In 2007, the Grizzlies were no longer a novelty in Memphis. They also were no longer a playoff team. Rather, they were a punch line lost in the expansive blue and gray shadow of the University of Memphis and a fast-talking operator/coach named John Calipari.
So, while the Grizzlies were stumbling through a 22-60 season – 14-27 within the friendly confines of FedExForum – the Tigers were roaring: a 33-4 season and a trip to the Elite Eight that spring.
(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)
The Tigers’ season ended, oddly enough, with a loss to an Ohio State team that included a point guard named Mike Conley. A couple months later, the Grizzlies used the fourth overall pick on Conley in the NBA Draft.
Just like that, Conley went from playing on a team that reached the NCAA championship game to playing for an NBA team that over the next two seasons would win 22 and 24 games, respectively. Just like that, he went from star to the invisible man. Conley and his teammates were The Unknowns.
“Man, I’ve got stories,” he said. “We could do what we wanted in the city and nobody would say a word to us because they didn’t know who we were or pay attention to Grizzlies basketball. I’ve had times walking through the mall nobody would say a word and then somebody would notice me, and they’d be like, ‘Aw, man, that’s Mike Conley; he’s terrible. We should have got somebody else.’ I’m like, ‘dang.’
“Walking through Wolfchase (Galleria) nowadays, it’s the complete opposite. Now it’s like we’re so intertwined with the community, they see our face and people come up and greet us, immediately say hello, and thank us for everything we’re doing for the city.
“I don’t go to Wolfchase anymore,” Conley said with a laugh. “I just kind of stay around the house.”
Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the Grizzlies always have had an impact on the city. When then-owner Michael Heisley moved the Grizzlies from Vancouver and they began play here in the 2001-2002 season, there was a boon.
“Going to Grizzlies games was the thing to do and the place to be seen,” Kane said.
True as that was, the Grizzlies did not immediately put down deep roots in the city. Before their arrival, the community was divided about having an NBA team. Long before there was “Grit-n-Grind” there was “Gripe-n-Groan.”
The Memphis Grizzlies’ recent success has fans geared up and ready for another season of Grit and Grind.
(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)
And it wasn’t just about the community helping build the new arena that became FedExForum. Some people simply didn’t like the idea of an NBA team in Memphis. Many of those people also were diehard supporters of the University of Memphis in general and the men’s basketball program in particular.
Perhaps no one in town is more devoted to the Tigers than Harold Byrd, president of the Bank of Bartlett. He still says the Tigers are No. 1 with him. But there is room for the Grizzlies, too, and he reminds that he was part of the pursuit team that fetched the Grizzlies in the first place.
“My attitude was always very positive,” Byrd said, adding that he had season tickets for a while.
But he also says that when the Grizzlies first came to Memphis they alienated a lot of people in the community, almost had a superiority complex even though results on the court were dismal.
“There were a few years where you couldn’t give the tickets away,” Byrd said. “I think the ownership change has been very positive. Prior to the change, (general manager) Chris Wallace and (team executive and former Tigers basketball coach) Gene Bartow did a super job changing the tone in the community.”
Now, more than at any point since they came to Memphis, the Grizzlies and the community are, to borrow Conley’s word, “intertwined.” New controlling owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien are the team’s chief decision-makers (Wallace remains with the team in a diminished role), but at some level the community and its NBA franchise look, feel and sound like partners.
Kane even struggles to answer the question of whether the Grizzlies are more a reflection of the city or the city now more a mirror of the Grizzlies.
“We do have that Grit-n-Grind,” Kane said. “There is that little edge to Memphis. That Grit-n-Grind is part of Memphis DNA.”
Memphis Means Grizzlies
So as the Grizzlies begin their 14th season in Memphis, they are more and more a part of the city’s bones. Their forensic history is littered with bad seasons and poor draft picks, sure, but neither is it just so many basketball crime scenes. They have reached the playoffs three straight seasons and in two of those seasons won at least one series.
Even the new guys, forever forward-thinking and willing to let coach Lionel Hollins walk after a franchise-best 56 win season and first-ever trip to the Western Conference Finals, realize Grizzlies history did not just start with last season’s outsized success.
In fact, at the top of the staircase on a wall outside the Grizzlies’ offices, the faces of Grizzlies Past stare back at you: Jerry West, Hubie Brown, Pau Gasol.
“Part of it is you want to appreciate your history and your tradition,” Levien said when asked about the old photographs. “I think we’re building a history and tradition. We’re only 13 years in, so we’ve got work to do. But we want to appreciate and value those who came before us.”
Which isn’t to imply there will be a lot of looking back. Pera, 35, founded his Ubiquiti Networks with a vision backed by his credit card. More recently, he took to Twitter to find himself a 1-on-1 game in the wake of the charity game with guard Tony Allen that was postponed at Allen’s request. When people on Twitter suggested he play Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Pera raised the ante.
“If we are talking an owner game,” Pera tweeted, “get me MJ! I’ll up the charity contribution to $1 (million).”
If Pera has no fear of a 50-year-old Michael Jordan, then it’s no wonder he talks so easily about his hopes and dreams for the Grizzlies months after their run to the conference finals.
“I expect more, right?” Pera said.
Right. And “more,” of course, is the way to keep the Grizzlies and the community walking arm-in-arm. Byrd says the Grizzlies’ success last season gave the whole city “a little bit of a strut and that’s something we maybe lack.”
In theory, the city’s shaky self-esteem would be one of the franchise’s largest challenges. Memphis is small-market. Memphis does not glitter like L.A. or Miami. Frank Sinatra never crooned of the Bluff City, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
But at least for many of the current players, what Memphis is trumps what it is not.
Fans have grown to love players like Zach Randolph, seen here at a past season’s ticket giveaway.
(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)
“I’m a Memphian,” said forward Zach Randolph, traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Grizzlies before the 2009-2010 season and signed through the 2014-2015 season, for which he has a player option. “This is my (fourth) team in the league, (13th) year. I just bought a house. If I’m traded tomorrow, I’m here – still doing things here in my community, my Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas and everything.”
Tony Allen had offers elsewhere this summer. Milwaukee, in particular, coveted the All-NBA first-team defensive selection. But Allen agreed to a reported four-year $20 million contract extension with the Grizzlies when he perhaps could have made more elsewhere.
“The city embraced me,” Allen said. “I never felt this good in my career, even when I was in Boston. … Now it’s time to keep the blueprint going and be ‘The Grindfather.’ It’s like ‘Cheers,’ you always want to go with somebody that knows your name.”
Is there anything more fickle than a romance between a city and its pro sports team? Yes, Cubs fans still fill Wrigley Field after more than 100 years without a world championship. But they’ve also made a brand out of lovable losing. They are the exception to the rule.
For the Grizzlies to remain part of the city’s DNA, there must be hope and belief that just about anything is possible. Even a parade down Beale Street.
“One thing we want to do is be consistently competitive with our fans believing we can go all the way,” Levien said. “There are certain things out of our control; we need some good fortune (no key injuries, for one). But we’re going to have a culture where we believe in our ability to be successful year in and year out.”
Levien and Pera believed there was a chance to be more successful by elevating long-time assistant coach Dave Joerger, who has not been a head coach above the minor-league level, to the role of head coach. Joerger is implementing an up-tempo offense and has more of a buddy-buddy relationship with players than did the stern Hollins.
Joerger is also following some Hollins advice.
“Lionel always told me to just be myself,” he said.
In many ways, that’s what the Grizzlies have been doing. Taking on the “Grit-n-Grind” of Memphis is to be true to self, even as the team’s new management embraces basketball analytics and looks to do things better than they’ve ever been done in the NBA.
That ESPN The Magazine’s fan survey resulted in the Grizzlies earning the designation as the No. 1 pro sports team in North America was a coup. It also didn’t give them any victories in the standings or literally sell any tickets at the box office.
In Pera’s perfect world, the Grizzlies become a blend of the San Antonio Spurs – “how to win in a small market” – and the Mavericks: “In terms of community involvement and branding, Mark Cuban in Dallas has done a fantastic job. The Grizzlies asset,” Pera added, “I have no intention of running it for profitability. First and foremost is winning and building a great team.”
A team that the people of Memphis identify as essential and as theirs.
Said Kane: “I can’t imagine life without the Grizzlies.”