In the classic film “Remember the Titans”, there is a somewhat underrated scene between two of the stars of the movie (and T.C. Williams football team of that season). The actors portraying Gerry Bertier and Julius Campbell - Ryan Hurst and Wood Harris, respectfully - are coming off the field after an intense practice session and have to do an interview-style conversation forced upon them by their head coach Herman Boone to try to foster empathy and team continuity in the face of segregation during the racially charged early 1970’s in northern Virginia. While they are the team’s two best players, they do not see eye to eye on a variety of things and they don’t trust each other.
Their exchange is a fascinating look in to the idea of the individual in a team game, and what can erode a team faster than anything else...here is a transcript of the second part of the scene -
Julius: ...Why should I give a hoot about you, huh? Or anyone else out there? You wanna talk about the ways you’re the captain, right?
Julius: You got a job?
Bertier: I’ve got a job.
Julius: You been doing your job?
Bertier: I’ve been doing my job.
Julius: Then why don’t you tell your white buddies to block for Rev better? Because they have not blocked for him worth a plug nickel, and you know it! Nobody plays. Yourself included. I’m supposed to wear myself out for the team? What team? Nah, nah what I’m gonna do is look out for myself and I’ma get mine.
Bertier: See man, that’s the worst attitude I ever heard.
Julius: Attitude reflects leadership, captain.
Here is the full scene - it’s powerful.
Replace racial tension with clashing basketball personalities and philosophies, and you may be getting an overview of last night’s heated team meeting for the Memphis Grizzlies. But to blame Omri Casspi and Garrett Temple, two career journeymen, for the issues boiling over in Memphis, would be a fool’s errand. They’re a symptom, but not the disease.
The idea of a “player’s meeting” is not new for Memphis this year - they’ve done this four or five times now by most counts. While this may be the longest and most heated, and by the looks of J.B. Bickerstaff afterwards the most exhausting, there is no reason to suspect it will change much of anything. The Grizzlies are currently free falling - from their 12-5 start to their current 18-19 record, Memphis is desperately looking for leadership to stand up and direct them, to catch them as they tumble through their darkest days of the campaign to date.
But instead of leadership, there is dissent. There is conflict. There is poor morale and attitude.
It reflects leadership. That starts at the top.
It starts with managing owner Robert Pera, who by all accounts has been more involved and present around the team themselves to this point with the ownership questions of past years answered (for now). But publicly, Pera continues to be an enigma, and his leadership style in terms of delegation remains confusing. How much blame can be placed at the feet of General Manager Chris Wallace if no one is 100% sure how involved he actually is?
Who is calling the shots in the front office, if Wallace is a public figure head? Is it Chris Makris? John Hollinger? Joe Abadi? How much, or little, influence do all these names have in the process before it gets to Robert Pera? The failed Suns and Wizards trade showed signs of incompetence for all involved, but the reported anger from Wallace in particular and subsequent conflicting reports about Pera interacting with Suns ownership directly about Dillon Brooks shows a failure at some level to communicate not just between franchises, but within.
That isn’t a Chris Wallace problem. That is a Robert Pera problem, because he created the situation.
As far as the on court product goes? J.B. Bickerstaff gets a ton of blame, and rightfully so when it comes to the rotations he institutes and schemes he implements. Offensively the team is stagnant at best and fatally flawed. Defensively there is far too much helping off of dribble penetration, leading to so many open three point attempts that it seems like opposing teams every other game convert season high attempts from beyond the arc. Bickerstaff continues to pick and choose who he disciplines when they’re playing poorly and over-rely on players that simply aren’t as good as their current roles indicate, like Shelvin Mack.
At some point, though, ownership and the front office must own their own lack of process when it comes to selecting Bickerstaff. The ease at which J.B. was selected gave several (this writer included) pause at the time of the decision, and the process looks quite questionable at the moment.
At the same time, players actually have to perform, too. That also starts at the top.
For a team that has made the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons, and is theoretically in the mix this season to return to postseason play, there sure has been much coaching overturn. Lionel Hollins, to Dave Joerger, to David Fizdale, to J.B. Bickerstaff...four coaches in eight seasons for a successful franchise is a lot of change. Yet at the center of it all are two players, the two guys remaining from that 2011 playoff series against the Spurs, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The two that are supposed to be the leaders of the team, that stayed in the locker room and met with media Wednesday night after the heated team meeting concluded.
They said a lot of the right things...but words do not erase history. Conley seems to simply be the quiet leader, the player who hopes folks follow through his example. Players would be wise to, of course - Mike is the best player on the team, and he carries himself as a true professional. At times, though, there needs to be words, and communication, and passion in those exchanges to bring attention to issues. In the absence of that kind of vocal leadership, anyone with a voice can fill the void left behind by Tony Allen and Zach Randolph (flawed in their own right, but at least they used their voices), which can further exacerbate any already existing problems.
With Marc Gasol, who has clashed with coaches and teammates over the years, there is a general sense that if you’re not acting or playing the way Marc sees as the “right way”, you’re wrong. This is strengthened by the reported healthy relationship Gasol shares with Pera - the two are said to “get” each other, which shouldn’t be too surprising at this point. It emboldens Marc to say things like this...
Marc Gasol says he is going to be "a lot more vocal" with his teammates now.— David Cobb (@DavidWCobb) January 3, 2019
“I think it’s needed, and guys expect that. I’ve worked on not being that critical with my teammates, because in the past it creates some problems. But now it’s going to change a little bit.”
Yes, that is what this team needs. The player that has shot 38.7% from the floor the past 16 games, 30.5% from three, to speak up criticizing the play of others. The guy who was a -20 against the Detroit Pistons Wednesday night, the one who had a net rating of -10 in December according to basketball-reference.com, the guy who is supposed to be the adult in the room and most veteran presence at almost 34 years old...he is the one who should be vocally critiquing play of those around him.
Marc has said that he needs to look himself in the mirror and figure out how to improve. Yet here we are living with another poor performance, and it isn’t just on the offensive end. It is defensively, where the team is supposed to hang their hat, where they are having issues as well, whether it is with fouling or leaving shooters open after poor rotations and over-helping. Words are ringing more and more hollow - it is actions both on and off the court (issues with previous coaches and teammates) that are revealing. Gasol is the common denominator, and while he is arguably the greatest/most accomplished Memphis Grizzly it is starting to feel as if that relationship could very well be coming to an end sooner rather than later, with a player option in Gasol’s contract in 2019 looming large.
This is a massively important time in the progression of the Memphis Grizzlies franchise. They continue to try to grow as a business in the Memphis community, but they risk alienating their fan base. They have a young core led by Jaren Jackson Jr. that also includes Kyle Anderson and Dillon Brooks (and to a current lesser extent Jevon Carter and Ivan Rabb) that is worthy of investment, but the veterans around them are not being the examples consistently as a unit that they should be. They are all led by a coach who seems to be drowning as he fights to find his way, a front office whose power structure is conducive to power struggle, and an owner who is privately involved but publicly absent as the sky falls around him.
Change is needed, be it internal or otherwise.
The good news is this can all be rectified, if not fixed, at least in the short-term. If you believe in Conley and Gasol above all else, the two best Grizzlies ever, they can pick themselves up off the mat and bring their team with them. The flaws of the roster remain, but Memphis is only three games away from the six seed currently in the western conference. With a lighter January slate of games, the Grizzlies can still right some wrongs and correct course. if larger issues persist, it will only continue the downward spiral. There is still time left for those in charge to take ownership and do their jobs.
The energy and attitude of the Memphis Grizzlies franchise and fan base is close to hitting the lows of last season. That attitude reflects leadership. The question is, who will stand up and be the change needed to save the season?
The answer lies in leadership...for better or worse.