In Memphis, Dream Deferred Again



Knowledgeable fans of the great Langston Hughes, I apologize for my title. I’ve always been struck by the language of dreams deferred. It probably rankles poetry aficionados when great works are aped just to make a headline.

(Especially since, according to his Wikipedia bio, Hughes spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. If not for his father, he might’ve had a Rock Chalk Renaissance.)

But I digress, for if Memphis would’ve won last night’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I had my post written already in my head. I was planning on waxing eloquent about the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and I was sure to imply that the spirits of the Tiger faithful were elevated not only by the stellar play of phenom point guard Derrick Rose, but by examining how far the city has come in erasing the pain of its past.

But, as they say… that’s why they play the game.

Instead, the Memphis Tigers couldn’t make their freethrows, Mario Chalmers stepped up with a big-time three to force overtime, and the Kansas Jayhawks rolled into overtime with all the momentum.

Ballgame.

So now I get to write instead about how the people of Memphis are, once again, in mourning, wondering what could have been.

Because losing a once-in-a-generation leader who has profoundly affected us all during one of the most tumultuous times in nation’s history is pretty much the same thing as losing a six-point lead in a national title game.

(For the uninitiated, it’s called sarcasm. I almost let that comment stand by itself, but I didn’t want humorless historians to fill my inbox with comments.)

What’s interesting to me, though, is how the Memphis fans are and will respond to this loss. At the pub where I watched the last seconds of the game, the one Tigers fan I saw was bitter and disgruntled. “Kansas didn’t take it, Memphis gave it away!” he yelled. I’m sure he’s still denouncing the team as chokers today, even though they were the number one seed and trounced a very talented UCLA team.

I’m sure some someone will find a way to blame Sen. Obama for the loss, maybe because he was in Indiana on the anniversary of Dr. King’s death instead of being in Memphis, where it all went down. You think I’m joking. I wish that I was.

Which is why I wonder if, in our efforts to cheer on these (let’s remember) amateur basketball squads, we’re all putting too much pressure on them and reading too much into their success or failure. It seems like when March Madness starts, it’s all about healthy competition and passion and kids playing for the love of the game. But after all the cute little-guy stories are over (see: Davidson, George Mason, Gonzaga, etc.) the powerhouse teams take over, and it seems like everybody is all business from there on out.

And woe to the team who doesn’t make it all the way to the mountaintop. Like Ricky Bobby always said, if you ain’t first, you’re last. There may be 64 teams when the tournament starts, but the way our society scores things, the final score reads:

Winner: Kansas Jayhawks
Losers: Everyone Else.

Which was why I was piqued by the column I read today by the Chicago Tribune’s cultural critic Julia Keller, who chronicles the demise of what was once a staple of collegiate athletics — the consolation game. Of the Final Four, the two teams who lost their semifinal games would engage in one last scrimmage to determine their ranking — either third of fourth.

Nowadays, it seems rather ludicrous to imagine grown men — or at least grown teenagers — laying it all on the line for the sake of being third. Because who cares about coming in third? Many kids today will tell you they’d rather come in last than come in second or third.

But that’s unhealthy. That bottom-line, win-at-all-costs mentality may help drive the best competitors to higher heights, but it can also driver lesser competitors to lower lows. Rather than “strive to be the best,” their motto becomes, “if I can’t be the best, I’ll take you down with me.”

So I say commend Derrick Rose for taking the Memphis Tigers as far as he did. Commend them for their toughness, for their resilience. And commend the Kansas Jayhawks for doing what it takes to reach the top. Keep the wins and losses in perspective. Memphis was a good team this year, they just got beat by a team who played better down the stretch.

Besides, employing the language of gagging and choking is lazy, ambiguous… and popular. It’s also just another way of saying you can’t explain how they lost. Well guess what? Half the time, they can’t explain it either.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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