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VOL. 9 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 18, 2016

Believe It or Not

The Grizzlies taught Memphis to ‘believe.’ Will fans still come if the team struggles?

By Don Wade

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Long before Jim Strickland was mayor of Memphis, he was a thirtysomething lawyer and sports fan. Not always in that order. He loved the University of Memphis – his alma mater – and rooted like crazy for the basketball team. And on those less frequent occasions when there was a reason to believe, for the football team, too.

But he also wanted to see his city reach the big leagues.

“I always wanted a major league sports franchise,” Strickland said. “After a couple of failed tries to get an NFL team, I sort of gave up hope.”

And then, just in time for the 2001-2002 NBA season, Michael Heisley moved his Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis. It took a few years for the team to become competitive and not until their fourth time in the playoffs were they able to win a postseason game.

Today, the Grizzlies are on a six-year run of playoff appearances. But more enduring – all involved parties hope – the Grizzlies have organically worked their way into the local lexicon.

The city may be divided on politics, on how to curb violent crime, and even on what to do about cars being parked on a patch of grass near the zoo, but the citizenry usually can agree on rooting for the Grizzlies.

“The Grizzlies have become so ingrained in our community,” the mayor said, “I think the brand of Memphis comes from the Grizzlies: `Grit ’n Grind.’ I work it into speeches. Whether I’m talking about how to clean up blight or litter, it reflects the Grizzlies and it reflects Memphis.”

And not only is that good for the city, it’s important for the team – especially as it faces an offseason of uncertainty.

Will free agent point guard Mike Conley return? Will other free agents give Memphis a serious look? How will new coach David Fizdale fare? And will the Grizzlies get real help in the June 23 NBA Draft or be able to pull off a meaningful trade?

Lots of questions, no definitive answers. But while we wait for the answers to form, “Grit ’n Grind” and “We Don’t Bluff” and “Believe Memphis” remain in the nomenclature.

“Those have become important symbols of the franchise,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace. “They have meaning. They are not just trite phrases. It’s not like with a college, an NBA team doesn’t have a fight song.”

Winners, Losers and Grinders

Neither a city nor its professional sports team is static.

Time was, Boston flew the Red Sox’s failed championship aspirations as a banner of collective despair. They hadn’t won the World Series since 1918 and, to some degree, their repeated failures felt predestined because of the ill-fated trade of Babe Ruth to the archrival New York Yankees.

“For a long time there was a U-Turn sign in Boston that said, `Reverse the Curse,’” said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has written about sports psychology for publications that include The New York Times and Psychology Today.

Now, the Red Sox have won three World Series since 2004. Not only has the curse been reversed, the city also has enjoyed the thrill of six other pro sports championships in the 21st century: four by the NFL’s New England Patriots and one each by hockey’s Boston Bruins and basketball’s Boston Celtics.

Of course, each season brings a new slate of games, a new accounting of wins and losses. A team, like its city, is always up for inspection. And always undergoing change.

So Boston is now girded by all that wig, all that champagne popping. And as a large market with four pro teams, there are many more chances for a title and for the sports fan to “bask in reflected glory,” a term embraced by amused psychologists decades ago.

But there was little basking in Memphis during the 2015-16 NBA season as the Grizzlies limped into the playoffs after using a league-record 28 players. Soon afterward, the San Antonio Spurs swept them out of the playoffs in the first round.

Then the Grizzlies fired coach Dave Joerger. He had lasted three seasons. Same as his predecessor Lionel Hollins and a year less than one Memphis mayoral term. The collective questions across the fan base: Really, again? What are they doing?

After a wide-ranging search for a new head coach, controlling owner Robert Pera ultimately signed off on hiring former Miami Heat assistant David Fizdale.

In his first meeting with the media, Fizdale seemed to grasp that Grit ’n Grind goes deep. That for Memphis, it represents what championship rings mean in Boston or Miami.

“The fact that every coach here has sustained that identity, that’s a testament to the community and everybody here, a reflection of the people here,” Fizdale said. “So I’m not gonna lose that – defensive-minded, tough …”

Team in Transition

Fizdale seems capable enough and his reputation is as a skilled communicator. Even so, he represents another change.

Conley is very tight with center Marc Gasol and has expressed affection for Memphis. Conley also has indicated he will listen to other teams and that he needs to see the Grizzlies make real, substantial, improvements to the roster. Not to mention the team needs to come with a max offer or something close to it.

The other two members of the “Core Four” – Zach Randolph and Tony Allen – are in the last year of their contracts and in the midst of the creeping physical decline that always comes with age. So the future of the Grizzlies and their capacity for remaining part of the city’s DNA are perhaps at some risk.

Trading them is no longer unthinkable. Still, can you imagine never again hearing FedExForum PA announcer Rick Trotter react to a key basket from Randolph with his booming Zeeeee-Bo!

“That’s where there’s a challenge for the coach and all the PR people to generate excitement for new players,” Whitbourne said.

Or, if the Grizzlies largely stand pat because they are unable or unwilling to lure talented free agents, to rekindle the fire for older players perhaps past their prime. Fizdale seemed to walk that path when he said he never believes a player is too old to up the quality of his game.

Fizdale also said Gasol, Conley, Randolph and Allen are where everything starts.

“It’s going to be a collaboration, especially with the four guys, our legacy guys, our backbone guys,” he said. “They have to be the frontrunners in this deal.”

Who the Grizzlies are on the court will be revealed over time. The NBA Draft is on June 23 and the Grizzlies hold the 17th overall pick, a place deep enough into the proceedings that they are very unlikely to stumble into a franchise-changing player.

But with those six straight playoff appearances and more salary cap room, Wallace believes they have a chance to bring in one or more free agents that will bolster the cause.

“We are a more viable free agency destination than we’ve ever been,” he said.

But what if this is the time the Grizzlies begin to slide – perhaps right out of the playoffs and eventually out of the city’s daily consciousness?

Said Strickland: “I don’t accept the proposition they are headed into a downward slope.”

Yet if it is where the Grizzlies are headed, so are their fans. Once there, Whitbourne says fans will soon enough show themselves as either “true” or “fickle.”

“Fickle fans need the team to do well,” she said. “But the people who have adopted the Grizzlies just need the team to be there.”

Rychetta Watkins, who grew up here and is about to start work as the new executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South Inc., has shared season tickets since before the playoff run began. Ask her if she’s a fan and she answers with a look of surprise and by saying, “Am I a fan?” and then recites her section, row and seat numbers.

“The first year I came back to Memphis I had a ticket pack,” she said. “I remember getting on the trolley and I’d have my T-shirt on to ride to the game and people would ask me, `Why are you wasting your time and your money going to the Grizzlies game?’

“It’s our team. This is our team. I remember going and watching three quarters of pretty good basketball and then in the fourth quarter, like, ‘Hmm, if only we had scored more points,’” she said and laughed.

Out of Sight …

So Rychetta Watkins is one of those fans who seems in it for the long haul. There are many others.

But some fans forever sit on the edge of the bandwagon ready to jump off when the ride gets a little bumpy. For those fans, even a lack of top-down communication can be enough to make them question their allegiance to the team.

So what of Robert Pera, the Grizzlies’ controlling owner and founder of Ubiquiti Networks, and mostly the invisible man to residents of Memphis and fans of the Grizzlies?

Fizdale termed his meeting with Pera “fantastic,” adding, “We speak the same language. He is about culture, he’s about leadership, he’s about allowing people to do their work, hiring talent. He’s so open-minded and innovative and he’s a basketball junkie. I just love that.”

Only one problem: Fizdale’s Pera Experience is not Memphis’ Pera Experience.

Here, Pera is a ghost. He occasionally weighs in via Twitter or does the rare interview on the team’s flagship radio station with a person employed by the Grizzlies.

Truth is, Pera sightings are rarer than Elvis sightings.

“A team owner is more than a figurehead,” Whitbourne said. “He’s the reason people put faith and trust in the team. He’s got to show up.

“Otherwise, it feels like just an investment or a kind of toy.”

Multi-level Impact

The Grizzlies made their longest playoff run in 2013, reaching the Western Conference Finals. It took the team’s power as brand-maker and promoter of the city to another tier.

“We always knew with the NBA that we’d get more exposure worldwide,” said Malvin Gipson, a vice president at the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau overseeing the Memphis Sports Council. “But we also can’t overlook the jobs in general services that (the Grizzlies brought) and the effect on Beale Street. You see major dollars pumped into the economy.”

An economic impact study performed by Younger Associates for the Greater Memphis Chamber in 2010 placed the total annual economic impact of the Grizzlies and FedExForum events at $223.3 million.

But that’s just one measurement. The airport, after all, has Tony Allen as an ambassador. Land in Memphis and The Grindfather is at least symbolically there to welcome you.

“I think we all knew (having the NBA and the Grizzlies) would help employers recruit to Memphis,” Strickland said. “And obviously they’ve provided entertainment to tens of thousands of Memphians and they get a diverse crowd.”

The Grizzlies also have had a large presence in the community. The team long has made itself a partner with the city and organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“It’s really significant that the Grizzlies Foundation didn’t just go the traditional route – ‘we’re going to offer you funding,’” said Watkins. “They’re thinking about how to support and focus on mentoring and youth development and raising the level of effectiveness of these programs. It’s really a game-changer.”

Arguably, when the team is winning and The Grindhouse is rocking that’s a game-changer for the community, too. In those moments, Memphis doesn’t feel like a place to fear being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a place where violence threatens everything.

In fact, when the Grizzlies are trying to win a playoff game, when the team’s game operations crew is helping take the fight to the hated Los Angeles Clippers – a cake in the face to someone wearing a Chris Paul or Blake Griffin jersey is always a winner – there is no more unified place in town. It can feel like a gospel revival, no matter your religious or musical tastes.

Also significant: The Grizzlies are starting their 16th season in Memphis. Grizzlies tickets have been birthday gifts and Christmas presents to a generation of young fans.

“People who are coming out of college and starting their careers, they grew up on the Grizzlies,” Wallace said.

Hometown Heroes

Whether this incarnation of the team can recapture the old magic is, well, a hope and a guess. But after the Grizzlies lost in six games in the second round of the 2015 playoffs to the Golden State Warriors, they had added to team lore. The highlight came when Conley donned a mask to play with a broken face and Memphis forged a 2-1 series lead over the eventual NBA champions.

Although the ending wasn’t what Strickland wanted, he hashed over the series with the mayor of Oakland, Calif., at a conference. It was more fun than talking about sewers and taxes. Strickland’s long-desired big-league franchise had made more memories.

“That’s what we play for, to try and leave somewhat of a legacy,” Conley said just after their 2015 season ended. “We hope we’ll be that era, that team, that brought the city together, left an imprint on different generations to where people’s sons going forward will talk about, ‘Hey, remember that one year this happened, that happened.’

“We want to bring those kinds of special moments.”

That they have created special moments is beyond debate. But what’s the effect on the city – from its economics to its psyche – if the Grizzlies fall back to mediocrity or worse?

There’s no curse to reverse. And no superstar free agent, as far as we know, eager to cast his lot with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Wallace, however, has a different perspective. He was in Boston before the Red Sox reversed that curse, though he’s also quick to say he doesn’t’ believe in curses.

He served as general manager of the Celtics and often says one of the biggest problems was finding a jersey number for new players because so many (21) have been retired. He was, in some respects, just another executive passing through a long and storied history – 17 NBA championships, including eight straight during one stretch in the 1950s and ‘60s under coach Red Auerbach.

“I find being in Memphis every bit as exciting, and in some ways more rewarding, than when I worked in Boston,” Wallace said. “Because there’s nothing you can do in Boston that hasn’t already been accomplished.”

As for Memphis, Watkins, 43, proudly sported a blue bear on her T-shirt when fourth quarters mostly brought disappointment and Tony Allen had yet to arrive and to speak “all heart, grit ’n grind” into being.

And if she could love them then …

“I am no fair-weather fan,” she said. “I am not a bandwagon fan. It’s our hometown team. I am going to support the team no matter what. Because that’s what it means to be a true fan.”

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