Calkins: A surreal ending for a surreal season

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 12, 2020 9:37 PM CT | Published: March 12, 2020 9:32 PM CT
Geoff Calkins
Daily Memphian

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

The players descended the escalator, dispirited and stunned, toward the buses which would take them to the airplane which would take them home.

“It’s like a movie,” said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. “You’re watching a movie.”

Except in this movie, there is no real end.

No triumphant shot to win the conference title.

No anger over a phantom foul.

No frustration over a critical turnover, no jubilant photo in the locker room.

No regret, no redemption, just an announcement that the American Athletic Conference Tournament — and later, the NCAA Tournament — had been called off.

AAC cancels conference tournament along with other conferences

“It’s very disappointing,” said Hardaway. “But we understand that what’s going on is bigger than basketball.”

Which is true, of course. By the time of the announcement, it felt like the whole world was hunkering down. Schools were closing. The stock market was plunging. The NBA had long since suspended play.

But it was eerie, just the same. A surreal end to a frustrating year.

“It’s been a roller-coaster,” said Hardaway, which is one way to put it. Somehow, the Zippin Pippin always seemed like more fun.

Not that this Tiger season didn’t have its moments. Like the rollicking road win at Tennessee. Remember Alex Lomax popping his jersey when that one was done? At that moment, all things seemed possible.

Less than a week later, James Wiseman decided to walk away from the team. Then DJ Jeffries went down for the season with an injury. Then the NCAA launched a major infractions case that could shape the program for years to come.

“This was a year that wasn’t expected,” Hardaway said. “A lot of things have happened.”

The party is over for Memphis basketball’s roller coaster season

Until they suddenly stopped happening. In a Fort Worth hotel. And that may have been the most unexpected thing of all.

A season called for a virus?

With no chance to play a final game?

It is not the first time a Memphis basketball season ended in jarring fashion. There was the Mario Chalmers 3-pointer in 2008. The hand check call on Chris Garner in 1995. The Missouri Valley Conference playoff loss to Louisville in 1972.

But those were games, at the very least. Decided on a basketball court. This season was ended by a conference call.

There was nothing to rage about, nobody to blame.

A what-if season for Memphis had become a what-if season for everyone. For Dayton and Baylor and Gonzaga and Florida State. Those teams all had a legitimate chance to win the NCAA Tournament, after all. Whatever Memphis lost, those teams lost more. And whatever those teams lost was nothing compared to what was being lost out in the real world, where the economy was collapsing in on itself and layoffs were already kicking in.

So Hardaway didn’t waste a moment feeling sorry for himself. He said the conference leadership made the right call. He said “it’s ugly for a lot of people.” He said he just wanted to go home and “take it all in.”

And that’s what we all need to do at this point, isn’t it? Take it all in?

It was not the season Memphis fans dreamed about. It was an ending nobody will ever forget. And in a strange way, the ending served as a reminder, about what really matters most.

Exactly 210 days after the Tigers played their first game in the Bahamas — full of bravado and promise — their long strange trip was done.

“Love you Memphis,” tweeted Lester Quinones.

To which assistant coach Cody Toppert added, simply: “Be safe.”


Memphis Tigers Basketball Penny Hardaway American Athletic Conference Tournament

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