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Strength in Numbers: Finding Unity in Memphis

Memphis and America have felt the strain of poor race relations. This season, the Grizzlies must continue to be a unifying force in the community.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Grizzly Bear Blues or SB Nation. Follow guest writer Austin Crowder on Twitter @acrowder73.

Race matters.

It matters in an America where people of color have been discriminated against, and at times persecuted harshly, simply because of their skin tone. It matters in a city like Memphis, where moving forward from these damaging actions of the past and present is crucial for economic policy, social policy, education, religion, and essentially every other aspect of society...

And it matters in sports, in basketball, in Memphis Grizzlies basketball.

The Grizzlies, as STAX Records was, can be for the nation a beacon of integration and a reminder of shared destiny during a time fraught with institutional racism. The unity shared by a Grizzlies team from all walks of life strikes a chord—hopefully a prophetic one—in the best part of Memphians.

At a quick glance the racial and ethnic makeup of last season’s Grizzlies squad was not far off from Memphis’s 2015 census data. Being a broadly segregated city, Memphis has lessons to learn from the team’s solidarity.

A legacy of prejudicial legislation including urban planning, housing policies, tax structures, and criminal justice have wedged our city and compounded disparities. Two of the three Title 1 public schools I have taught in have had a student body composed of only one race. The path of progress is long, but must include deeper and more thoughtful relationships.

When Zach Randolph, an African-American power forward, gregariously says of center Marc Gasol, "I love the guy, man. I call him my brother from a different mother. We have a special bond." I see the solidarity profoundly resonate in the fabric of Memphis’s being. I know few fans that haven’t referenced that connection when watching the dominant tandem in a big game, seeing them share a laugh beforehand or an embrace after.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The impact relationships have played in free-agency decisions has been well documented. Questioned about leaving Memphis, Mike Conley said of Gasol, “I wouldn’t be able to be with my guy.” They also wouldn’t have been able to continue carpooling home from the FedEx Forum in Conley’s Tesla.

FedExForum is a sacred space during a Grizzlies game. It is a space where two strangers literally and metaphorically from two opposite sides of the train tracks, at any sign of a “First Team” Tony Allen play, instinctively high five, embrace, and wave their unified swag—growl towels. It is a space where Yo Gotti and Al Kapone share a stage with the Collierville prep school kids who sung the National Anthem. It is a space where multi-millionaire professional athletes fist bump friends working the arena as a near minimum wage job.

While not void of disparities, this example takes us one step closer to what Memphis as a whole could be. The composition and essence of the crowd at a Grizzlies game is palpably different than a Memphis Tiger’s tailgate, a Saturday night hangout at a bar on Beale, or even a Sunday morning trip to most places of worship in Memphis. It is a place of connection, a diverse set of people so enamored with a shared hope that they band together for the cause with every ounce of their being. At our current juncture in the United States, and in Memphis, the 2016-2017 Memphis Grizzlies season offers a unique space to practice this essential process.

Grizz Nation, whether in or out of the Fed-Ex Forum, think further about how you embrace the Memphis Grizzlies and their fandom. Consider with whom you share the games, how you participate in them, and what opportunities—If offered to you—you could have to listen, learn from, and begin understanding the lives of people different than you in our city.

In a recent interview Z-bo expressed that he and others plan to protest, similar to Colin Kaepernick, police brutality and other problems that our country faces. The choice to stand in solidarity with our team in this act, or not, will be a defining one. To attempt to understand the hurt reflected in such protests with our team is a chance to extend, however incrementally, the healing of our city from the ravages of deeply rooted racism. To deny that hurt by instead hunkering deeper into a superficial nationalism would be to betray the very ethos that defines our team.

If we let it, or better yet if we choose it, this season can be a part of bringing Memphis together and towards progress, contradicting ever-amounting momentum. The unity and common purpose that has built this Memphis fandom can bleed into our streets, workplaces, law enforcement, schools, and places of worship. But, to make this season something bigger than basketball will not be easy. It will require vulnerability, empathy, and dedication. Fortunately, that is who we are in Memphis--

All heart. Grit. Grind.

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