I have always loved basketball...but for a long time I hated the NBA.
I bought in to the cheap narratives, choosing to not appreciate the best athletes in the world showcasing their skills and instead focusing on the apparent lack of effort from night to night, the at times lazy play offensively and defensively, the antics that took away from the game I first fell for.
Being a Washington Wizards fan initially didn’t help matters either. When the Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton incident happened, and the infamous gun hands in the huddle picture, that was the last straw. I wasn’t interested in the NBA anymore because it didn’t represent basketball the way I felt it should be played. The Wizards were everything wrong with the sport, and I was out.
For years, I’d check in from afar. Then came 2011, a decision to move to Memphis, Tennessee, and Tony Allen. Tony Allen wasn’t the most offensively skilled player in history. But damn it, he was authentic. He was passionate. When I first heard him utter those now legendary words “it’s all heart, grit, grind”, I was intrigued once again by the NBA.
Then I saw Allen and Zach Randolph help lead a team of misfits and inexperienced players past the mighty San Antonio Spurs and push the Oklahoma City Thunder to the brink. I saw a city rally during a difficult time as use these players as a way to rise up above the adversity of the rising Mississippi River. It wasn’t some manufactured bit from a front office PR person. It was organic.
It was real.
Then in the years I lived in Memphis I got to see first hand the peak of this era. The Western Conference Finals. The Clippers battles. Up and down and in and out, my time in the Bluff City directly coincided with the most successful run for the Memphis Grizzlies in their history. I saw the Core Four become the Core Four, right before my eyes. I saw how they clearly cared for each other, even with the flaws and the family-esque infighting that occurred at times. This was so different from any other NBA team I had seen, but not just because they truly played for their team and city...
Again, it was real.
So when Zach Randolph and Tony Allen departed in the Summer of 2017, I was disappointed as most were. Yes, there were times where I would be frustrated with them, and yes, there were times I would say a trade or another type of move would be wise. I was wrong. But even the staunchest TA and Z-Bo fans seemed to understand why the time was right to move on from the two franchise cornerstones. Father Time is undefeated, and he was starting to win the battle with these two players. Zach had a big contract offer he would’ve been foolish to ignore and Memphis would’ve been foolish to match. Tony didn’t fit the mold of what then Head Coach David Fizdale wanted for his roster. It made sense.
Then, there were Grit and Grind Forever towels. And other mentions and attempts at nostalgia to go back to a place in time that, without Zach and Tony, could never be recreated.
Part of the failure of last season can probably be connected in part to the moving on from Zach and Tony. When two players that were such key components to team chemistry both on and off the floor suddenly are no longer there, the void can be hard to fill. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have been better basketball players than Randolph and Allen for years now, but they aren’t the type of leaders than TA and Z-Bo were. So much of what that run was was because of the mentality of Zach, the tenacity of Tony, and the authenticity of both of them.
Without their presence, there was a lack of identity. And with that was an attempt at times to go back to a part of this franchise’s history that cannot be recreated. What made Grit and Grind so special was those that created it and lived it on their own. That can’t be forced, otherwise it goes from who you are to what you’re trying to sell as who you are.
That won’t work.
As year two of the post-Zach and Tony reality begins, the roster has undergone substantial changes as new Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff attempts to establish a new era. Gone are the young, inexperienced players that weren’t responding as well in the new-look locker room, and now there has been an emphasis placed on smart, tough, versatile players capable of self-motivation and focus. Defense has clearly been a priority, and while the style of play may look familiar at times to what once was it should not be billed as any return to “Grit and Grind”.
It is an attempt to play to the strengths of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, to allow for more facilitation of offense and rotation on defense. It is a focus on length, and versatility, and being unique. That is smart, and the Grizzlies front office should be commended for building an almost surely more competitive team. It is not possible, however, to recreate something in a planned way that occurred so randomly and beautifully. You can’t be Grit and Grind without the guys who gave birth to it and made it a legitimate movement. It disrespects what that era was, and what it meant.
To the credit of local media and the team, so far it appears that may indeed be happening. Little to no real “grit and grind” questions or conversations at the team’s Media Day and no “Grit and Grind” towels or giveaways show that the grieving process may be progressing. Fans still miss those two iconic figures, and long for those playoff victories and memorable moments. All good things come to an end, though, and as Memphis enters the next stage of their basketball history it is for the best that this new group of Grizzlies get a chance to create their own identity.
I fell in love with the Memphis Grizzlies because of Grit and Grind. The memories of those Memphis moments will live on forever. The steady march towards what is next continues. In that pursuit, moving forward and not back must remain the focus.