I don’t think it’s morbid, but it’s just out of a general curiosity about life’s transitions that I tend to pay attention to the deaths of people who are or have been newsmakers. Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’ll remark on some person’s passing every now and then.
Dana Kirk, who was a former head basketball coach at (as it was called at the time) Memphis State University, died on Monday at the age of 74. I took note of this because I interviewed him once during my time as a sports reporter for the Pensacola News Journal in Florida.
Kirk is most famous for leading Memphis to the 1985 Final Four, the highlight of a successful eight-year tenure there. But he was fired before the 1986-87 season, a couple of weeks before a federal grand jury indicted him on charges including tax evasion and mail fraud. He spent four months in a federal prison, and Memphis was placed on NCAA probation for rules violations under Kirk’s watch, including allegations of ticket-scalping and taking kickbacks from tournament promoters.
I encountered him in Pensacola after he was trying to put his life back together, as a coach for a team called the Hot Shots of the Global Basketball Association. The team moved from Memphis to Pensacola in the middle of the 1991-92 season.
The GBA was one of the many pro basketball minor leagues that have tried to make a go of it on a shoestring budget over the years. (One of the franchises was memorably named the Raleigh Bullfrogs.) And the Hot Shots, featuring Keith Lee, a star on those Kirk-coached Memphis State teams, moved into town after a popular Continental Basketball Association franchise, the Pensacola Tornados, moved out.
I talked to Kirk before the Hot Shots’ first game in their new city. He didn’t want to discuss much of anything about the past. He said he was focused on his current team and getting it introduced to a new set of fans. Which was challenging enough – he was worried about having enough players on hand to field the league minimum of eight, and was considering putting himself in uniform on the active roster until his full team arrived.
“I’m 54 years old, so I’m probably not going to be leading the fast break or taking any charges,” he joked.
It was a long, long way from being at the top of the basketball world, as he had been five years earlier.
To the best of my recollection, the Hot Shots played out the rest of the season before paltry crowds at the Pensacola Civic Center and didn’t come back. Kirk returned to Memphis, where he hosted a sports talk radio show and lived quietly in retirement.
A former player put this story in eloquent perspective when he was interviewed by CBSSports.com on Monday evening.
“He was a good basketball coach, and it’s just a shame what happened to him because the stuff he did — or the stuff he was accused of doing — he didn’t really need to do,” said John Wilfong, a guard on that Final Four team.
“He could’ve had a 15-year or 20-year run at Memphis and just had incredible success, and I think he knew at the end of the day that he blew it, and that he would never get another chance. Matter of fact, he never got another chance.”