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VOL. 127 | NO. 53 | Friday, March 16, 2012

Believe Memphis? Not if Lakers in Town

By Don Wade

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The evening started with such a great vibe. FedExForum public address announcer Rick Trotter just mentioned the visiting Los Angeles Lakers and sweet boos rained down onto the court.

Despite Tony Allen’s strong efforts for the Memphis Grizzlies, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were able to pull out the double-overtime win in FedExForum.

(Photo: AP Photo/Alan Spearman)

Then Trotter introduced the starters, and good guy Derek Fisher was booed, former Grizzly Pau Gasol was booed louder, and even Kobe Bryant received a surprising level of hate mixed with love.

“It felt like we had a home-court advantage,” point guard Mike Conley was saying after the Grizzlies had come out on the short end of a 116-111 double-overtime thriller on Tuesday, March 13. “Normally, they seem to have more fans. But at the beginning of the game, it definitely felt like we had the crowd on our side.”

Quick Memphis sports history lesson for the uninitiated: Since the Grizzlies started play here in 2001 at The Pyramid this city has been embarrassingly star-struck at the sight of Hollywood’s Team.

In the beginning, it was somewhat understandable. Kobe was becoming the face of the league, Shaquille O’Neal hadn’t yet become a caricature of himself, and the Grizzlies were still a punch line – as much Tony Massenburg, Stromile Swift and Grant Long as they were Gasol, Shane Battier and Lorenzen Wright.

But more than a decade down the line and fresh off the best season in franchise history, a season that saw the Grizzlies come within a game of making the Western Conference Finals, loyalties should have found their natural order: hometown team first, Tinsel Town team not at all. Especially when the Grizzlies represent that rarest of commodities in pro sports: a consistently hard-working team where the sum is greater than its individual parts.

The current edition of the Lakers, it should be pointed out, represents just the opposite. Kobe Bryant almost single-handedly kept the Lakers in a double-overtime game his team once trailed by 17 points; he scored 11 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers erased a nine-point deficit.

The Grizzlies have played without Zach Randolph almost all year (his presence would have been a check against Andrew Bynum, 37 points and 16 rebounds), and on this night they were also without Rudy Gay (concussion). Yet for most of the game, it didn’t seem to be a question of if the Grizzlies would win, only by how much.

But when Bryant went to the free-throw line with 38 seconds left in the second overtime and he knocked down both shots to put the Lakers up 114-111, the entire atmosphere changed. Chants of “M-V-P, M-V-P” filled the arena. Conley looked around in utter disbelief.

“That didn’t sit well at all,” Conley said, albeit in a calm tone. “This is our city. This is our home, not L.A. It hurts. We’re playing two, three guys down, guys are diving on the floor, playing through injuries, leaving everything out on the court.”

To a man, the Grizzlies agreed this game had a “playoff atmosphere.” But at the end did it feel more like FedExForum or Staples Center?

“Unfortunately, you’ve got however many thousand fans and I’d say 60 percent of them had on Laker jerseys,” said Tony Allen. “You know, that’s kind of tough.”

So was the officiating. While Kobe & Friends shot 34 free throws on the road, the Grizzlies shot five at home and two of those were from technicals called on Bryant and Metta World Peace (the player formerly known as Ron Artest).

Repeat, the Grizzlies only shot five free throws – while taking 116 shots from the floor. And Kobe Bryant played 52 minutes without being whistled for a single foul. Not one little chirp.

Can you say double-standard?

“I can’t go there, man,” said center Marc Gasol. “I don’t want to give my money away.”

Meaning, saying what he really thinks isn’t worth the $50,000 fine he might get from the league.

Coach Lionel Hollins invoked his constitutional rights: “I plead the fifth,” he said with a grin.

If fans didn’t view the Grizzlies as underdogs before, how could they not see them that way on a night like this? The box score from this game looked as stacked against Memphis as those bogus national Top 10 lists that label Memphis as more dangerous than L.A.

Plus, this game really mattered. The Grizzlies are locked in a tight race with the Lakers and others for playoff seeding. You’d think that would count with fans who, a few months ago, proudly wore “Believe Memphis” T-shirts.

Now, come Friday, March 16, when the Grizzlies have their next home game against Toronto, they’ll be opposite the beloved University of Memphis Tigers playing on TV in their opening NCAA Tournament game. The “Grind House” could be just about empty.

“The Tigers are a big deal, especially this time of year,” Conley said. “As long as they’re rooting for a Memphis team, we’re fine with that.”

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