Larry Finch, who led Memphis' college basketball team to the 1973 NCAA title game before the Tigers fell to the Bill Walton-led UCLA Bruins and who then went on to coach his alma mater for 11 years, died Saturday at age 60
Memphis Tigers spokesman Lamar Chance said Finch died at Saint Francis Hospital. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Finch suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002 at age 51. In October 2010, he was hospitalized for treatment of pneumonia.
The Memphis legend left his alma mater as the Tigers' all-time leading scorer and still ranks fourth with 1,869 points. He also helped lead his Tigers to the Final Four, had his No. 21 jersey retired and then became Memphis' all-time winningest coach as he compiled a 220-130 record between 1986 and 1997.
Gene Bartow coached Finch in that title game against UCLA. Now president of Memphis Hoops LP, Bartow said Saturday night in a statement through the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies that his heart went out to Finch's wife, Vickie, his daughter and two sons.
"I'm asked a lot about who was the greatest player I ever coached, and I always have the same answer: Larry Finch," Bartow said. "Larry helped provide the roots for this city's wonderful basketball tradition, and his contributions to Memphis were immense. He will be missed."
Athletics director R.C. Johnson said Memphis has lost a legend.
"Larry Finch was so much bigger than just a basketball player or a basketball coach. He did so much for the City of Memphis, his community and his University, that it would be hard to mention all of his achievements," Johnson said in a statement.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Finch family in their time of grief. Larry Finch will live on in the memories of all Tiger fans. He will never be forgotten."
As a coach, Finch took the Tigers to the NCAA tournament six times, including a run to the final eight in 1992. He coached the likes of Penny Hardaway, the late Lorenzen Wright and David Vaughn — all of whom became first-round NBA draft picks. Memphis even named the Tigers' practice facility after Finch in 2000.
"Coach Finch was one of the biggest influences in my life," said Elliott Perry, a Grizzlies' limited partner and radio analyst who played for Finch at Memphis. "Playing for Coach Finch at Memphis was a perfect scenario for me. He helped shape me as a basketball player, but more importantly into the person that I am today."
The Memphis Grizzlies planned a moment of silence before tipoff Saturday night against Minnesota in memory of Finch.
"The Grizzlies and the entire Memphis basketball community mourns his passing today while celebrating his life and work," Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said.
Finch was born in Memphis and attended Melrose High School before playing guard for the Tigers from 1970 to 1973. The 1973 team lost to UCLA in the NCAA championship game despite Finch's 29 points.
He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1973, but signed instead with the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball Association. He played professionally with the Tams, which later became the Memphis Sounds, and then the Baltimore Hustlers and the Baltimore Claws.
After his pro career ended, he went into coaching, and was a Memphis assistant when he was elevated to head coach, succeeding Dana Kirk.
"Larry Finch is one of the two most important figures in the city of Memphis' history, along with Elvis Presley," current Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "Larry surely will be missed, but his spirit will continue to be with us."
In an April 2008 interview with The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Finch said he still loved basketball.
"I watch basketball every night (on TV)," he said at the Quince Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Finch was asked why he helped Walton off the court in the 1973 title game after the UCLA star suffered a sprained ankle. Walton scored 44 points, hitting 21 of 22 shots for 44 points, including two free throws, in that game.
He said laughing, "Because he was kicking our butt."