Before I say anything else, let’s go ahead and get one thing clear:
The city of Memphis has always been a Tigers town (or at least it always was).
As an almost 21-years-old now, I grew up in a city that cared about the Memphis Grizzlies but loved the Memphis Tigers. Of course, I always loved to watch Jason Williams (if there was ever a player that belonged in the era of Twitter, it was him), Mike Miller, and Pau Gasol play, but it was Antonio Burkes, Rodney Carney, and Chris Douglas-Roberts that were my heroes.
When it came to the Memphis Grizzlies and Memphis Tigers, there never really was a competition. To be sure, the Grizzlies had some nice years when they made the playoffs from 2004-2006, but for a team that only came to Memphis in 2001, they completely lacked the historical success and tradition that the Tigers have. While the people of Memphis still cared about them, the Grizzlies were more of an afterthought, a secondary performance to the primary show in town.
Yet, somehow, the 2010-2011 Memphis Grizzlies changed that forever.
First, let’s start with some context.
After the infamous Pau Gasol trade in 2008, the Grizzlies struggled badly, finishing the 2007-08 season with a 22-60 record and going 24-58 the following year. However, with the addition of the mercurial Zach Randolph along with the improving core of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and O.J. Mayo, the Grizzlies were very competitive during the 2009-10 season, finishing 10th in the Western Conference with a 40-42 record.
Although many treated it as a joke at the time, the Grizzlies’ then-owner Michael Heisley had what he called the “Three-Year Plan” to get the Grizzlies back into the playoffs by 2011. But by the time the 2010-11 season was about to begin, it was no longer a joke (mostly through luck, but whatever works). Many predicted that the Grizzlies would finally make the playoffs once again.
Those predictions did not look good early on in the season.
Through the first 13 games of the season, the Grizzlies went 4-9, including a five-game losing streak in which they lost by double-digits three times. They also lost by less than six in five of their nine losses, showing their usual tendency at the time of being unable to close out games. While there was still plenty of time to improve, it really felt like the rest of the season was going to be just more of the same from the last few years.
And then this happened.
On November 20, Rudy Gay had one of the most iconic moments in franchise history when he made the shot over LeBron James that started to turn the Grizzlies’ season around. In retrospect, it was moments like this that really made you feel that something special was on the horizon.
Of course, the struggles of a young and developing team still existed as the Grizzlies fell to 8-14 at one point. But they continued to grow and improve, and with a win over the Orlando Magic on January 31, they finally had a winning record at 25-24. They would never look back at that point and would finish the season as the 8th seed in the Western Conference with a 46-36 record.
But we all know that there’s more to this story than numbers.
Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The date is February 8th. The Grizzlies are about to play the Thunder in Oklahoma City, and they will have to do it without Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. For better or for worse, Tony Allen starts in place of Mayo, and his assignment is Kevin Durant. All things considered, the situation doesn’t look great for the Grizzlies.
No one knew that a new legacy was about to be forged for Memphis, one that exists not only within its professional sports team but also in its cultural consciousness.
The game was, as the story goes, magnificent. The Grizzlies defeated the Thunder 105-101 in an overtime thriller off an incredible performance from Tony Allen who scored 27 points and tallied 5 steals. He also frustrated Kevin Durant for most of the night, which would become a common motif in the coming years.
After the game, Tony Allen changed the city of Memphis forever with four simple words. If you have been paying any attention to the Memphis Grizzlies over the last decade, you already know what they are.
“All heart. Grit. Grind.”
Nothing changed, and everything changed. The players stayed the same, the coaches stayed the same, the fans stayed the same, and the city stayed the same. But as Memphians, we always knew that there was something that bonded us, something that tied us together—a common identity that unifies us regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status.
Tony Allen just gave us the name for it.
What does “Believe Memphis” actually mean?
Does it mean that the city of Memphis should believe in the Grizzlies? Does it mean that people elsewhere should believe in the capabilities of Memphians? Or is it something else entirely?
While the phrase may be ambiguous, it has a clear meaning for me.
When I walked into the FedexForum filled with nearly 20,000 people to see the Grizzlies play the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in game three of that series, I saw that everyone was wearing the same white t-shirt with that phrase on it. I remember the absolute dread in the air when the Spurs cut the lead to two with less than a minute remaining in the game.
I remember the euphoric celebration when Zach Randolph hit a jab-step three over Tim Duncan to seal the game.
And I remember the man sitting to my right whom I’d never met crushing me in a bear hug.
To me, “Believe Memphis” is about unity; it is about focusing on what unites us as Memphians rather than what divides us. With the success that the Memphis Grizzlies had in 2010-2011, they were able to unite the city of Memphis in a way that really only the Memphis Tigers ever had.
We all know how this particular story ends. After defeating the Spurs for their first playoff series victory in franchise history, the Grizzlies would lose in seven games to the Thunder in the next round. However, the legacy that this team created still extends to today as the team tries to replicate it.
The Grizzlies have had plenty of highs and lows since then, with more lows in recent years. But they will always serve as a unifier, a reflection of the people who cheer for them.
The 2010-2011 Memphis Grizzlies are why we “Believe Memphis.”