No. 1 recruit James Wiseman helping revive Memphis basketball tradition

By Jordan Burton (For

In a fond memory of his college coach, Penny Hardaway recalls Larry Finch telling him “Boy, you’re not going anywhere. You’re going to Memphis and we’re going to do this thing together.”

Now, nearly 30 years later, the parallels to that story can’t be ignored…

Finch – a former Memphis prep star and All-American at Memphis – landed the city’s best recruit ever in Hardaway. Now Hardaway – a former Memphis prep star and All-American at Memphis – has landed arguably the city’s most highly-touted prospect since himself in James Wiseman.

Wiseman might not be the best player to ever come out of Memphis, but the 7-foot unicorn could go down as the most important.

It’s not because he’s the consensus No. 1 player in the nation and it’s not just the fact that he’s the centerpiece of what could be East’s fourth-consecutive state championship.

What makes Wiseman so important and so unique to the city is the idea that he represents the next stage in the city’s basketball resurrection.

Following his retirement from the NBA in 2008, Hardaway began his coaching career in Memphis by 2011. Inspired by the desire to help better his city, Hardaway built a dynasty at East and on the summer circuit with Team Penny.

Now, one of the city’s most recognizable faces is the head of its favorite team, continuing the mission of serving the City of Memphis.

But, it’s not just Hardaway that’s in on the act. It’s nearly becoming an epidemic.

Following Hardaway’s departure for the college ranks and 4-star forward Chandler Lawson’s transfer from East to Oak Hill Academy (although he would eventually transfer back to Wooddale in Memphis), rumors swirled in July that Wiseman too could be headed to one of the nation’s major prep schools.

Although the thought crossed his mind and it’s been a popular route for other elite prospects, Wiseman decided that wasn’t the path for him, further entrenching himself in the Memphis basketball tradition.

His coach, Memphis native Jevonte Holmes, was prepared to support Wiseman regardless of his decision, but felt like his star senior made the right decision.

“It was great to have him back; that’s part of the reason I took the job,” said Holmes. “We have a great relationship and we didn’t really have to talk about it. He’s a young man and had to make the decision on his own. What I did – the approach I take – is trying to stay out of decisions. No matter what I was going to support him, at East or not at East.

“He’s a loyal young man. He’s grounded. He has great values. There’s nothing he was going to do somewhere else that he couldn’t do at East. He didn’t have anything else to gain. We only talk about development.”

Staying paired Wiseman and Holmes again. Holmes was not only an assistant coach with East last year, but he’s been a skills trainer in the city for the better part of a decade, working with many of the biggest names to come out of Memphis recently, as well as NBA players like Quinn Cook and Will Barton

He also spent his summers with Team Penny.

Not only did he have a great relationship with Wiseman, but Holmes also shares the desire to produce for his city.

“The vision started with a guy named Desmond Merriweather. He’s a guy that I knew and played against. He was Penny’s childhood friend. Penny was a mentor to me and when he got the job at East he asked me to come as well. When he went to Memphis I knew the East job was going to be important moving forward,” said Holmes.

“There’s a lot of talent that comes out of Memphis, but seeing a lot of guys not make it drives us. We actually have a lot of those guys come back and talk to our kids and let them know the mistakes they made and what they need to do to get out.”

While the City of Memphis has consistently produced droves of NBA and Division One talent, there continues to be players with immense potential that get absorbed by the streets.

Merriweather’s dream – creating an avenue to help young student-athletes turn their skill into a free college education – is now carried on by Hardaway, Holmes and an ever-growing amount of Memphis natives.

East senior Malcolm Dandridge – also a Team Penny alum – already signed with the Memphis Tigers, continuing his relationship with Wiseman and Hardaway. Further proof that the overall dream is becoming a reality and that the younger generations of players in Memphis take it seriously.

“Penny has a vision on making the city great again and James and I are a big part of that. We want to help him create that vision,” said Dandridge.

When Wiseman committed to Memphis, the vision for changing basketball in the city elevated to another level.

Wiseman, a Nashville native that relocated to Memphis following his sophomore year of high school, could’ve easily opted for one of the national powers that was recruiting him. Initially it seemed like he might with bluebloods like Kentucky and Kansas making his final five.

Chandler Lawson signed with Oregon. Isaiah Stokes went to Florida. Skal Labissiere went to Kentucky. Dedrick and KJ Lawson both started at Memphis before transferring to Kansas… where fellow Memphis star Lagerald Vick is.

That’s all since 2014, the last time Memphis made a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

But the lure of playing for Hardaway – who coached him last year at East and the previous summer on Team Penny – was too strong, allowing Wiseman to become the first ESPN 100 No. 1 recruit to ever commit to Memphis and the first top-10 player since Adonis Thomas in 2011.

And now, following an 55-41 win over Springfield Parkview – including a dominant 21-point, 19-rebound line – Wiseman will again have the chance to do something Penny never did and no Memphis player has done since 2010… win the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions.

East is 4-2 in the event all-time, losing to a Marvin Bagley-led Sierra Canyon team in the 2017 championship. The program’s other trip to Springfield was in 1993 when they finished fifth. Memphis White Station has won it all five times, tied for the most in the event’s history.

To win it all, Wiseman and East will have to knock off a pair of top-25 teams in Sunrise Christian – featuring No. 1 2020 big man N’Faly Dante – and the McEachern vs. Shadow Mountain winner.

For Wiseman, this is just the next step in what has already been a memorable journey. He relishes the opportunity to play against the nation’s top players and teams. Going head-to-head with fellow 7-footer Dante will be a matchup of future lottery picks.

“I’ve very excited, I can’t wait for that matchup,” said Wiseman. “He’s a very talented player. I’ve faced him in the summer, so this will be a fun matchup. I don’t feel any pressure. It all just makes me work hard and just work on my craft every day. I’m just trying to learn, get better and develop my game for the next level.”

As East continues its run as one of the best high school programs in the nation and Hardaway strives to reestablish the proud tradition of his Memphis Tigers, the inherited vision of Hardaway, Holmes and the city continues.

One kid at a time.

“This is bigger than basketball, it’s about the city. We want to get as many kids as we can out. We’ve been getting them in the adolescent years and just develop, develop, develop. I want to see these kids achieve their goals. I love coaching,” said Holmes.

“It’s all about their mentality, the Memphis mentality. The city is hot right now. We have a big vision for Memphis.”

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