When Memphis East students circulated a petition in the hopes of convincing Tennessee Secondary School Activities Association officials to allow the team to attend the DICK’S Sporting Goods Nationals in New York, the goal was not just for the team to compete for a national championship. The plan also was to give the athletes access to cultural and life experiences in the Big Apple.
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Now the state 3A champions will get a chance to go to DICK’S anyway, they just won’t get to play.
As confirmed at a Shelby County School Board meeting on Tuesday evening, the Shelby County Schools will pay to have the Memphis East team and coaches travel to and stay in New York for the entirety of the DICK’S tournament, giving the team the opportunity to experience the New York City sights and take in what is arguably the season’s best basketball tournament, even without Memphis East’s participation.
The announcement comes just a day before the team will fly to New York, and was first confirmed to USA TODAY Sports by someone close to the decision. The person was not authorized to speak about the plans before the meeting.
The Mustangs’ request for a waiver to play was denied by the TSSAA. The waiver would have been needed since the TSSAA’s rules prohibit any postseason play beyond the state tournament.
While Shelby County Schools will pay for the travel costs, the team’s sightseeing and experiential expenses are being funded by Paragon Marketing, the firm that puts on the annual basketball tournament at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens. Among the activities the team is expected to enjoy are visits to the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial and tours of the city.
Memphis East players and coaches, including Penny Hardaway, will also give interviews to the media at the event despite not competing in any games.
When the TSSAA refused to acquiesce to requests made by Shelby County officials and the aforementioned student petition, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and others expressed dismay at the association’s lack of foresight to see how the decision was limiting students’ educational and experiential opportunities at least as much as their athletic development. The line of thought was that some of the Memphis East students might never get the opportunity to visit New York in the future, so depriving them of such an opportunity was both cruel and unnecessary.
Eventually, Hopson and his colleagues became so upset with the decision they decided to take matters into their own hands, funding the trip themselves and sending the team on to represent the district.
While the decision was made well in advance so flights and hotels could be booked, none of the players were told of the trip until Tuesday evening, USA TODAY Sports was told. Indeed, Hopson re-tweeted USA TODAY’s story with his own comment confirming the team’s impending trip shortly after it was initially published.
The Memphis East squad arrived at the school board meeting expecting to hear an announcement commending their season or bemoaning the decision by the TSSAA. Instead they were surprised with news that they’re headed to New York in less than 24 hours to the event they dreamed of, even if it doesn’t include what they dreamed of doing.