(WMC-TV) - Former University of Memphis basketball coach and player Larry Finch died Saturday, his family confirmed.
Finch suffered a stroke in 2002 and has had health problems ever since. He died at St. Francis Hospital surrounded by his family and friends.
Born and raised in Memphis, Finch played basketball for Melrose High School.
Leonard Draper operated Memphis' summer basketball league, where a young Finch and his teammates polished their skills. Draper convinced Finch to play for what was then Memphis State during an era when southern colleges were not recruiting black athletes.
"Larry and those kids, Ronnie Robinson and those guys, probably responsible for doing a lot of racial healing back during that time, 'cause Memphis was kind of in turmoil," said Draper. "It was right after Dr. King got killed and Memphis State basketball was the one thing at that time that kind of brought the Memphis Community together."
In his senior year, Finch and Larry Kenon led the basketball team to the Final Four. In the championship game, Finch scored 29 points, but lost to John Wooden's UCLA Bruins.
Finch graduated the all-time leading scorer in Memphis history, and is currently the second all-time leading scorer for the University of Memphis.
Finch was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1973, but opted to join the local American Basketball Association team, the Memphis Tams.
In 1986, Finch became the University of Memphis' head coach. Finch posted 10 of 11 winning seasons, seven 20+ win seasons and six NCAA tournament appearances.
Finch recruited and developed Elliot Perry, Penny Hardaway and Lorenzen Wright, to name a few.
"I don't see myself as a miracle worker," said Finch. "I look at the players that we bring in as the miracle workers."
His 1991-92 team led by Hardaway and David Vaughn went to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
During his tenure, the basketball players began to graduate in high numbers. Throughout his basketball career, Finch never forgot his roots.
"This is my heart right here, Orange Mound, Tennessee," said Finch. "There will never be a place like Orange Mound. Everything in this city starts and ends right here in Orange Mound."
On Martin Luther King Day of 2003, Finch was escorted onto the court by NBA hall of famer Bill Russell.
With tears in his eyes, Finch was once again the focus as he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by The University of Memphis Black Student Association in 2005.
In the years following his stroke, the community has expressed overwhelming concern about Finch's recovery.
"I'm doing great right now," said Finch. "It's been tough."
Finch's widow, Vickie Finch, said that while a crippling condition kept her husband from speaking at the end of his life, he mustered the strength to squeeze her hand as he passed away.
"I was holding his hand to the last heartbeat," she said. "That's typical of our relationship. I was there for him and he was always there for me."
Vickie Finch said she found strength in her sons and many others in the hours following the beloved coach's death. She spoke outside St. Francis Hospital Saturday about the love Larry Finch had for his players, family and community.
"When you give love, you get love, and that's the type of person he was," said Vickie Finch. "He gave love but got so much more in return."
Finch's sons thanked fans for the love they shared during triumph and tragedy, including the years since Finch suffered a debilitating stroke.
"As much love as he gave, they gave it back, and I wanted to thank all the people who put out prayers for him," said Larry Finch, Jr.
"It's sad to see him go, but he's going to a better place," said James Finch. "He's lacing them up upstairs, doing just fine and lacing them up."
Current University of Memphis Tigers Coach Josh Pastner called Finch one of the most influential people in Memphis history.
Finch was 60 years old.
Saturday, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton issued the following statement concerning the passing of Finch:
"Relationships between cities and their most famous personalities or their favorite sons and daughters often fracture. For the sake of appealing to a wider audience, some well-known individuals shed the distinctiveness of the community that raised them. And of course, contract negotiations can in an instant send sports icons to other towns where new jerseys help to erase the connection that existed for a popular athlete in a previous place.
But when an individual wholly embraces a city and that city returns the love with all of its might, it is a beauty to behold. As a community, Larry Finch was beautiful to us all, and we saw and felt how special we were as a city to him.
His later years were beset with serious medical challenges, as we know, but for everyone of us who recalls his career and good work, he never stopped being one of our most cherished hometown heroes.
Our prayers are with his devoted family – his wife, Vickie; and his children, Shanae, James, and Larry, Jr. In the end, for those who love Memphis, we all just lost a family member as well."
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