Just before tipoff Monday night at FedExForum, NBA Commissioner David Stern stepped to center court with microphone in hand and the spotlight squarely on him.
“The future of the NBA in Memphis never looked brighter,” Stern said.
Now, it was new Grizzlies Chairman Robert Pera’s turn. Pera is 34, the founder and CEO of Ubiquiti Networks, and the man who paid the largest share in Michael Heisley’s $377 million sale of the Grizzlies. Pera is passionate about the NBA and in a press conference earlier Monday at FedExForum he channeled Lou Gehrig by saying, “I’m probably the luckiest man in the world right now.”
But when Stern handed off the microphone Monday night, Pera passed on the opportunity to stir the home crowd.
“… We have some exciting ideas. It’s gonna be a great season,” Pera said absent any emotion or much facial expression. “Go Grizzlies.”
“That’s it?” a stunned Stern said into the microphone.
“He didn’t say much,” Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay said later with a little laugh. “My kind of guy.”
Perhaps Pera figured he would let his new team do the talking for him. The Grizzlies started their home opener with ice-cold shooting – they missed 17 of their first 19 shots – but rallied in their trademark Grit & Grind style and ultimately pulled away to a 103-94 victory over the Utah Jazz.
The announced attendance was 17,401, but empty seats were not that hard to find and entire rows in the top of the upper bowl were vacant. Early on, it didn’t much feel like a nearly full house as the loudest cheer may have come at the end of the Grizzlies Grandpas and Grannies’ dance routine.
“We didn’t play good,” said Gay, who missed 14 of his 17 shots on the night, “so it took them awhile to get into it.”
Jack and Cindy McConnell, season-ticket holders for five years, sat behind the basket not too far from the Grizzlies’ bench. An hour before tipoff they were optimistic about the new ownership group and what they will see on the court this season.
“Youth and enthusiasm,” Jack McConnell said of what he believes Pera will bring.
“I like the Manning part,” said Cindy, referring to Ashley Manning, wife of Denver Broncos quarterback and former University of Tennessee star Peyton Manning, having a stake in the franchise.
“I expect us to go far in the playoffs,” Jack added. “All the way to the finals.“
Three games into an 82-game regular season, the Grizzlies are 2-1. They played this game almost as though they wanted to make sure Pera and Jason Levien, who will be the full-time presence in Memphis overseeing basketball and business operations, understand exactly who they are and how they play.
So, naturally, the Grizzlies created a 12-point deficit in the first quarter as Tony Allen and Zach Randolph played a game of can’t-shoot-straight; they were a combined 0-for-11. Yet the Grizzlies seized the lead late in the third quarter and never let it go. Randolph even finished with 18 rebounds and 16 points.
“Man, that’s the only thing I’m doing right now – rebounding,” said Randolph, who actually ended up hitting 8-of-19 shots.
Center Marc Gasol had a game-high 22 points with 8 rebounds and 8 assists. The Grizzlies scored 60 of their points in the paint. As Randolph said, “That’s us.”
And Pera probably knew that. But who he is, exactly, is still a mystery. Yes, he’s a young technology tycoon based in Silicon Valley. But beyond that?
“I just want to get to know him, like who his favorite teams were growing up,” said guard Mike Conley. “He’s not outgoing like a Mark Cuban (the Dallas Mavericks’ owner), but he has our best (interests) at heart.”
This game coming on the eve of the presidential election, the event staff put forth mascot Grizz as a more viable candidate than President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. When pictures of Obama and Romney were displayed on the huge video board, both images prompted booing.
Meantime, Grizz worked the crowd in shirt and tie – extending his giant paw – and presumably saying only slightly less than his new boss.