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Why We Bitch: Understanding Memphis Dread

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We are literally #1. What's the problem?

Kevin C. Cox

I didn't realize the effect [the assassination of Martin Luther King] had on that city...I think from people we talk to and stuff we've read, the shooting kind of set the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind, and the whole crowd got tense. It was like, 'Oh no, something bad's gonna happen.' And I think it starts from that shooting.

- Bill Simmons, May 29, 2013

The internet outrage that was set off by these comments a few years back as the Memphis Grizzlies were in the process of getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs obscured a rather astute - albeit misplaced - observation about Memphis sports fandom by Mr. Simmons: the dread. Simmons felt it in the arena. We've all felt it. Zach Randolph referenced it in his famous "Blue Collar Player" postgame speech:

"It's a blue-collar town and I'm a blue-collar player, I'm a hard worker and this is a hard-workin' town. Ain't nothin' been given easy to me, ain't nothin' easy been given to this town."

Z-Bo said that after the Grizzlies knocked off the Spurs in the 2011 playoffs, by the way. During the single greatest moment in the franchise's history, with the adulation of 20,000 overjoyed Memphians showering down upon him, Z-Bo thought first of his adopted city's hardscrabble history and, inadvertently or not, referenced that feeling.

Simmons was obviously wrong about a causational link between Martin Luther King and seeing Memphians deflate as Gregg Popovich's basketball ballet ran circles around our plodding Grit-N-Grinders, but if Memphis fans were being honest, they knew exactly what he was attempting to evoke. In Simmons' defense, being home to the site of one of the country's worst and most intimate tragedies probably shapes our collective worldview more than we realize.

But so does Mario Chalmers.

If you were following the Grizzlies exclusively through social media this season, you might have no idea that the team currently has the best record in the NBA at 7-1. Chris Vernon, quite possibly the greatest cheerleader of any professional franchise in the country, has taken to starting his daily radio shows not with not with his usual carnival-barker-at-a-rave celebrations, but instead with something more akin to Daily Affirmations of the Stuart Smalley variety.

We're winning enough.

We're playing well enough to win.

And doggonit, we're a good basketball team.

To be absolutely clear, this is not a criticism of Vernon. This is the rational response of a person confronted with the baffling, overwhelming negativity espoused by Grizzlies fans. And I should know...

I posted that after the Lakers game. There's a storm coming? I should unfollow myself. Here at GBB on a daily basis, we're inundated with panicked requests to explain tertiary issues like bench rebounding, Tayshaun Prince's shot arc, and perceived managerial incompetence related to the roster's omission of (in order) James Johnson, Tony Wroten, Rudy Gay, and Ed Davis. And I TOTALLY get it! We're technically the best team in the NBA right now, and all I want to do is get on Twitter and scream about how the hell the Grizzlies let the worst team in the NBA's backup point guard get away. Because "there's a storm coming". I need to get a life.

So what in the wild world of sports is going on in Grizzlies land? Why is such fatalism endemic to Memphis sports culture?

Well, we've had our share of heartbreak. We're probably the only city in the country with the unique experience of being burned by every scumbag like Donald Trump or Vince McMahon who decided to haf-assedly slap together a professional football league. I still can't decide which indignity was worse: granting the Oilers/Titans temporary asylum while their new stadium was constructed in Nashville, or allowing the name Memphis in front of a team called the Maniax. Then we thought the Tigers would get into the SEC, or the Big East, or the ACC. Then Mario Chalmers makes that shot. And then Calipari. We were the victims of an actual Pyramid scheme, for God's sake.

At this point, expecting the worst is a Memphis tradition, and we should embrace it.

I'm not endorsing negativity, and I don't mean to suggest that we don't love Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen - WE DO - but let's be honest, a defeatist's mentality has its advantages. There's nothing more fun than a Cubs game, after all. (Imagine if they were good!) Plus, it informs the way the team is perceived and covered: a #hotsportstake in Memphis is Geoff Calkins writing about Mike Conley's improvement in the Commercial Appeal, prominent national bloggers like Matt Moore adopt your team for the hell of it, and Grizzlies schadenfreude is virtually non-existent.

You know who has no capacity for self-criticism because they believe their teams are the best every year? Fans of the Lakers and Alabama. And they're the most miserable people fans on earth.

There are those who'd have you believe that our mindset is the result of urban blight, or racial disunity, or statistical anomalies that produce listicle fodder for Forbes Magazine's clickbait claptrap. That's nonsense. Memphis is a good-time town full of fun-loving, friendly people who just happen to overwhelmingly believe their favorite teams are cursed.

Maybe that's why the Grizzlies have created so much joy for everybody who loves them: if you're always bracing for disaster, then success is all gravy. So grab some biscuits, baby, because the gravy's overflowin'.