There are so many things that divide us.
If you turn on a television or glance at social media, the divisions that are present in American society almost seems to be irreparable. Whether it is race, religion, color or politics, we seem to lose more and more common ground with each other with each passing day.
For lack of a better way to describe it, we now seem to fear and despise our neighbors when we are supposed to love them as ourselves. And in the heart of that fear, there is darkness.
However, there is still light that shines in the darkness and reminds us of what we could become. It unites us in brotherly love and exemplifies who we should be as a people. And that light is often found in the simpler things in life.
For the city of Memphis, the light that unites us is and always will be basketball. Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler perhaps said it best back in 1973: “Memphis basketball has unified the city like it’s never been unified before. Black and white, rich and poor, old and young are all caught up in their success.”
This is what people from the outside like the Jay Bilases, Stephen. A. Smiths and Dan Dakiches of the world can never truly understand. In the critical world of college basketball, no one places the Memphis Tigers in the realm of blue bloods like Kentucky, North Carolina or Duke. And certainly no critical analyst has ever truly considered the Memphis Grizzlies as one of the great NBA franchises.
They just don’t get it.
Why would the Memphis Tigers fire such a respected and legendary coach in Tubby Smith to hire a former NBA all-star who has only coached at the grassroots and high school level?
Why don’t the Memphis Grizzlies just blow up their entire roster and start over? After all, it’s not like they have any real chance of becoming a contender in their current form. Or, if you’re Stephen A. Smith, why don’t the Grizzlies just move to Seattle?
In their attempts to critique what they perceive as a lower-income, mediocre sports city, they miss the point entirely. Basketball in Memphis is about more than just the win column (and make no mistake, both of the cities’ basketball teams, especially the Memphis Tigers, have enjoyed rich success over the courses of their existence).
In reality, basketball in Memphis is a symbol of civic unity, the bridge that closes the gap between different members of a society that could not be more divided. Memphis has a civic legacy and racial heritage that can be directly tied to basketball, which is what sets it apart from most cities.
To be sure, the Grizzlies and Tigers have both brought joy, pain, bliss and agony over the years, but the point is that we have experienced it all together. Basketball unites us and brings us together as one.
That is why it was not unusual to see people hugging others who look nothing like them and have no discernible similarities to them when James Wiseman announced that he would be a Memphis Tiger. There may be superficial differences, but there is one thing in Memphis that renders them all moot, at least for a time—basketball.
As a result, their joy is our joy, and their pain is our pain. It’s a beautiful thing that can’t be quantified or truly understood if you’re not apart of it.
However, basketball loses its unifying force in Memphis when another negative quality is present. Apathy.
Apathy is a pervasive cancer, a suffocating asthma that can suck the life out of any program or city. And it pervaded both the Memphis Grizzlies and Memphis Tigers last year.
Apathy is why the Memphis Tigers made the radical decision to hire Penny Hardaway. Of course, the chance to land some of the most touted recruits in the country like James Wiseman was part of it, but it was about far more than just that.
It was a chance to again fully realize the unifying power that basketball has in Memphis. It was a chance to once again embrace our heritage and what makes us unique. The fact that it could be done through Memphis’ favorite son is just the icing on the cake.
Ironically, the unifying power of basketball in Memphis is also why the Grizzlies have stayed the course. A Memphis Grizzlies team that is led by Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will likely never win a championship, but they were among the main catalysts in redefining what Memphis basketball looks like for a new generation. Perhaps it is only fitting that they continue to lead the franchise into the future, until the time comes when Jaren Jackson Jr. will be ready to take the reins.
At the end of the day, there is no better advice I can give than this: Cherish this moment.
Cherish the fact that the Memphis Grizzlies are currently tied for first in the Western Conference as they once again give the rest of the NBA hell.
Cherish the fact that the Memphis Tigers are once again nationally relevant with a real chance of competing for a national championship over the next few years.
Cherish Memphis’ new unicorns in Jaren Jackson Jr. and James Wiseman.
And most importantly of all, cherish the unity that the game of basketball has given to the city of Memphis. It is a beautiful reflection of who we are and who we could become, if we just removed our prejudices and focused on the good in each other. Memphis basketball is a light that shines in the darkness of the division in our culture.
There is nothing like it in the world.