The only major league professional basketball team ever based in Tennessee during the twentieth century was the Memphis franchise of the American Basketball Association (ABA). Known by different names from 1970 to 1975 and playing primarily at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, this team was one of the weakest links in the ABA, a diverse range of professional basketball teams that challenged the National Basketball Association (NBA) for professional basketball dominance during the 1970s.
The ABA first came to Memphis in 1970 when the failed New Orleans franchise, the New Orleans Buccaneers, moved to the Bluff City and became the Memphis Pros (1970-72). In its first season, the Pros played moderately well, winning forty-one games, placing third in the division, and making the playoffs. Babe McCarthy was the coach and leading players included Steve Jones, Gerald Govan, Jimmy Jones, and Wendell Ladner. But the first year proved to be the franchise’s best in Memphis; later teams never won more than twenty-seven games in an eighty-four-game season. In the 1971-72 season the team almost failed, but local fans bought stock in a public campaign to “Save Our Pros.” Enough money was raised to keep the team in business through the season.
In 1972 Charles O. Finney, the flashy and controversial owner of the Oakland Athletics major league baseball team, acquired the Memphis Pros. He changed the team’s name to the Memphis Tams, which referred to the team’s alleged fan base in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. He replaced Babe McCarthy with Bob Bass as coach and brought in new players such as George Thompson and Johnny Neumann (an Ole Miss star). The Tams, however, were no better than the Pros and attendance remained low. Finley lost interest in his Memphis franchise, and by the 1973-74 season, with Bill van Breda Koff as coach, the team struggled so financially that it stopped printing game programs and meeting the payroll. Finally the ABA had to step in and manage the team until the end of the season.
The last year of major league professional basketball in Memphis was 1974-75, when former ABA commissioner Mike Storen ran the franchise as the Memphis Sounds and named Jack Mullaney as the coach. With such players as Mel Daniels, Chuck Williams, and Larry Finch, who had been a collegiate star at Memphis State University and would later coach at his alma mater, the Sounds actually made the playoffs and won the only playoff game ever by a Memphis team. However, fans stayed away from the Mid-South Coliseum, and in the summer of 1975 the Memphis Sounds were sold to a group of Baltimore businessmen, who announced plans to play the next season as the Baltimore Claws. The Baltimore venture never worked out, though, and the former Memphis Pros/Tams/Sounds faded into ABA history.
After the ABA’s demise, several minor league basketball teams attempted to establish homes in Tennessee, but none lasted for any length of time. In March 2001 the NBA announced that two teams, the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Charlotte Hornets, had applied to move their franchises to Memphis. Later that year, the league approved the move of the Vancouver franchise, which became the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies will play their home games at the Memphis Pyramid beginning in the 2001-2002 season.