Bless the people who have the gumption to start professional sports leagues. To say that they're climbing a steep hill is an understatement. For every success story like the AFL, there's a swath of failures like the XFL, Slamball, and the WHA. Even something as moderately successful as the ABA was specifically designed to merge into the more established NBA -- it was never intended to stand on its own forever.
Appropriately, given the city's historical wallow through mediocrity, Memphis has been involved in what seems like at least half of all failed sports leagues in modern history. Before the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies we have seen the likes of Pharoahs, Mad Dogs, Tams, Rogues, and Maniax.
And also Grizzlies, a football team in the short-lived WFL of 1974-75.
The Southmen (Grizzlies) were originally slated to be based out of Toronto and called the Northmen, but the Canadian Prime Minister nixed that idea because he didn't want a U.S.-based league competing with the CFL. So we owe you guys up north at least 2 now, I suppose.
Although their official name was the Southmen, the recycled label naturally didn't sit well with Memphians. It was informally changed to the "Grizzlies" (and the name would eventually be made official), stemming from the clawed bear you see in the logo above, which was quite likely designed when the team was still planning to be based in Canada, you know, where there are Grizzly bears roaming around.
But make no mistake, this wasn't something that Memphians sneered at. Their home opener packed over 30,000 into the Liberty Bowl with Elvis Presley, a fervent football fan, in attendance. After the league collapsed due to poor management, the Grizzlies owner, John Basset, petitioned to be accepted into the NFL and collected 40,000 deposits for season tickets to support the city's plea. Even after the NFL denied the request, Basset kept them tied up in courts for another decade trying to force them to accept the team in principle -- even though all the players had obviously disbanded and moved on -- simply because the team had been so well supported.
So next time you think about how the only Grizzly bears anywhere near Memphis, TN are captive inside the local zoo, just be aware that the city has had a passionate relationship with Grizzlies before. Perhaps this is the universe showing off its sense of humor, gifting Memphis with a professional sports team that, for the second time, is emblazoned with an animal, the same animal, that doesn't exist locally or even regionally.
And for a second time we are making the most of it, loving our misplaced bears with intense fandom and pride.
It makes sense if you've spent time here. Something about it makes the name more fitting than the indigenous options for nicknames. The "Grizzlies" brand doesn't feel out of place when you look at what it's pointing to: the idea that Memphis makes the most of what it has and is damn happy with it.