Wiedmer: UTC legends return with smiles, tears

Wiedmer: UTC legends return with smiles, tears

February 10th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC Mocs logo

UTC Mocs logo

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball loss to the College of Charleston on Saturday night was about to begin inside McKenzie Arena when Mocs legend Nick Morken took a seat next to former Lady Mocs star Kay Irby Cooper in section 122.

"This is one of the best things about Legends Weekend," Morken said as he patted Cooper on the shoulder. "I probably haven't seen Kay since we were both playing here [in the early 1980s]. Just to have a chance to reconnect with people who were such a big part of your life when you played here is a tremendous experience."

They came back en masse this time, both the men and the women, so many of the best and brightest of UTC's storied past.

On the men's side there were heroes such as Morken and teammate Russ Schoene, who guided the Mocs to their first two Southern Conference championships and first NCAA tournament win.

There were Irby (Cooper) and Tina Chairs, who did so much to help coach Sharon Fanning (Otis) make the Lady Mocs so respected in the infant women's game.

"Tears came to your eyes seeing everybody again," said Cooper, whose 13-year-old daughter Maya joined her for the trip from Memphis. "I missed Coach Fanning's retirement party here last summer. So it was so much fun to come in for this one."

Some, like Cooper, Chairs and recent Lady Mocs star Jennifer Wilson Galloway left Chattanooga years ago on wonderful terms, happy stars both then and now.

Then there was James Hunter, who played for both Murray Arnold and Mack McCarthy during the mid-1980s, often serenaded by McCarthy with exasperated cries of "JA-A-A-M-ES! JA-A-A-M-E-S!" when the coach felt Hunter wasn't making the best use of his considerable talent.

The experience kept the talented Florida native away for 26 years. But the more he thought about this reunion from his Birmingham, Ala., home, the more he thought he needed to "release that demon."

So he came back, welcomed to town by not only McCarthy but also by retiring Coca-Cola executive and longtime Mocs fan Gary Davis, who thrilled Hunter by mentioning the player on a radio interview.

Tyrone Enoch and Derrick Kirce also played for McCarthy at the start of the 1990s. Enoch, who led the team in both assists and steals during the 1990-91 season, still lives in Chattanooga and brought his wife Jessica and daughter Breanna to the reunion.

During Friday's private reception for players and coaches, Kirce kidded Enoch about not always remembering the plays, making sure to call a play that involved Kirce -- who led the Mocs in scoring during the 1989-90 season -- getting a shot.

"I was probably the first option 60-70 percent of the time," Kirce said with a grin, "but I was never worse than the No. 2 option."

Yet Enoch's best moment involved an assist out of the Harlem Globetrotters routine that not only resulted in a huge layup by Bart Redden against East Tennessee State but also earned a spot on ESPN's "Most Spectacular Plays of the Decade" video.

"Dribbled between my legs twice, threw it behind my back, something like that," Enoch recalled, smiling. "I've still got the tape somewhere."

Irby teammate Tina Chairs isn't sure she wants a tape of the moment some of her teammates recalled Friday night.

"I sang the national anthem one game," she said.

Asked if she'd do that again, she said, "No way."

Irby Cooper's daughter Maya was asked what she'd learned about her mother this weekend.

"That she was good," she beamed.

They were all good, of course. Many were great. And the one who may have done the most to pave the path for the Mocs' Division I glory is no longer with us, Arnold having passed away last autumn.

Said Jim Reynolds, the Voice of the Mocs, of Arnold's absence: "There's an empty seat in the room without him."

But it was about the only empty seat, thanks to so much of the Mocs' and Lady Mocs' proud past showing up to help the current players understand both what is expected and what is possible, especially with the soaring women now easily passing the struggling men in attendance.

So late Saturday afternoon, the Lady Mocs' 63-40 win over Elon about to begin and the Mocs' painful 71-68 loss to Charleston still a few hours away, Hunter was asked if his demons were now behind him.

"I'm back," he said. "I'm home."

As if UTC's past players and coaches should ever feel any other way.