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Larry Finch made the world around him a better place

Dial the clock back 28 years and a picture emerges of a not-yet-coach Larry Finch who was convinced that time was on his side. Dial the clock back 28 years and a picture emerges of a not-yet-coach Larry Finch who was convinced that time was on his side.

The year was 1983, and at another newspaper, and under a different name, I was asked to develop a series of portraits of “black” men and women in Greater Memphis. The idea was to tap into individual experiences – longings, loves, toil, dreams and setbacks – and come up with a mosaic that might be illuminating and therapeutic.

 Bill Russell with Larry Finch
During the initial celebration in what has become a 9-year Memphis tradition, NBA legend and Boston Celtic great Bill Russell guided the wheelchair of former University of Memphis star player and head basketball coach Larry Finch as the two were honored in front of thousands at the Pyramid. (Joe Murphy/ NBAE/ Getty Images)

Larry Finch, then an assistant coach at his alma mater, Memphis State University, agreed to help paint the picture. It was three years before he took over as head coach. At the time, I actually lived on the opposite end of a long, winding block in Finch’s Whitehaven neighborhood, and I was excited to finally get to meet him.

We met at his house. He talked about his desire to build a powerhouse at a major university, acknowledging that such opportunities were not readily available for African Americans then. Time, he shared, held the key.

I asked him if he was bitter about the wait. He said, no, that he was a young guy and he had time. Older guys – qualified people – had reason to be bitter, he said.

Finch was 31 at the time. And since the series was designed to probe the effects of race, we talked more about it. Sure, race is a factor from the get-go, he allowed, adding that the way he looked at it, race would shrink as a problem, if people took more time to try and relate, particularly as individuals.

He shared a philosophy, namely that the way people treated him is the way he treated them.

As the conversation unfolded and we got more comfortable with each other, he talked about his childhood. When he was 10, his father died, with Finch stepping up as a big brother and father figure to seven siblings.

His mother, he said, tended private homes in the daytime, and then came home to Orange Mound and took care of her own. He talked about the pride that people in the neighborhood showed about what they had and the expectation that it was up to him and the other individuals to turn what they had into something greater.

I don’t recall how we got to it, but we started to talk about a placard that was on a wall in the house. It read “Make it happen.” He said he put the same placard in his room when he began his trailblazing career on the Memphis State basketball team in 1970. He talked about the tension in town after Dr. King was killed and about how some people tried to talk him out of going to MSU. The arguments shot his way included people pointing out the university’s history of not offering scholarships to African American players who clearly could play.

Finch chose to make something happen, and the results are there for examination.

We talked about being role models and Finch said aspiring players needed to study as hard as they play, and that they should always give the best they could. He talked about his family, including his wife, Vickie, whom he fell in love with in high school, and his three children – Shanae, Larry Jr. and James Allawrence, ages 9, 6 and 3, respectively, at the time.

 Finch said he wanted his children to know that if they have goals, they could get them done if they believed they could. And then, to my surprise, he talked about being present when Dr. King gave his last public speech. He recalled Dr. King, whom he called an idol, talking about the same kind of thing.

In 1982, Finch was the co-winner of the university’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian award, and it was a big deal to him.

“Everybody has their own way of fighting,” he said, adding that he had seen sports bring people together who might not have had any thing else to connect them.

And when I mentioned that it seemed to me that many of those rooting next to each other weren’t really talking to each other, Finch said you have to start somewhere.

Thanks coach!

SERVICES

A wake for Larry Finch will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at the Finch Center on the campus of the U of M.

The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Hope Presbyterian Church at 8500 Walnut Grove Rd., 38018.

The family requests that those who desire to send flowers send them directly to the church.

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