Joe McDuffie was just another fan in a Kobe jersey, glancing around FedExForum and pointing out patches of purple and gold.
“That’s any place in the NBA,” McDuffie said with a wave of his hand. “You gotta know it’s just normal. Like the Dallas Cowboys.”
But here’s where this story takes a new-normal turn for the better. McDuffie, 32, is not from Memphis. He traveled from St. Louis with friends for the Nov. 23 game here against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Adam and Brittany Cleaves were here wearing Lakers gear, too. But more important, they weren’t from Memphis, either. They were from Little Rock.
The Memphis Grizzlies continue gaining fans, even at games against teams known for having their own cheering sections in the building, including the Los Angeles Lakers. The recent home game against the Lakers saw fewer fans sporting their gear.
(AP Photo/Lance Murphey)
Maybe it wasn’t as plain on TV, but in the arena this last Lakers-Grizzlies game looked, felt and sounded different. Fewer fans in the enemy uniform. Lustier boos for the Lakers, louder cheers for the home team. Even Grizzlies minority owner Justin Timberlake, a notorious Lakers fan, did the right thing and sported a Grizzlies cap as he sat courtside with wife, Jessica Biel.
Last season, even though the Grizzlies were following a year in which they came within a game of making the Western Conference Finals, they still felt like the visiting team in their own building when the Lakers came to town. Understandably, players were both mad and hurt.
“It’s very good to see the (fans) making that turn to where they’re all about the Grizzlies, 100 percent on our side no matter what player or team comes in here,” said point guard Mike Conley. “That motivates us.”
Now this doesn’t mean the arena was full for Cleveland and Toronto in recent days. But the Grizzlies improved to 11-2 with their victory over the Raptors on Wednesday, Nov. 28, and owned the best record in the NBA. They are no longer pretenders, no longer quasi-contenders. They are a team that gets league-wide respect.
On Nov. 19, the Denver Nuggets came into Memphis and handed the Grizz their second loss of the season, 97-92. What coach Lionel Hollins said afterward was to be expected: “Any team can beat you. ... You can’t believe the hype (about yourself).”
But what Denver coach George Karl said, even after victory, was more telling: “They are the most physical match-up in the Western Conference. Probably them or the Clippers. … You have to physically compete against their big guys on every possession. Then you have Tony Allen, Rudy Gay and (Quincy) Pondexter that like to beat you up a little bit with their defensive presence. They attack the ball; they bump and grind you all over the court.
“So much of playing well against Memphis,” Karl continued, “is not turning the ball over and not letting the physicality of the game go their way.”
Easier said than done. Forward Zach Randolph started the season with 11 straight double-doubles. Center Marc Gasol has been dishing out assists and hitting free throws like an elite point guard, plus scoring and rebounding. Gay, who leads the team in scoring at almost 20 points a game, is playing a better all-round game than at any time in his career.
“Honestly, he was a millimeter away from being on the Olympic team,” Bryant said. “He seems like he’s used that as motivation to spark his game.”
The victories over the Miami Heat (104-86), at Oklahoma City (107-97) and the Lakers (106-98) are the trophy triumphs. But beating the likes of Cleveland (84-78) and Toronto (103-82) speak to the consistency of this team, this seriousness of this team.
The Grizzlies tied their season-high with 28 assists against the Raptors but their toughest critic – Hollins is the second-toughest – said they could have had more assists, could have spread the wealth even sooner.
“When you share the ball offensively, it’s contagious,” said Gasol, always the perfectionist. “And then defensively, everybody’s more generous.”
Gasol then smiled, adding, “I should be more satisfied sometimes. (But) my thing is, I see the talent everybody has. … I see big things.”
And from all appearances, so do Memphis Grizzlies fans.