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Got those Memphis blues again

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  • University of Memphis basketball has brought together whites, blacks, fan says
  • Memphis team has a chance to do something really special in Final Four, he says
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By Wayne Drash
CNN
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Editor's note: CNN.com's Wayne Drash writes about his maniacal love for University of Memphis basketball. Memphis, North Carolina, UCLA and Kansas play in the Final Four this weekend. Drash says the Memphis team can help heal the city's old wounds.

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CNN.com's Wayne Drash, left, says he's been hooked on University of Memphis basketball since he was a kid.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- My love for University of Memphis basketball is completely irrational. I never went to school there and have no affiliation with the university. But I bleed Tiger blue.

My dad used to take my brothers and me to Memphis games as a kid, and I've been hooked ever since. We once bought tickets from a scalper for six bucks apiece against arch-rival the University of Louisville in the 1980s. My dad complained we paid too much.

But then we moved in seventh grade. I became an even bigger fan after we left the city. I'd huddle over my AM radio, hooked up with a coat hanger wrapped in aluminum foil as an antenna. More than 350 miles away, I managed to pick up the then-Memphis State games through the crackle and static of the radio.

Memphis basketball was my only way to remain connected to my youth and the city that I loved. That was 1985, the last time Memphis made the Final Four. Is your team in the Final Four? Send your iReport celebratory photos

Back then, Memphis was led by a phenom named Keith Lee. He was best known for a sweet baseline jumper as soft as the nylon nets he swished. He was also known for his giant Afro. He was listed as 6 feet 10 inches. The joke was if you included his wild hairdo, he was 7-4.

When my parents were away at work, sometimes I'd sneak into my mom's cabinet, steal her mousse and then put it in my hair. Then this white kid would go out back and shoot hoops for hours, hair sticking straight out like I stuck my finger in a socket. It was the only way I could be like Lee, my hero and idol.

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Back then, Memphians would rank Lee right up there with Elvis Presley as the city's most popular icons. Many still do.

And that's the thing about Tiger basketball. In a place where race has often divided so much of it, Memphis basketball has helped unite the city. As a boy, white and black kids would crowd the basketball court at Tiger games to try to snatch the players' sweatbands as they raced into the locker room. Up until I graduated from high school, the sweatbands of Phillip "Doom" Haynes and Baskerville "Batman" Holmes sat on my shelf in my room.

Like a fan of any team, there have been good and bad times over the years. But sometimes the pain of being a Tiger fan is that much greater. Tragedy and heartbreak are part of it, such as when Holmes killed his girlfriend and then himself in 1997. Other players, such as Aaron Price and A. Maceo Battle, have died far too young along the way, furthering the pain of being a fan.

Larry Finch -- who as a black player brought together the city and took Memphis to its only national championship game in 1973, and later became one of its greatest coaches -- has lived much of the past few years in a rehabilitation center after suffering severe strokes.

In some ways, that's what makes Memphis basketball so special. Memphis players embody the real life of so many Americans, many faced with extreme hard times. Some succeed; some don't. Others, such as Finch, keep on fighting.

I don't find it an accident that Memphis is now seeking history the same week of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "I think Dr. King would find this a source of joy," the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the team this week, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper.

A city that has seen so much pain, so much heartache, has something huge to celebrate -- all revolving around young college kids and a bouncy orange ball. The adage is that sports often have the ability to transcend the moment. This is one of those times. To get to the championship game Monday night, Memphis must first get past UCLA, the same team that defeated it in that 1973 title game.

While much of the rest of the nation has the team pegged to lose, the Tigers -- for one shining moment -- have a chance to do something really special. They'd have it no other way.

As for me? I won't be listening on my old radio, but this weekend I might just try sporting that 'do like Keith Lee.

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writers. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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