Gary Bolton stood along the fence lining the putting green at TPC Southwind, and began to tell a story about Penny Hardaway as he watched Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele warm up for the opening round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
Bolton used to be a football coach at East High School and Hardaway, Bolton said, went to school there at first before eventually transferring to Treadwell. Even then, as a young teenager, Hardaway’s athletic abilities stood out, so much so that Bolton and company tried to convince him to play football.
“He could throw it a mile,” Bolton said before coming back to the present. “He’s done good for the city.”
Here we were, on a Thursday in the beginning of August, in the midst of the world’s best golfers, with the Memphis football preseason about to start, talking about the Memphis Tigers basketball coach because of the legend he has become in this city, and how that legend is growing before our eyes.
“It is amazing,” Bolton’s brother, Skip, chimed in.
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There’s no other way to describe what could be happening in the coming days.
A week ago, Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates were the nation’s top two prospects in the 2022 recruiting class. Two weeks from now, they could both be on this season’s Memphis basketball team.
That’s officially on the table now.
Bates, a 6-foot-9 phenom who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 15-year-old and previously drew comparisons to Kevin Durant, announced Wednesday he’s reclassifying to the 2021 class and deciding between Memphis, Oregon, Michigan State and the G League. Duren, meanwhile, is picking between Memphis, Miami, Kentucky and professional options on Friday and the expectation is that he will also reclassify.
The timing of it all – and the fact Memphis is the only common destination between the two – has turned message board fodder into mainstream speculation.
Might these two be plotting to play together for the Tigers? And how is Hardaway pulling this off? Is FedEx involved? What about Nike or AutoZone? Could it be someone else? It’s all thankfully fair game in the name, image and likeness era.
More remarkable, though, is that this is the Memphis-based story resonating the most nationally this week – aside from Bryson DeChambeau sounding like a buffoon while discussing why he hasn’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. Never mind that there’s a premier golf tournament in town, and the American Athletic Conference is in the throes of conference realignment, and Memphis has an intriguing quarterback battle about to resume.
“Now, we’re going to have the No. 1 recruiting class – with the wins,” 29-year-old Tiger fan Dylan Sheffield declared with the pings of the driving range echoing behind him at TPC Southwind. “Penny’s keeping the gas on. I’m for sure getting season tickets.”
Hardaway’s grip on not just this city, but the college basketball narrative at large has been the most fascinating storyline since the moment he took the job. Particularly since, as alluded to, the wins haven’t yet matched all the hype, for reasons both in and out of the program’s control.
Memphis basketball fans have always dreamed big. It’s how three generations experienced Final Four runs. But Hardaway feels like he’s dreaming bigger than all of us.
Whether it’s the hiring of Larry Brown, or the potential hiring of Rasheed Wallace, or now this. This isn’t like two years ago when James Wiseman, a player Hardaway had coached, chose Memphis and a No. 1 recruiting class followed him to Memphis.
If he pulls this off with two players Memphis only began seriously recruiting in the past couple months, there will be no doubt that Hardaway is the coach with the best handle on how to use name, image, and likeness benefits to his advantage.
Because let’s be clear: Duren and Bates, both potential top-five NBA Draft picks, aren’t seriously considering Memphis without being able to reap financial benefits from it above the table. They would skip college, just like Jalen Green and R.J. Hampton did before them while considering the Tigers.
Duren and Bates both could still go that route, too. It’s the presence of Hardaway, however, that makes this all seem realistic and, frankly, like fate.
With Duren and Bates added to a roster that already looked primed for an NCAA Tournament run, the Tigers will morph into a top-10 team before the first game in November. “All the smoke” of 2019, when Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa showed up on campus, will come billowing back into town.
The expectations will be massive once again – provided the NCAA doesn’t hamstring the program with sanctions from the Wiseman eligibility case – and there will be pressure on Hardaway to deliver on them this time. The college basketball world was watching, is watching and will keep on watching.
That’s why this feels so much bigger than anything else going on, even if it’s just a recruiting announcement in August.
The final WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and the arrival of the FedEx Cup playoffs next year, the superstar potential of Ja Morant with the Memphis Grizzlies and the revival of Tigers football are all captivating in their own right. They deserve the spotlight.
But Hardaway can’t help but grab our attention. And whether you cover the Tigers, or root for the Tigers, you can’t wait to see what happens next.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto