Balling on Beale St.
Things got electric in Memphis tonight.
The Hoops Odyssey rolled into town from Nashville at about 3 pm. With tonight's game set to tip at 8, there was already traffic headed for the FedEx arena. Apparently, this is a big deal. Maybe you heard about it. The number 2 team in the nation, the Volunteers from Tennessee, made the five hour trek from the Appalachian foothills of Eastern Tennessee to meet the Tigers of the University of Memphis in that other Tennessean city, the one on the banks of the Mississippi River.
No matter what happens: # 1 lives in Tennessee.
I didn't really get it. Why go so early? We checked into the hotel, dropped bags, freshened up, and headed out. It's like Wesley Snipes said in Mo Better Mo Blues: If you play what the people like, then the people will come. If the people were going, we figured, they must have been going for something. We rolled up to the Arena, tucked the Impala into a prime spot (after a brutal early morning flight, Hoops Odyssey upgraded from a Ford Taurus to a cherry red Chevy Impala!), and headed for the noise. Sounded like a blues band hosting a pool party. Oh, I thought. I get it.
Welcome to Beale St. Home of the Blues.
Someone had the good sense to block the street off. Someone else had the good sense to sell what appeared to be gallon sized plastic cups of beer out of little carts in the middle of the street. Music spilled out of every storefront. Open containers sloshed into the gutters. Revelers painted in tiger stripes and blue paw prints on cheeks careened from one house of ill repute into another. Blue everywhere. Except where there was Orange. That's when the cat calls got going. Some light hearted ribbing, the kind you'd expect awash in booze and neon, bounced around the boulevard. You suck! is maybe the only one I can remember that I can also print.
Some light-hearted trash talking appropriate for all audiences.
It was a unique experience. Imagine if they'd dropped a huge arena down on a busy corner in the French Quarter. Then they brought the biggest college basketball game of the year there. Then they told you those two teams playing would be from the same state. That was Beale St. College Basketball gone wild. And there's really only one way to cover that kind of story.
It wasn't the plan but it was hard to fight it. We popped the camera, got the microphone out, slipped that CSTV flag on the mic, and started approaching anyone dressed in blue or orange who looked like they'd been there since Thursday. It wasn't hard. (Check today's video for a sample.)
The hard part came later. There was only one way to cover the pre-game, but the closer it got to tip time, the more the Odyssey realized that perhaps there was more than one way to cover the game. Or at least, that's how I'm telling it. Otherwise, I'm not really sure how to explain it to the editors. How Jake ended up in the arena and I took in the game at 143 Beale St: BB King's Blues Club.
Jake took this picture.
You'd think that with the best BB King impersonator alive tearing up "Better Not Look Down," men in mink coats pouring through the doors, and ladies in their Memphis Tiger best bumping up against the bar, that 'the game' might not be such a primary concern. Well. You'd be thinking wrong.
The atmosphere on Beale St. is nothing less than a playoff frame of mind. I'm from Boston. I've taken in a Red Sox Championship, multiple Super Bowls, and a whole slew of playoff games leading up to both from the inside of a Boston bar. That's some serious bar-based sports-watching. And I can tell you, Boston's got nothing on Beale St. tonight.
From the first sight of Dicky V in an Elvis outfit, from the first cut away to Priscilla Presley courtside (these people love Priscilla Presely....it got a little weird), and from the very first Memphis bucket, BB King's rocked in a way it probably doesn't usually rock.
I'll say this: it's no mistake that Tennessee and Memphis are 1 and 2 in the country. These kids can play. The ball flies up and down the court. In this game, the players move faster, jump higher, and do more with the basketball than any other ten you'll find on the court at the same time. At the bar, fans are working hard just to keep pace. Wild cheers evaporate to groans quicker than you can place an order for another round.
When in Graceland...
Through the first half, Memphis is shooting the lights out from three point land. Joey Dorsey is doing his best Superman...grabbing rebounds left and right and throwing blocks out like he's Orlando Pace. Second half, and it's the Vols turn. J.P. Prince, surprise story of the night, throws down dunks at every turn Dorsey slips into foul trouble and the Vols start grabbing everything off the glass (eventually, the Vols out-rebound Memphis 50 - 34). At BB's, the Orange are starting to believe that they can do this. It's maybe a ninety to ten percent mix, but suddenly that ten percent is getting vocal. The bartender starts to look past Volunteers, and a fight nearly breaks out for slow service.
By the end of the night, Tennessee has run away with their first win over a number 1 seed in school history. And but for that ten percent dressed in neon orange, the bar deflates. Our BB impersonator kicks in on a version of The Thrill is Gone. I call Jake. He's in the Memphis locker room. Somber mood. Joey Dorsey's fighting back tears. Back where I'm at though, the mourning turns over pretty quickly. TVs get set to mute. Music reins again. Outside, a wash of neon. Beale St fills with a rush of fans pouring from the FedEx arena. It isn't long before the crush of revelers forces me to to fold up the laptop. A guy in full-headed blue face paint grabs my shirt. Hey man, he says, Tennessee! We've still got the best two teams in college basketball! And with that, a guitar twangs. Riding With The King fills the bar.
Memphis lost. But on Beale St, the beat goes on.