I have a Twitter friendship with a number of Memphis Grizzlies fans and writers, the origins of which I can not even begin to accurately trace. Regardless, they are some of the most fun and encouraging Internet Folks I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, and they’ve been pretty darn supportive of this site. While this dive into Memphis’ pre-NBA history is written with them in mind, I hope anybody that stumbles across it will find something to enjoy (and I think they will)!
Additional note: the Memphis Tams page at Remember The ABA proved invaluable in writing this, and I feel they deserve special recognition for that.
When you think of Memphis, Tennessee, what comes to mind? It’s those fun hats that Scottish people wear right? You know, the kinda flat ones they have on when they play the bagpipes? With the little fuzzy ball on top? These things:
(Two points: 1. The GIS for these hats is a treasure trove of terrible images from resale sites 2. My compliments to whoever made this fake head for creating something that will definitely haunt my dreams even though I can’t pinpoint exactly why it terrifies me)
I mean, that’s the first thing I think of, and I think any reasonable person will do the same.
Ok, maybe something like barbeque or even music (though that is a bit more of a Nashville thing I guess) might come to mind first, but after that it’s Scottish hats all the way down baby!
So of course it makes sense that an American Basketball Association squad based in Memphis would be named after those hats, which are known as tam o’shanters. This unavoidable eventuality finally came to pass in 1972 thanks to Charles O. Finley, the legendary showman/owner of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics and the California Golden Seals of the NHL (a team that no longer exists except as a semi-convoluted root of the Dallas Stars).
Alright, has everybody had enough of pretending like any of this hat tomfoolery makes sense? Good, me too.
It is true that Finley bought the ABA team formerly known as the Memphis Pros (a team that began life as the New Orleans Buccaneers) and renamed them the Memphis Tams, and it is true that the team’s logo was a Scottish tam o’shanter cap.
Despite what that logo implies, however, the team was NOT named because of a particular preponderance of Scottish headwear in southwest Tennessee, but rather it had a geographic origin. Upon buying the team and installing legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp as team president, Charles Finley held a contest-with a $2,500 grand prize-allowing fans to submit suggestions for the new team name. Tams was chosen the winner out of 20,000 entries, one that was submitted because of Memphis’ location on the borders of three different states, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, with the first letters of each comprising the squad’s sobriquet. While there is no documented evidence that this played into the decision-making process, it probably didn’t hurt that the hat logo they landed on to pair with the name easily lends itself to any color scheme ownership might desire, such as the green, gold, and white of the other teams Finley owned. If nothing else, ol’ Chuck understood the importance of #brand consistency in creating his weird cross-country version of Pittsburgh’s unified color scheme across sports franchises.
And thus it came to be that the Memphis Tams were brought into existence. They would last just two seasons, during which time no one watched them play some of the worst professional basketball in the entire country.
(Here I would like to note for anyone thinking ‘Well yeah Tams is a bad name, but it’s not like Grizzlies is much better, there are like, ZERO actual grizzly bears in Memphis’ that: A. I am impressed by your knowledge of large predatory mammals and their habitats and B. at least the Grizzlies name is one they inherited when the team moved from grizzly-rich Vancouver, making it acceptable in that way where you acknowledge that Jazz is an extremely stupid nickname for a team from Utah but let it slide because of the team’s history in New Orleans. And Grizzlies is generic and badass enough it mostly works anywhere as long as you don’t think too hard. Unlike Jazz in Utah. Which is stupid.)
If actual fans of this basketball team had existed they would have gotten a glimpse into the future of sports, as the Tams were innovators in the field of weird and exotic uniform combinations, meaning we owe them a debt of gratitude for paving the way for Oregon Football and all the Twitter jokes we get out of the Ducks. A sampling of the Tams in all their mis-matched glory:
While some people might have been tempted to swing by the arena just to see what crazy color combination the team would unveil next, the franchise’s staggering ineptitude kept the vast majority of people far, far away from Tams games. In that inaugural season named after a hat, the team finished with the worst record in the ABA at 24-60, two games worse than an already discouraging Expected W-L according to Basketball-Reference.com. They even featured two different double-digit losing streaks, including dropping 15 of the final 17 contests.
That awful season record wasn’t the product of poor luck either, as these Tams well and truly earned their place in the cellar by finishing dead last in points allowed per game (118.1) and defensive rating (106). Truly atrocious defense coupled with mediocre offense (6th in PPG, 8th in offensive rating) produces a whole lot of Ls, that’s just math. And unfortunately for Charles Finley, lots of Ls produces very little in the way of ticket sales.
That’s not to say that management simply rolled over and accepted the team’s fate. By the midway point of the season 19 different players had seen game action while wearing Tams colors. Perhaps most alarmingly, in a span of just two months from the end of October to the end of December 1972, they made 24 separate personnel moves, including putting their starting point guard on waivers because he didn’t pass enough and only pulling him back when every other team deemed his contract too big to claim him.
Utah Stars public relations director Harvey Kirkpatrick even wrote “The whole thing reads like something out of Gulliver’s Travels. Finley has set some sort of pro basketball record, if not a standard for all of sport, with the manner in which he added and deleted names from the Tams’ roster this season.”
Some of the most notable and heartless deletions would take place in the name of saving money around the holidays, as the team cut Ron Franz just before Christmas before waiving Merv Jackson on New Year’s Day. When Franz went to pick up his final paycheck from the team following his dismissal he was told he would only receive his check once he returned his team warm-up jacket, luggage, and duffel bag.
Another (relatively) famous example of the lengths the Tams went to for money involved one of the team’s best players, Randy Denton. After spending time on the shelf with an injury, Denton returned to action and performed well, prompting fans to ask his wife for pictures of the big man. Mrs. Denton then turned to the Tams, expecting the team to provide her with official photographs to send out as positive publicity. This being the Tams, of course that isn’t what happened. No, instead the Tams front office informed the players wife that she would have to pay for pictures herself. But what else would you expect from a team that hired a local high school’s band to be the team’s official live band at games because Finley didn’t want to pay to outfit the band and the school’s colors meant the musicians already had green blazers.
That’s not to say that the team NEVER parted with their money. Charles Finley offered players across his sports empire several hundred dollars each if they grew a mustache for some reason. This offer is what gave birth to the now-iconic handlebar mustache that adorns the Hall of Fame plaque of Oakland Athletics legend Rollie Fingers.
Unsurprisingly given everything else we know about how the team operated in terms of money, several Tams-including head coach Bob Bass-took their boss up on his offer.
As this first disastrous Tams season played out it became public knowledge that Charles Finley was in talks with St. Paul, Minnesota to move the franchise up north. The man who had once been hailed as the savior of basketball in Memphis became a public enemy overnight, and the uncertainty surrounded the team throughout the season. So up in the air was the team’s fate that the phone lines at the team office were disconnected, which makes sense as the office itself was closed as soon as the regular season had concluded.
Finley was unsuccessful in his relocation efforts, and also failed to find a buyer for the franchise. Not that he was probably trying that hard, as a heart ailment had confined the owner to the hospital for much of the off-season. So difficult was it to get word about the team’s fate that the entire league was forced to wait on bated breath to hear from the eccentric Finley. Following months of a shuttered office and radio silence from Finley, word came in late August that the team would play another season of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad basketball. Due to this delay, the ABA couldn’t announce the league schedule until the end of August, just two months before the season was set to begin, delaying radio and television deals throughout the league.
(It is worth noting here that the Tams spent a draft pick on future Basketball Hall of Famer David Thompson during this off-season, but Thompson displayed some excellent decision-making skills in deciding to stay in school.)
Just because the franchise had a reprieve, that doesn’t mean they had much of anything else. Season ticket holders? Nope. Front office staff? As if. A coach? Nada.
They didn’t even have a coach?!
They didn’t even have a coach.
That’s right, when the team reported for the first day of training camp the players just sort of sat around wondering what to do until the team’s trainer (whose continued employment I feel was probably just a clerical error at this point) finally decided to try his hand at coaching. Thankfully this situation only persisted for a day, as Butch van Breda Kolff was named coach and GM the next day, just two days before the team’s first preseason game. The name of the new coach may be familiar to some out there, as he is most famous for being the Lakers coach that refused to put Wilt Chamberlain back in for the final minutes of Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals, instead telling the legendary big man that “We’re doing fine without you,” and yelling at him to “Sit [his] big ass down” because “We don’t need you.” The Boston Celtics would defeat Los Angeles 108-106 in that game to clinch the series and van Breda Kolff resigned before he could be fired. Oops.
The indifference from ownership only grew during this final season of suck, with Finley often going weeks at a time without communicating with van Breda Kolff. The owner also stopped paying for the publication of game programs at home contests, instead passing out free mimeographed lineup sheets. This obvious lack of commitment to the franchise combined with the the incredibly poor level of play on the court made sure that fans avoided the Mid-South Coliseum on game day, as the team averaged less than 2,500 fans per game. In that final hideous campaign Memphis compiled the worst record in professional basketball at 21-63, finishing in the bottom three of, well, just about everything. They even performed worse against their predicted record, finishing three games worse than projections this season.
And with that, the Tams ceased to exist, unable to muster a whimper, much less a bang on their way out the door.
Amazingly, the end of the Tams did not mean the end of ABA basketball in Memphis, as the league took over control of the team for the 1974-75 season, getting several prominent locals to chip in as co-owners. Among these locals was musician, voice of Chef on South Park, and brainwashed cult victim Isaac Hayes
as well as the founder of Holiday Inn, which I mention mostly as an excuse to remind you all of the existence of Chingy:
(Good luck getting that out of your head the rest of the day)
A near complete roster overhaul as well as a new franchise identity carried the Memphis Sounds into this final season of ABA basketball in Memphis, and the changes yielded results as the team finished 27-57, good enough for only the second-worst record in the league (thanks Virginia Squires!), while the franchise posted their best attendance numbers since moving to Memphis. Heck, they even made the playoffs because the ABA set a very low bar for achieving nominal success!
All of that was too little too late, however, as the team was sold to a group of Maryland businessmen who moved them to Baltimore, where they had more names (two) than regular season games (a big fat zero). Known first as the Memphis Hustlers before finally taking the court for a scant three preseason games as the Baltimore Claws before financial concerns made the team shut down for good before the season even began. It was just as well, as the ABA would merge with the NBA following what would have been Baltimore’s inaugural season.
(Although neither version of the team actually made it to the regular season, the logos DO look pretty sweet on merch)
In a unique bit of sports cannibalism, shortly after the ABA folded a new Minor League Baseball team in Nashville, Tennessee scooped up the lapsed copyrights on the Sounds name and color scheme, becoming the Nashville Sounds.
That franchise has operated successfully (and continues to do so) for nearly 30 years, easily surpassing all incarnations of the basketball franchise that originated their moniker in the state’s collective consciousness.
I’m not sure exactly what it means that the story of the Tams begins with a baseball owner and ends with their changed identity being co-opted by baseball team, but it has to mean something right?
Or am I overthinking things?
I probably am.
But anyway, that’s the story of a team that never really got over being named after a hat.
Eventually professional basketball would return to Memphis, gracing NBA fans with some of the most entertaining teams and basketball of the games modern era, all while cultivating one of the league’s most loyal and passionate fan bases. Despite the years of struggle outlined above, pro basketball is finally alive and well in Memphis, Tennessee (which should continue as long as they limit their exposure to bad Tams mojo to once or twice a decade).
Team Name: Memphis Tams
From: Memphis, Tennessee
Years of Operation: 1972-1975
Home Venue: Mid-South Coliseum
Hall of Famers: [File Not Found]
Award Winners: George Thompson (ABA All-Star x2)
Winning Seasons: LOL
Overall Franchise Record (including Playoffs (not that that changes anything)): 45-123
Franchise Folded For: Empty Arena Matches Really Only Work In Professional Wrestling
Team Colors: Green, Gold, White
Logos and Wordmarks:
Article Resources and Additional Reading:
Memphis Tams entry at Remember the ABA
Memphis ABA franchise page at Basketball-Reference.com
Memphis Tams entry at the Sports E-Cyclopedia
A Look Back at the Memphis Tams from the Memphis Flyer