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MLK50: The Grizzlies connect Memphis

Memphis is a city still divided by racial and economic tensions. However, the Grizzlies remain a great unifier.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

“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. Memphis is a better city now, thanks to the Memphis State basketball team.”

This was a quote from Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler back in 1973. Of course, Chandler spoke of the Memphis State Tigers, not the Memphis Grizzlies (just in case your knowledge of Memphis basketball history is not extensive). However, the Grizzlies have had a similar impact on the modern Memphis community.

Allow for me to paint you a picture.

There is a basketball arena filled with nearly 18,000 people. Everywhere you look are people from every single walk of life. Yet, at least for moments throughout the night, people don’t see race, color, religion or socioeconomic status when looking at those beside them. Instead, they simply see fellow fans—fellow fans who love to yell and wave yellow towels. Strangers become friends, and relationships are formed.

It’s beautiful. It’s glorious.

It’s Memphis.

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

It is certainly no secret that Memphis is a city dominated by its heritage of racism and economic inequality. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. over 50 years ago serves as a symbol and reminder of Memphis’ troubled legacy. Healing has been, and will continue to be, a difficult process.

But in a city that is still divided on both racial and economic lines, there are still things that remind us of how far we have come. There are times that remind us that the sins of the past do not have to be the reality of the present and future. The Memphis Grizzlies in particular are a reason to celebrate the progress that Memphis has made over the last several decades.

When I go to a Memphis Grizzlies game, it has never been uncommon for me to sit with people who look nothing like me. We may come from completely different parts of Memphis and totally different backgrounds. We very well may not have hardly anything in common at all. But there’s one thing that we definitely do have in common.

We all love the Memphis Grizzlies.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

And that’s the beauty of it. The Grizzlies have consistently unified a community that is infamous for its division. In a city that continually struggles with racial and civic tensions, the Grizzlies provide a symbol of hope for people to rally around.

A great example of the hope that the Grizzlies have brought to Memphis was during the horrific storms and flooding of the region back in 2011. The flooding was catastrophic as 18 people from Tennessee and Arkansas died. In Memphis, the storms caused evacuations, severe damage, and mass power outages. All things considered, it was a very painful time for many Memphians. Fortunately, heroes rise in moments of adversity, and the Memphis Grizzlies were no different. As the “Grit ‘N’ Grind Grizzlies went on their first playoff run, they gave hope to a city that desperately needed it.

That playoff run would of course become the beginning of a time of excellence for the Grizzlies—one that is now coming to a conclusion. Their seven-year playoff run will come to an end this year, and it has generally been a season out of hell. Needless to say, the race to the bottom has not been a pleasant one for the Grizzlies.

However, a poor season has not reduced the unity or support that the team has created over the last decade. Even though the Grizzlies are in the midst of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, home attendance in 2018 has only dipped by just 7.7% (87.9% filled) from their attendance peak in 2015 (95.6%). The people of Memphis still rally around their team even during the hard times.

Now, let me be clear. The Grizzlies have and will continue to be a source of racial and civic unity in Memphis. That’s great. However, it’s important to remember that the Memphis Grizzlies cannot solve the problems that still face the Memphis community.

In his final speech “I’ve Been to the Moutaintop” that he gave in Memphis, Dr. King gave a powerful vision of what he wanted our society to look like.

But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

The Memphis Grizzlies, despite all of the good will that they have created, will not bring us into the Promised Land. There will always be hatred and ignorance in the world, and the problems that exist in the Memphis community will likely always be there. Basketball is a bandaid—it can somewhat help the problem, but there has to be internal healing for there to be real change.

However, the Grizzlies have given us a symbol that allows us to focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us. From the time of the Memphis State Tigers, basketball has given us hope that we can become better, and the Grizzlies have carried on that legacy. When I walk in to FedExForum and see people from every walk of life, it shows me how far we have come—and how far we still need to go.

If Dr. King was to walk into our Forum for a Grizzlies game, I feel like he would be proud of what he saw. Even though there is still more work to be done, progress has been made.

And it is a beautiful thing to see.

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