Watching from afar the joy of an ex can sting.
On one hand, you’re genuinely happy. They found what they were looking for...what you know they wanted more than just about anything. You remember the good times, the love you built, and as time goes on you’re able to appreciate the gift of that relationship and the lessons you take from the end. Yet when they find what they...what you...were looking for, and it’s with someone new...
It is jarring all the same.
In Memphis, the Grizzlies and their fans have a similar union. For a bit more than half a decade the Grit and Grind era established a cult of personality, something that you couldn’t explain you just had to feel it. And while the supporting cast changed, the four stars of the show were Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley. The city and their Core Four had something special, and when the first two of those four departed in not-so-ceremonial fashion (Tony Allen to New Orleans and Zach Randolph to Sacramento in free agency) it felt like an ending to that era.
And yet, it wasn’t...at least not fully.
The threads of connection to the greatest run in Grizzlies history were maintained, but strained. A team that with the benefit of hindsight probably should have had the sun set on them in the summer of 2017, with the departure of Zach and Tony, held on to Marc and Mike, thinking the bridge of Chandler Parsons and the continuation of a plan built around Gasol and Conley could keep the good times rolling.
Many thought this was a decent plan. Some thought this is exactly how things would turn out.
All were wrong. And with that, Grit and Grind missed its shot at dying young.
So when the time came to do the deed, and move on from the first of the Gasol/Conley tandem, instead of joy there was tension. Would it be Marc, clearly more disgruntled than Mike at that stage this past winter, or would it be Mike, who probably had more value trade wise? Or would it be both? Or neither?
In season, it was Marc. An adopted son of Memphis. A boy who became a man, a husband, a father, in this community. An aging big who saw sunset ahead and understood that his end game would not wind up being where his story started, as he had hoped, and was ready to move on. And he departed for a title contender in Toronto. And he made new memories and found happiness with a Raptors team that won a championship, achieving what we all dreamed was possible with those great Grizzlies teams of years past.
And all of Memphis watched from afar, a smile on their collective face, while longing for what might have been.
Mike Conley’s exit was a longer, more joyful and accepting one.
Conley made it through the trade deadline a Grizzly. He represented himself well as the season reached its conclusion, setting new personal high marks as a scorer and helping to leave a final lesson for those that would remain in Memphis once he departed. How to be a professional, how to leave a place better than it was when you found it. The writing was on the wall that the two would not be together much longer, but then the Grizzlies moved up to #2 in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery - prime Ja Morant, AKA the best point guard prospect in this draft, territory - and just like that the end became more amenable for the franchise, the star player, and the fan base alike.
It wasn’t a Conley replacement. It was the Conley heir apparent.
Mike was, indeed, more valuable via trade than Marc. Conley’s exit brought back multiple first round picks, a veteran wing capable of being a leader and/or a trade asset later on in Jae Crowder, and a young “prospect” in Grayson Allen who may or may not be a long-term member of the roster. Beyond that, the cap space and trade exception created allowed for Memphis to do other business throughout the summer like taking advantage of the Golden State Warriors’ need for cap space and paying for it with another future first round pick.
Conley’s goodbye has, and will continue to, lead to hellos.
Mike, our captain, did so much for the city of Memphis and the Grizzlies both on and off the floor. Numerous charitable donations and events. Multiple records held, and multiple moments and memories that those that got to watch them unfold will never forget. He wanted to be part of the solution to the problem...but the thing is, in order for the sins of the past to be forgiven, his greatest contribution to the future of the franchise he helped build at this time was to leave.
Now there is a new team for Conley to be captain of, one with championship aspirations in a season in the NBA that is more wide open for such dreams than any in recent memory. Mike is viewed as the missing piece to the Utah Jazz, a near-elite point guard to make bigs better, to take the pressure off of their young superstar Donovan Mitchell. A veteran who has been through the wars, who has stood toe to toe with Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard. He may have won battles but lost wars...but he didn’t have the depth and talent with Memphis that he now has in Utah.
He doesn’t have to be “the man”. He just has to be him - the player, the person, that was made in Memphis.
There’s joy in that. Knowing that another son of the city, while it won’t carry out where he learned the lessons, has a chance to achieve at the highest level of the sport in large part because of what he is carrying with him from home.
As new relationships begin, the lessons learned don’t have to be angry, or sad.
As Zac Brown says in his Band’s “Leaving Love Behind”, sometimes you have to lose something to know what you have.
This season, there will be no Marc Gasol or Mike Conley for the Grizzlies. They’ll be visiting Memphis, dressing in the visitor’s locker rooms. They’ll be giving high fives and hugs not just to the Dillon Brooks of the world, but also support staff and arena employees that they have, until now, interacted with from October to April every season for years. Tributes will happen and thank yous will be said, and we all will think back to the time when the love we left behind us was still new.
But beyond those reflective nights, we will have something new to watch grow. Two new young stars, a big and a guard, who will help us feel at home even when the heroes of yesterday come back to FedExForum and almost surely defeat their former franchise. Youth, and renewal, will be the focus of the 2019-2020 Memphis Grizzlies. That comes with freedom from expectation, as well as opportunity for a different kind of organic connection to take hold.
It won’t happen in a year. Probably not even in two seasons. The pursuit of the next great era in Memphis Grizzlies history is where the next relationships and love will come from. We learned that from Marc, and Mike, and Zach, and Tony. Trophies and titles eventually lose their luster and shine. Banners become numbers and words hanging above generations that won’t even know the names of the players and coaches of those teams that won the championships. They of course hold value...but it’s the people, not the accomplishment, that make life worth living.
We will miss those times, of course. In the echoes of our memories, we hold on to the times that led us to why we love this team in the first place. They will surely make the quiet of no postseason conversation easier to endure.
But even as that time ends, and we look ahead more and more away from the past, we are better for knowing where we have been and where we are going. And what truly makes all the time, and emotional capital, worth investing. It’s the players, the personalities, their journeys from being youthful teenagers and “kids” in their early twenties to fathers, and husbands, and men...
And our athletic and civic heroes.
It is the belief that love left behind can carry on, in minds, hearts, and the generations that lived and learned the lessons taught by those that came before.
Thank you to Zac Brown Band’s “Leaving Love Behind for inspiring this article.