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Burnin' love

"The sun never sets on a legend. There will always be a TCB on the Lisa Marie. The United States of America has had 43 presidents, but only one King. May he always sing ... "

And with that, his usual sendoff, George Klein has finished another week of The Elvis Hour, the radio show he has done for more than two decades. Klein walks out of the studio wearing basketball warm-ups and sneakers, both featuring the Memphis Tigers' logo.

I've sought out Klein because he's the only one who can answer my burning question: If Elvis Presley were alive today, would he be actively rooting for the Tigers as they take aim at a national championship?

In addition to being a huge Tigers fan, Klein was one of Elvis' most trusted friends. They met in the eighth grade, when Elvis moved to Memphis from Tupelo, Miss., and their lives were closely intertwined until Elvis' death 30 years ago. How close? Elvis served as best man at Klein's wedding; Klein served as a pallbearer at Elvis' funeral.

Outside of Tennessee, you might not realize this, but Memphis actually has two kings - Elvis and Tigers basketball. Klein knows both intimately. Today, Elvis is as popular as ever, and the Tigers carry a No. 1 seed into the NCAA tournament.

"Yep, Elvis and basketball ... that's us," says Klein, his voice bouncing with a sing-song cadence. His "on air" light, quite admirably, is always lit.

Klein remembers when Elvis first brought a guitar into music class. And he remembers when the Tigers reached the National Invitation Tournament final in 1957. He was in the studio when Elvis recorded "In the Ghetto" in 1969, and he was in the arena when the Tigers played in the Final Four in 1985.

His friend Elvis wasn't known as much of a sports nut. Elvis tried out for the football team his senior year of high school, but that didn't last long. "The coach gave him such a hard time because of his hair and everything, so Elvis quit," Klein says. "Went and got a job."

Elvis' favorite sports were professional football, boxing and karate. He was a close friend of Jim Brown, had a robe made for Muhammad Ali and famously earned his eighth-degree black belt. But basketball is another story. Klein says he had taken it upon himself to turn Elvis on to Tigers basketball.

He got Elvis to sign a giant photograph for former Tigers coach Wayne Yates. It read: "To the Memphis State basketball team, If I can ever help you, let me know. Your friend, Elvis Presley." Yates used the photo on recruiting trips.

"I had several long talks with Elvis about Memphis State," Klein says. "He was going to give a scholarship to the athletic department in his name. I remember it cost $25,000. ... But then he passed away."

Klein remembers a visit shortly before the King's death. "He says, 'GK' - that's what he always called me - 'how good was Wilt Chamberlain?' ... I told Elvis that in his day, Wilt was the best, 100 points in a game, just unbelievable. Elvis said - and I always remember this - 'Yeah, I got that feeling about him. I like when anybody is the very best at their profession. I admire that guy.'"

Klein had a feeling "that got his appetite whet for basketball."

Much has been written about Elvis. Everyone connected to him, it seems, has penned a book. (Klein is finally writing one of his own - Elvis: My Best Man - due out next year.) But it's all history - three or four decades old. I feel bad speculating, but I ask Klein point-blank: If Elvis were alive today, would he be a Tigers fan?

"Oh yeah," Klein says, not even pausing to think. "He'd be one today all right."

One of the biggest reasons Klein is so certain is because of coach John Calipari. Elvis was always careful about whom he befriended, but Klein can just tell that the coach and the King would've clicked.

"They would've become pals. Elvis would've liked Cal a whole lot," Klein says. "Cal is kind of showbizzy. He's a great salesman, great entrepreneur and a great frontman. Elvis would've appreciated everything about him."

Plus, Elvis liked a winner, and, right now, it's not a bad time to be a Tigers fan.

We'll find out soon enough whether this is the year they finally win their first title. But Klein knows one thing: Memphis' two kings would've gotten along splendidly.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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