting was a whole lot like entertainment reporting (aka being a paparazzo)?!?

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