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The endgame of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley

Legacy and longing for what might have been for the Memphis Grizzlies

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere, there is a collection of friends in a group text talking about that night years ago.

Life takes you away from those you care about, and places you come to call home. That’s part of living. For this particular set of buddies, they were thrown together by chance. Memphis is full of jobs that aren’t necessarily designed to be long-term positions - transients are not uncommon in the city, and these guys are no different. Iowa, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi...from all over the country, they descended on the Bluff City for one reason or another, and found each other through work and bonded over the good fortune they had, getting to live in Memphis during the peak of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies.

This isn’t the recent attempted re-brand of Grit and Grind we are talking about - this is the real deal. This isn’t Grit and Grind Lite - this is the full-bodied version, the collection of bad ass players doing bad ass things on an almost nightly basis. This is Zach Randolph openly telling people he will beat their ass, Tony Allen unintentionally, and hilariously, kicking Chris Paul in the face. This is the thunderous energy of the Grindhouse, when FedExForum shook with 18,119 people screaming Whoop That Trick as a banner unfurled from a mascot on top of a ladder. The belief those people had as they held up Growl Towels that said Believe Memphis And it made sense- probably only in Memphis, but it made sense.

It worked.

The friends linger on the memories of arguably the peak of that era - 2013, Game 6, Western Conference playoffs. The night Z-Bo skipped off the floor and the Lob City L.A. Clippers, with all the talent and shine and limelight, got bounced from the postseason by the Memphis Grizzlies. It was a peak Core Four performance - Zach Randolph scored 22 points, Tony Allen had 19 himself in addition to four steals. But the work of Mike Conley (23 points 7 assists) and Marc Gasol (only 10 points, but was at the peak of his powers as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year) were instrumental as well.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If the Core Four were The Beatles, Marc and Mike would be John Lennon and Paul McCartney. TA and Z-Bo’s spots as Ringo and George, respectfully, are perhaps a bit too limiting - at its peak the Core Four were equals, all symbiotically fitting together to make something quite organic, real, and effective. In terms of relationship, though, Mike and Marc were John and Paul. Basketball kindred spirits, their play on the court was only upstaged by their obvious affinity for one another off of it. They were friends, almost brothers, and their partnership that has lasted over a decade now has helped make Memphis basketball what it is.

Memories of the lights of Beale Street overlooking the crowd sitting on the 2nd floor balcony at Alfred’s and the happiness of that throng of Grizzlies fans go through the minds of the friends, the smells of beer and the sounds of the blues and laughter fresh in their memories. It’s as if they never left - even though time, and life, have led them away from those simpler days.

Somewhere, there is a young lady on a tablet watching videos before bed...something her mom and dad would rather her not be doing.

She had just gone to the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game with her family, another disappointing loss for the hometown Grizzlies, and she had heard her parents talking about how sad it is that it is all ending. She wanted to know exactly what “it” was, so with a simple Google trip and YouTube search she was whisked away to a world of highlights from a bygone era. Made threes to send a team from obscurity to the spotlight, game winning shots against the mighty Spurs and Thunder and Warriors, video packages detailing the play and emotion of a roster that is no longer together, but still etched in the annals of time for those who experienced it...who knew it was real.

Hours go by, and this girl is mesmerized. It’s almost like she can feel the excitement through the screen. This is why her parents still have season tickets, she thinks to herself - her friends all own Stephen Curry and LeBron James jerseys, and follow teams from far away. But she got Mike Conley jerseys and Marc Gasol signed basketballs for birthdays and holidays - she always secretly hoped for a LeBron shirt or Steph shoes, but her parents always kept the Grizzlies gear in supply at their house.

Suddenly, the volume on the tablet and the dim light of the screen doom her as her dad discovers she is still awake. Busted. A good talking to and grounding for being on the device past bed time is sure to come...

Until it doesn’t. Her dad sees what she is watching and joins in, explaining some of the plays and moments to her. The moments that stay with him and her mom, and she sees the excitement in his eyes reliving these not-so-distant times before she was old enough to know of upsets and underdogs.

She asks him a question - “why are you so sad about Marc and Mike, Dad?”

He sighs, and pulls up a couple video clips -

After they’re done, the little girl’s father wipes a tear from his eye.

“They’re bigger than just basketball”, he says. “They are genuinely in love with Memphis. Here are two guys that couldn’t be more different from the outside - one from Spain, one from Indiana. One black, one white. One from the college ranks, one from pro ball overseas. They got to the city in such different ways, yet they love it just the same. They work with kids...they work for the community. They chose to stay...”

He takes a breath.

“They could’ve gone just about anywhere. Money matters, and that’s probably part of why they stayed. But the Grizzlies were their team. Memphis is their city. They chose Memphis...and chose to try to make it better. That means more than the fact they never won a title, or went to a Finals, or even a division title. Maybe that’s not how it works in most other places...but Memphis is different. If this is the end, Memphis will miss them...I will miss them.”

The dad kisses his daughter on the forehead and takes the tablet. The young girl stares at the ceiling, thinking about what her father said and what matters most in sports, and in life. The next day, she asks to play basketball with her dad and learns about the patented Conley floater and Gasol fadeaway from her old man...a moment between parent and child both unique to these two and constant across eras and history.

Somewhere, there are two professional basketball players waking up to a reality that they probably knew was possible, but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

The only NBA city they’ve ever known as athletes may soon be in their rear view mirrors. Their partnership, both on and off the floor, in a day to day sense may be concluding soon. Everything ends - it is one of the certainties in this life. That is especially true in professional sports, where the past and the accomplishments of those departed days hold a finite value when it comes to dollars and cents. The sense of the end that surrounded the loss to the Pelicans, and the recent stretch of poor play, is directly connected to the painful reality that they can no longer save the Memphis Grizzlies.

In this moment, their own mortality shines through the darkest parts of their minds.

It seems like it was just yesterday when they were arriving in the city, becoming acclimated to the Memphis way of things. The adversity and slow starts, the boom times and the threats of being a bust, the Western Conference Finals and the finality of the current state of all floats through their thoughts and angry acceptance like a balloon floating upward in a strong, unstable wind. The emotions are overwhelming - this is their home. Their families settled here, have been started here.

In a way, they themselves started here.

All heroes die. Fortunes are gained, and lost. In the wake of the lives and careers even the best of us lead, what matters most is what we leave behind us as we go. If this is indeed the end of the greatest era in Grizzlies history, for arguably their two greatest heroes, they know they have given their best for both the franchise and the city that it, and they, became men in. If their time has indeed come, they will leave this team and place better than it was when they arrived.

One day, outside of FedExForum, they will become immortals as statues, likely alongside Randolph and Allen, their Core Four brothers. Their numbers will hang in the rafters of FedExForum as long as there is a building and a team inhabiting it every basketball season. It will not matter what uniforms they wear as their careers conclude - they will always be Grizzlies, and they will always be sons of Memphis.

Their endgame will be the legacy they leave behind, be it two days, two weeks, or two years from now: the memories, the moments, and the many fans who now look to a future without them because of the times they had with them.

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