Curses aren’t real. Neither are jinxes, hexes, or voodoo.
There’s bad luck though, and it sure seems like great Memphis Tiger basketball players have suffered more than their fair share of it after leaving college.
I’m going to limit this mostly to players during my lifetime. The obvious place to start here is Keith Lee. If you are somehow not familiar with Keith Lee, first off shame on you, secondly you should know he’s unquestionably one of the greatest college basketball players in history.
Lee was a four time All American at Memphis State. He averaged around 18 and 10, and was a stretch four before that was a thing that even existed. In high school, in West Memphis, Lee won 60 straight games and two state championships. He had great hands, great touch and a high basketball IQ. Unfortunately, Lee had bad knees and flamed out in the NBA. He played three unremarkable seasons after being drafted 11th and then was forced to retire.
As great as Lee was, he might not have been the most talented player on his college team. William Bedford was a 7-foot, extremely skilled player. He had touch around the rim, was a terrific shot blocker, and ran the floor like a guard. Bedford averaged 17 and 8 his last year (1986) at Memphis State and was then drafted 6th by the Phoenix Suns in the subsequent lottery.
Things went south pretty quickly for Bedford in the NBA. His performance on the court was poor: he averaged about 4 points and 2 rebounds. Off court things were much worse as Bedford struggled mightily with a drug problem. He was arrested several times and eventually, in 2003, after numerous drug arrests he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
The next in the line of great Memphians is Anfernee Hardaway. This is obviously a different kind of story from the previous two. Hardaway was a Memphis legend by the time he was 16. His high school games were events. He was Lebron before Lebron, 6’7 with the passing vision of Magic and the athleticism of Jordan. He was a force.
Hardaway dominated in college and carried an otherwise not very talented team to an Elite 8. He averaged 22.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 6.4 apg, 2.4 spg his Junior year. He was basically the number one pick in the NBA draft. (Chris Webber was selected 1st by Orlando and Penny 3rd by Golden State but the teams then traded the players to each other.)
Hardaway’s pro career started off incredibly. In his 2nd year he averaged 20.9 ppg, 7.2 apg, 4.4 rpg, and 1.7 spg. He was an All Star starter and 1st team all-NBA. The next year he was all-NBA first team again, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting. The next year Shaquille O’Neal left for the Lakers and Penny’s numbers suffered, but only slightly. He finished All-NBA 3rd Team.
Hardaway dragged his team to the playoffs only to fall to Jordan’s Bulls. He averaged 31 points, 6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.4 steals in the playoffs.
The only reasonable conclusion to draw after the first 4 years of Anfernee Hardaway’s professional career is that he had a chance to be one of the greatest players in NBA history. Other than outside shooting, there were no holes in his game.
In 1997-1998, Hardaway was entering what is considered a player’s basketball prime – 24-29 years of age. Early that year he suffered a massive knee injury and basically never recovered to his previous form. He ended up having four more surgeries, two microfracture, and lost a good deal of his athleticism.
Penny still managed to put up decent numbers and have a 16-year NBA career. He made an insane amount of money as well, buoyed by one of the richest contracts in NBA history. He also had an iconic Nike shoe campaign. Still, it’s hard not to look back and wonder what could have been had injuries not derailed his playing career. At minimum, it seems he would have had a Hall of Fame career. At most, you’re looking at a possible basketball immortal, remembered forever.
Here’s another kind of story: Lorenzen Wright. Most of you are probably familiar with this one. Great college career, 7th pick in the NBA draft. A very solid if unspectacular 13 year NBA career, including a productive stint with his hometown Grizzlies. Then, the ultimate tragedy. A year after his retirement, he went missing. Ten days later, his body was found dead in a wooded area off Hacks Cross Road. The homicide remains unsolved, though Wright had financial troubles, marital troubles, and had ties to known criminals.
The first big time player of the John Calipari era was Dajuan Wagner. Wagner was another high school legend, a cult hero in his hometown of Camden, NJ. He reportedly scored 100 in a high school game, and averaged 42 points a game his Senior year.
Wagner’s lone year at Memphis was a little disappointing as the team never gelled, but they did win the NIT. I’m sure everyone remembers the parade Calipari threw for winning that championship. Wagner averaged 21 points that season and was subsequently taken with the 6th pick in the 2002 NBA draft, by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Wagner had a mediocre rookie season, scoring 16 a game but shooting a pathetic 37 percent from the field. Things only got worse. The next year he was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis. After not responding to medication he eventually had to have his colon removed. Wagner attempted a few comebacks after that but they never materialized. His professional career can only be described as a total disappointment.
That brings us to Derrick Rose. Having only logged one year at Memphis, he cannot be remembered alongside some of the other Tiger greats but in terms of sheer talent he’s probably just below Penny. Rose was a free throw away from winning an NCAA Championship and was subsequently the number one pick in the 2008 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls, his hometown team.
Rose was terrific right away, an All-Star in his second season, an MVP in his third, the youngest player to ever win that award. Much like Penny, the sky was the limit for Rose. He had won the MVP before entering the prime of his career.
In the playoffs of Rose’s 4th season, he tore his ACL. He missed the entire next season in a prolonged rehabilitation. The following season he came back but tore his meniscus in November and missed the rest of that year also. It’s been one setback after another since the first injury and Rose hasn’t come close to the form he showed in his MVP season.
Rose injured his orbital bone before the start of this season and currently ranks as the WORST veteran starter in the NBA. He’s shooting 36 percent from the field. He simply doesn’t resemble the player he was.
Injuries, drugs, murder, illness. The fate of some of the greatest talents in Memphis history is pretty depressing.
I have, of course, glossed over some players who have had less turbulent success. Tyreke Evans is having a nice NBA career. Will Barton is turning into a real NBA player. Back in the 70’s Larry Kenon had a long and successful career, although his teammate and fellow Memphis legend Larry Finch had only a disappointing three year ABA career.
I didn’t even get to Shawne Williams, another extremely talented product of the Calipari era who has had endless legal troubles since getting into the league, including a recent DUI arrest.
I don’t really draw any larger sweeping conclusion from this list but maybe others do. I think it’s basically just odd, rotten luck. Though it’s certainly a tempting tableau for those who want to see Memphis as a cursed, sad sack, never-can-quite-get-there city.
Luck can change though. Hopefully the next Memphis stars, maybe beginning with Dedric Lawson, have long, successful, productive NBA careers, not marred by injury or scandal. One can hope.