VOL. 10 | NO. 46 | Saturday, November 11, 2017
Do The Hustle
By Don Wade
A lot can change in six years. Consider: In early November of 2011 the NBA was in the midst of a lockout. Rudy Gay, then a Memphis Grizzlies player, put together a charity game at what was then known as the DeSoto Civic Center.
Jason Wexler, who today is president of business operations for the Grizzlies, did not work for the team back then. But he was a basketball fan. And so he took his son to see LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay and all the rest.
“If I remember right,” said Wexler, “it was a Josh Selby-Lester Hudson shootout by the fourth quarter.”
In 2017, as the NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle start play in what we now know as the Landers Center, the ghosts of Josh Selby and Lester Hudson should be right at home.
The G League, formerly the D League, is the NBA’s version of Triple-A. It’s called the G League because of its Gatorade sponsorship. The marriage of basketball and business matters – at all levels.
“When we were doing our research we found out that a good percentage of the (Mississippi) RiverKings’ fans come from Shelby County to the Landers Center, which was encouraging to hear there are already folks who do that,” Wexler said. “Obviously, there are folks that go down to the Tanger Outlets, people who commute back and forth every day – whether it’s to Downtown, offices in East Memphis or FedEx headquarters in Collierville.
“And from a Grizzlies’ perspective, we feel like it will bring more awareness throughout North Mississippi, not just DeSoto County, and will increase the funnel of fans for the Grizzlies. So it is a bit of a regional plan. Make them aware the Memphis Grizzlies are the region’s team.”
In other words, nothing wrong with waving growl towels and ringing cash registers on both sides of the state line.
“Anytime entertainment comes to town, it adds quality of life and it’s also good for business,” said Carmen Kyle, executive director of the Southaven Chamber of Commerce. “People that purchase tickets, they’ll eat in Southaven, see Tanger Outlets, and spend dollars there.
“End of the day, it’s a huge win-win.”
TODAY’S HUSTLE PLAYERS, TOMORROW’S GRIZZLIES
The Grizzlies see having the Memphis Hustle in the metro area as a multi-layer investment.
“A lot of the G League teams used to be owned by independent owners who were focused more on the bottom line,” Wexler said. “For us, the economics are in developing talent. The more talent you develop yourself, the better your long-term NBA payroll looks. The basketball dynamics will always drive that, not the business dynamics.
“We’re gonna try and sell as many seats as we can and connect and build a fan base. The business side is critically important, but the big opportunity is if you develop one or two or three guys on your G League team into NBA players as opposed to having to go and sign NBA free agents, the strong likelihood is you’re gonna come out ahead economically. The upside is more in player development than in ticket sales and sponsorship.”
Under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement NBA teams can have two “two-way” players; by rule, they can stay with the parent team for up to 45 days while spending most of the season in the G League.
The Grizzlies previously had a D League team, the Iowa Energy, in Des Moines. It was costly and less than convenient for keeping tabs on players. The Grizzlies’ two-way players are rookie forward Vince Hunter and rookie guard Kobi Simmons. The Hustle’s roster also includes two former University of Memphis players in Trahson Burrell and Austin Nichols.
Ben McLemore, a young NBA veteran the team signed as a free agent over the summer, also has been playing with the Hustle as he rehabs from a foot injury before joining the Grizzlies.
John Hollinger, executive vice president of basketball operations for the Grizzlies, loves having the Hustle less than 30 minutes away. He felt like he never got to Iowa to see players as much as he needed.
“It changes how much I see them in person. It was tough to jam in trips to Iowa,” Hollinger said. “And we don’t lose a day with the flying when we assign guys or bring them back up. Two years ago, when we were churning through half the D League on 10-days contracts, if we’d had a couple of two-way guys that would have been pretty helpful.”
During the 2015-16 season, the Grizzlies used an NBA-record 28 players. Among them: Troy Williams (24 games) and Briante Weber (six games). Now they are shuffling back and forth from the Houston Rockets to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who were to play the Hustle on Friday, Nov. 10, at the Landers Center. Also on Vipers: Grizzlies 2012 first-round draft pick Tony Wroten.
So, the basketball world can be a small place with old Grizzlies and Zach Randolph nemesis Kendrick Perkins – the inspiration for Z-Bo’s “I don’t bluff” – even in the G League with the Canton Chaat age 33. Kris Jenkins, who hit the buzzer-beating shot to win the 2016 NCAA title for Villanova, is with the Sioux Falls Skyforce and one of his teammates is former U of M player Geron Johnson.
“Every team that comes in, if you follow college basketball, you’ll recognize multiple names,” Wexler said.
Burrell played in the league last year and he said, “I didn’t think it would be as competitive as it is.”
Since the D League started in 2001-2002, it has expanded both in teams and reputation. And best of all for players, in opportunity. A paycheck overseas still has allure in some circumstances, but it literally takes a player farther from the NBA instead of bringing him so close he could drive there in the time it takes to play a single quarter of basketball.
“You got a little money in your pocket,” Hunter said. “You don’t have to run overseas.”
A NICE NIGHT OUT
Memphis is known as “Hoops City,” not “Ice City.” Yet the RiverKings have sustained since moving from the Mid-South Coliseum in 2000 to what is now the Landers Center. A part of the Mid-South sports community since 1992, the RiverKings’ most devoted fans know well that the franchise retired Don Parsons’ No. 13, the late Scott Brower’s No. 31, and Derek Landmesser’s No. 55 (Landmesser is also the team’s current coach).
The season-ticket holders, says RiverKings general manager David Schmoll, are all about the hockey.
“They want to see that sport,” he said. “They are invested in who the starting center is, who is playing the most minutes in goal. But most of the people coming to the game are just looking for a night out of the house, to forget about work, for the kids to forget about school.”
In the RiverKings’ case, there is often some impromptu education required for fans who just walk up and buy a ticket. Hockey 101 is ongoing. Like the time a man came up to Schmoll just after a game had started and was dumbfounded as to how a fight could break out as soon as the puck was dropped.
Schmoll wasn’t in the players’ heads, of course, but he had pretty good idea: “They probably skated up to the face-off and one guy said, `Wanna go?’ and the other guy said, ‘Sure.’”
In theory at least, most of the fans coming to Hustle games will have a much better understanding of basketball. The Hustle opened their open schedule on Saturday, Nov. 4. And if fans had attended Grizzlies games at FedExForum, they recognized some of the same touches. But Hustle games are also an opportunity for the major-league team’s game operations department to experiment.
“We can definitely test some concepts and skits down there and see how it plays,” Wexler said. “And that’s true on ticketing and business concepts, too. If it works, we’ll bring it up to the big club.”
Todd Mastry, executive director of the Landers Center, is hopeful fans will find some of the differences appealing. The arena, for example, will be more intimate. Only the lower bowl is used for sporting events and seats 5,000 for hockey games and 4,800 for a basketball game.
To get a floor seat for a Grizzlies game would cost hundreds of dollars, but a floor seat starts at $50 for a Hustle game. The parking lot right next to the arena has room for 3,000 vehicles, which in almost all cases should be enough.
“There’s no `where am I going to park downtown’ kind of thing,” Mastry said.
Wexler also believes the family-friendly environment will bring fans back – there are huge inflatables for the kids by the court and postgame autograph-signing sessions. The dance cam was naturally backed by the disco hit “Do the Hustle.”
Obvious doesn’t have to get in the way of having a good time.
“It’s legit fun,” Wexler said. “It really is the second-best basketball league in the world in terms of raw talent and the in-the-door price is less.”
Of course, because it’s the second-best basketball league in the world Hustle coach Glenn Cyprien has a job to do. He is trying to ready players for minutes that matter in Memphis and that, in some cases, could come as soon as the next night.
“We always want to win,” Cyprien said, “but I’m gonna have to play guys through certain situations whether good or bad. Last-second shots, pick-and-roll … the roster is going to be fluid. We’ll have some Grizz guys down here, guys that are injured, and game-time decisions. That’s just the way the G League is.
“But fans will be surprised how good the players are,” Cyprien continued. “It’s an exciting brand of basketball.
“It’s DeSoto County’s team; it’s Memphis’ team.”