Memphis has always been a pro wrestling town. Whether you're a subscriber to the WWE Network or one of those people that think pro wrestling is to sports and popular culture what the McRib is to barbeque (count me in the latter camp), there's an innate understanding of the theatricality of the pseudo-sport that is ingrained in Memphians of all stripes. When Andy Kaufman came down to Memphis to declare himself the "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World," it played locally like a dinner party on "The Office," while the rest of country looked on in horror. Memphians got the joke: Kaufman was playing a heel, a role as old as theater itself, and we whooped it up and packed the Coliseum to see local hero Jerry "The King" Lawler give him his comeuppance. As is a heel's wont.
Of all the things to celebrate about the current era of the Grizzlies, the beautifully anarchic culture that has grown up around the team is probably my favorite. The black market t-shirts, the home-brewed sloganeering, the murals, the music, the impromptu flash mobs on the promenade... it's all so perfectly Memphis. It's Memphis in an idealistic sense, the expression of a cultural identity that wasn't always so easy to impart to outsiders. It's what King Curtis cooked up in "Memphis Soul Stew," or what Jim Jarmusch sought to preserve in Mystery Train.
The city's eccentricities allow for a certain amount of leeway in the national media, and with good cause: we've earned it. You got a problem with our "Memphis vs. Errrbody" growl towels? Well, #YouAintFromMemphis. But can you imagine another professional sports franchise so publicly incorporating African-American slang (or the slang from any other minority group) into their marketing materials? If Jazz fans were given "Salt Lake City vs. Errrbody" shirts before a playoff game, Twitter would've exploded and Adam Silver would've banned ownership from the league and moved the team to Las Vegas. And for the record, I loved those towels; I may have even gotten one framed. It was a bold move made by a hyper image-conscious corporation that should be celebrated, and the fact that it was so heartily embraced by the population writ large was a testament to the team's ability to unite people with such a long, troubled history of racial division. My point is that the Grizzlies, by virtue of representing a city with such a unique place in the culture, are able to toe a line that other teams wouldn't dare approach.
Which brings us to "Whoop That Trick."
Let me first just say that, like the Errrbody towels, I would defend the Grizzlies' incorporation of the Hustle & Flow anthem into their in-game program to St. Peter himself.
It. Is. Awesome.
I was at Game 6 win against the Clippers when Super Grizz dropped the "Finish Them" banner and the crowd's collective chant sent Blake Griffin & Co. running for the rafters. It's probably my favorite moment at a sporting event. Ever. And although I think the movie does a good job of explaining that "Trick" is not intended to be interpreted as a woman, per se, the words are still what they are. "Trick" usually means prostitute. You can take it from there. Again, we get a pass from national media types who understand the city's relationship to the song, Al Kapone, and Hustle & Flow.
memphis is different, man. RT @Quefused: was that a "Whoop that trick" chant?— El Flaco (@bomani_jones) April 30, 2015
He's right, of course. Memphis is different. I want it to stay different. I want the Grindhouse to stay crazy, and for Grizzlies fans to remain the most unique, expressive, and weird in professional sports. We've earned it. That's why I'm worried about Matt Barnes.
Look, I don't care what NBA players say to one another on the court (or off it, for that matter). But on May 7, when the Clippers were busy losing to the Rockets, Matt Barnes apparently said THIS (language in link NSFW) to James Harden's mother. That's indefensible. I'm not saying that he deserved to be punished any more than he was, but that was awful. It's also the kind of thing that could put an end to the good times here in Memphis.
Just think about what would happen if Barnes says the exact same thing to the same person next year during the playoffs. Do you think the Grizzlies' public relations staff are going to let "Whoop That Trick" play over the loudspeaker during a nationally televised game following that? They wouldn't, but if they did, imagine the fallout:
1. Salon.com makes the Grizzlies the subjects of the most insufferable series of thinkpieces on the inherent misogyny of "sport."
2. Breitbart.com makes the Grizzlies the subjects of the most racist series of electronic bathroom wall scribblings about how the NBA is "full of thugs."
3. Clay Travis writes about how Twitter is full of PC police and, not understanding the controversy, compares Matt Barnes to the confederate flag, which he says should be flown over all sporting events.
4. Darren Rovell tweets that his sources at Pepsi condemn the actions of the Grizzlies' in-house DJ
5. I write an article arguing to no avail that THIS (same language as before, still NSFW) isn't actual misogynistic quoting the same lines in Hustle & Flow that explain why "Whoop That Trick" isn't misogynistic.
6. The SB Nation NBA editorial staff quits over SB Nation Corporate's decision to pull my article and goes to work at Gawker.
7. Reddit implodes, 4Chan takes over the internet and we're all forced to watch rickrolls for eternity.
8. Donald Trump elected King of America.
I'm only half-kidding with the above scenarios. Grizzlies fans have been really lucky in that all the players during this era have been genuinely good guys, and there have been almost zero controversies surrounding the team that would have any traction as part of some kind of national debate. We need to keep it that way.
That's why Barnes' latest stunt in challenging Serge Ibaka to a fight is more than a little worrisome. There are a lot of tough guys on this team, and it's no secret that Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are not dudes to be trifled with. But for all of the DJ Paul borderline inappropriate Instagrams and the "We Don't Bluff" towels, it's still a pro wrestling posture we're throwing out. We don't actually want those guys to fight (or, per DJ Paul, murder, I guess?) anybody,* but we love making people think that we'll "Beat Yo Ass." I just hope Barnes knows the difference. And if he doesn't learn to keep his mouth shut, then I'd like to invite him to play cards with Tony on their next flight together. Because I'll be damned if Matt Barnes ruins this party.
*Maybe Blake Griffin...
TL;DR Letter to Matt Barnes on Behalf of Grizzlies Fans
Hey man, thanks for being here. We're really glad you're part of the Grizz family. Here's the deal: shut the hell up. Everybody knows you're a tough MFer. You don't need to stand up for Blake or Chris "Nut-Puncher" Paul anymore. Don't worry about that ish. Z-Bo and TA got your back. So please don't start any fights now that you're here because we got dudes who'll finish fights and everybody will get suspended if that goes down. Even with Serge. Also don't talk to anybody's mom again. That's not cool. Otherwise, be you, dogg. You wit us.