A skinned knee. A broken arm. A bumped head after jumping for a couch or tree limb too far. When you’re young, you expect to be able to reach anything, achieve everything, without consequence. That ignorance allows for supreme bravery. And though it is fleeting, it can also be formative.
The great playwright George Bernard Shaw once said “Youth is wasted on the young”. Ironically funny and subtly poignant, the idea behind this line of thinking is that the years of your life where you are at your physical prime and most free from personal responsibility in terms of relationships with others oftentimes are marred by a desire to age. The next milestone, the next opportunity to gain more “freedom” away from parents, and school, the next chance to make money for a car, or a sound system, or a date with a girl or guy that - unbeknownst to you - is likely to not be in your life five years from now.
Yet in that moment, nothing matters more. And only the shared gift and burden of life experience can provide a true education as to just how shortsighted the young can be.
For while the best years of your life should always be an idea chased in the distance, there’s no denying that Father Time is undefeated when it comes to physical attributes, especially. With every year that passes the creaks of knees and aches of backs grow, and it’s natural to long for the days when a game of pickup basketball could extend beyond an hour...or didn’t result in ice baths and rough exits from bed the next morning.
Marriage and children only add to the joys of life, but there’s truth in the idea that “settling down” also alters your life outlook in terms of independence. No longer can a married person with two kids under the age of five randomly go to a movie, or hit up the local bar or sushi joint for a quick bite to eat. Responsibility comes with adding people to your family as you move in to the next stage of the “circle of life”.
Which is why these days, with these Memphis Grizzlies, are so damn fun.
It’s in the unbridled lack of care about what attacking the rim with a 6’1”, 175 pound frame may do in the long run to the body of Ja Morant. Watching him attempt to end the basketball lives of bigs and rim protecting wings makes the Grizzlies must-see TV, more so perhaps than even when they were most successful during the Grit and Grind era. The old man in me - perhaps the father in me - watches Ja fly through the air and physically dominate people seemingly twice his size and cringes, hoping he comes out on the other side OK.
But the fan, the not-that-old side of me, relishes the ability to do such things at the highest level of basketball and loves that Memphis has such an electrifying player on their team. And appreciates that youth allows for less fear.
It’s in the joy that Jaren Jackson Jr. often shows both on and off the floor in his play, and with his teammates. The pregame warm-ups rapping along with songs that teenagers would know by heart as well - probably because he was one pretty recently. The launching of threes, the disregard for what a big is “supposed to be” and embracing what he actually is - a player the likes of which perhaps the NBA has never seen. A near-seven footer with guard skills, whose game as a defender projects as a modern big but offensively is looking more and more like a perimeter-specific player. There of course have been others- Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki immediately come to mind - but Jaren is almost a mix of these players, and others (Kevin Garnett), making him more and more unique with each passing game.
He’s not a bruiser. He isn’t going to post nightly double-doubles with rebounds. But he will help cultivate a culture in Memphis with Ja that will prioritize the work and energy of a young man that sees opportunity and is willing to fully pursue it.
It shines through in the “other guys”. The Brandon Clarke types that somehow fell to the Grizzlies at #21 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft but are quite clearly capable of being key contributors on the next Grizzlies playoff roster. The Dillon Brooks scorers who have supreme confidence in themselves, in part because they don’t know any better, but also in part because they have experience leading teams in their college career and not shying away from moments when they come. The De’Anthony Melton and Grayson Allen players on the periphery, that just got to Memphis via trade but as the decade concludes have shown signs of real potential within the schemes of Taylor Jenkins - young in his own right, compared to other NBA head coaches.
Tyus Jones. Kyle Anderson. Bruno Caboclo. Marko Guduric. John Konchar and Yuta Watanabe on two-way contracts. Josh Jackson in Southaven with the Memphis Hustle. All across this roster there are players 26 or younger, whose life experience is somewhat limited but their lexicon of 2010 music and social media apps are not. All are players that when this decade began ranged in age from 10-16, who have grown up in a digital era where their lives are more on display than ever. They relate to the next generation of Grizzlies fan, which is why the current marketing plans of Jason Wexler and company is brilliant. These ain’t your older brother and sister’s Grizzlies. They’re something new.
They’re young, brash, and don’t know - or perhaps more accurately care - that they’re not supposed to be 2.5 games out of the 8 seed in the Western Conference a week before Christmas.
Will that last? Probably not. Young teams hit walls, especially ones where two of the three best players on the roster are under the age of 21. Injury could derail the season, and there are teams that actually care if they make the playoffs this season - the Timberwolves and Trail Blazers, for starters - that will surely make moves to improve their roster and get healthy and pull away. The trades may even come from Zach Kleiman and company - success this campaign isn’t defined by wins and losses in this first year of the rebuild, and the veteran players on this roster playing key roles (Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill) are likely not longed for this Grizzlies world. Their long-term value to the franchise as expiring contracts is almost certainly in the way they teach the young players to be pros, and possibly the assets that come back to Memphis in possible trades for their services to contenders.
The best part of the youth of these Grizzlies is that freedom - from expectations that anchor you down and make you question your every move, or the fear of falling because you may get hurt. The ability to enjoy the moment. To not think of what’s to come, and be present in the here and now.
That isn’t wasted on the youth - it is the best of them.
So the time will come for heightened goals. Where an off night will have greater gravity, or a tumble on a dunk will take a little bit longer to pop up from. For now, the ebbs and flows that come with the common trudge toward the maturation we all go through will eventually be the memories we all reflect on when the team arrives at the point of prosperity we all envision. And when we see Ja and Jaren celebrating with their families - the ones that they will start in Memphis - after those goals are achieved, we will think back and remember when they were NBA kids growing up and showing out, free from the cares and knowledge that years on the planet bring.
The skinned knees. The flights through the air. The landing at a place where youth is gone, but not forgotten.