(Ed. note: Grizzlies fans and SoV community members, please welcome a new contributor to our site, Kevin Lipe. A diehard Grizzlies fan, we're happy to have him as part of the team and we're certain you guys are going to enjoy his work!)
Gilbert Arenas. Zach Randolph. Tony Allen. Guys that other teams wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Marc Gasol, Pau’s little brother thrown into a trade that guaranteed the Lakers a title. Mike Conley, who entered the draft much earlier than he probably should have, and who played like garbage for a couple of years until he found his footing. Mo Speights, who rode the bench for the Sixers, and who everybody said took too many shots.
The Memphis Grizzlies have slowly and quietly assembled a cast of NBA crazies and castoffs that have found community with each other.
The guys who are carrying the Grizzlies right now – Marc, Tony, and Mike being the three most visible – are guys that get that edge. Rudy appears to have this sort of eff-you intensity at the end of close games, and at other times when he wants to, but other times he seems passive, complacent. I’m not sure what to make of that, given that he’s coming off a serious injury and no offseason into a hellish grind of a schedule. Point is, this team is built around guys that carry themselves with a certain nastiness. Guys that look at opponents, franchises in the upper echeleon of the NBA like the Lakers, Bulls, Heat, and Mavs, and say "who do you think you are?"
This mindset is perfect for the city of Memphis – the 20th largest in America by population, and the 1st in America by inferiority complex. Memphians feel like they’ve never caught a break, like everyone else passes them by, like any good thing that comes along will soon be replaced by something bad. Like we have to fight and scrap and hustle for everything. Even when we create something good (rock ’n roll, anyone?) other people take it and run with it.
The talk of Larry Ellison trying to buy the team is just another reason for Memphis, as a city, to doubt itself. Here we are, with a group of guys we can identify with, who are just as tough as we are, who share our attitude, and now some rich guy – famous for being a jerk, throwing as much money as needed away to get what he wants – wants to swoop in, presumably to take them from us.
Issues with the lease aside, it’s hard to think that after the bad blood still in the air over the Sonics’ move to Oklahoma City and the valiant efforts of the city of Sacramento to keep the Kings, not to mention the league’s apparent commitment to keeping the Hornets in New Orleans, that Stern and the NBA would be willing to let the Grizzlies be carted off to San Jose (which is a nice place – I’ve been there – but it’s not the caliber of a basketball town that Memphis is; few cities are) over the protest of fans, the city and county governments, and the team’s own local advisory board.
The Grizzlies, as a franchise, are at a turning point. They’ve become the Arkham Asylum of the NBA, the team that takes players no one else wants and turns them into pillars of playoff runs. They’ve found an identity that resonates with the vibe of their city (in a way that the wispy, all-finesse Pau Gasol – great though he is – never could). People who were skeptical of the Grizz when they first arrived are now being converted by the style and intensity of play, and by the results.
If we love this team, though, we’re going to have to figure out a way to keep them here. Season ticket sales in a town as poor as Memphis were never going to be easy, though I would imagine the team’s playoff run last year helped in that regard. Heisley wants to sell to local owners, but Larry Ellison has billions of dollars, and if he’s desperate, I would imagine he’ll make Heisley a Godfather offer. Heisley’s a businessman first – he’ll accept.
The Grizzlies don’t care who they’re playing – if they win, it’s going to be because they’re tougher than you are. Memphis as a city needs to have this sort of mentality if we’re going to keep our team here.
Lots of places are prettier and richer than Memphis, but none of those places are as tough, or love basketball as much. Memphians love our team because our team reflects qualities that we love about ourselves. The qualities that almost got us to the Western Conference Finals last year will be the ones to keep other cities’ hands off our team, too.