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A year in the life of the Memphis Grizzlies

A hug goodbye, a smile hello, and a sign of coming attractions

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Trophies tarnish and memories fade with the years. As days become decades and weeks become generations, names on banners and numbers hanging high in arenas become more “who was that?” than “remember when?” Life on this planet is full of arrivals and departures, comings and goings. That’s simply how things go. And the recollections of those remarkable runs and civic moments of pride gradually fall victim to the ages.

But images. Pictures. Photographs. Those can tell more in a single frame than even the most gifted wordsmith can in thousands of words. This is especially true for the year that was in Memphis for their Grizzlies.

The year 2019 was one of change for the Memphis Grizzlies. The final goodbye to a bygone era and the beginnings of building what is next to come made the past 364 days feel quite consequential. Departures of Chris Wallace, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and others while the arrivals of Zachary Kleiman (ok, he was already, but the arrival of more opportunity), Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, and others have led us to a very different place at the end of December than we were at the beginning of this past January.

There are many new faces, and still a lot of uncertainty about who exactly will be in Memphis for the long run. There are some things around the Grizzlies that has been absent for some time. There’s a lack of connection that comes with the present levels of unfamiliarity...but there’s also hope.

There are losses, but there is direction.

There was sadness, but now there’s joy.

It shows in the following images. Portraits of faith in something fresh and fun being built by hard work and a little bit of luck. Profiles in hope that the turning page and long list of exits will result in Memphis entering the dawn of a new, better age. Portrayals of love between those that already know each other like brothers, and those that likely eventually will.

Because this city, this community has proven this past decade that it doesn’t have to simply be just basketball. It can be so much more. It has in Memphis. And in time, it will again for the Grizzlies.

An embrace of what once was

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

You were expecting someone else?

There’s a much more famous picture of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley hugging that you’ve almost certainly seen before. Both Marc and Mike are in the heat of battle roughly 10 days before the photo above was taken. Gasol lifts Conley up off the floor in a giant hug - one final moment of triumph together. It brings about all sorts of emotions that the photo above...doesn’t. Unbridled joy, pride, the raw competitiveness that Memphis fell in love with in the Grit and Grind Grizzlies that Marc and Mike were the last vestiges of.

So why this image, instead of the other “bear” hug?

In a word? Acceptance.

We all worked through the various stages of grief when Grit and Grind really died in 2017 (and you can probably argue even earlier than that) when Zach Randolph and Tony Allen departed Memphis. Depression, denial, anger, guilt...then, the desire to rebuild. By the time the photo above was taken, most everyone that has followed this team, at least for the past decade, has finally achieved that final stage of acceptance. Gasol and Conley alone were not enough - health, missteps in talent acquisition, and other issues along the way helped make that so, of course. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was, indeed, so. The time had come to move on.

Marc Gasol didn’t dress for this game because he was in the throws of deep trade talks. He would depart Memphis just two days later for the Toronto Raptors, where a title run and eventual championship ring would await. Yet he still came and sat on the bench despite the awkwardness that comes with an impending departure, one that wasn’t necessarily asked for by the player directly but was still necessary on both ends of the transaction. He did so to, for one last time, be with his teammates. To bask in the glow of a loving Memphis fan base and city that sees him as one of their own.

And to hug his brother Mike one last time on the FedExForum floor.

Other long-term Grizzlies were also gone, like JaMychal Green. But Conley, who of course was traded to Utah and their Jazz later in the year, and Gasol were the headliners. The last two ties that bound the Grizzlies to their greatest era were gone. Their goodbye has helped lead to what was and is to come, almost like a parting gift. Two sons of Memphis departing via trades that have helped make a future that was once quite dark far less dreary while pursuing their own NBA Finals dreams.

It made saying goodbye with a smile and a hug, and not a sobbing collapse, a little easier to do.

With every goodbye...

The possibilities of what may be

2019-20 Memphis Grizzlies Media Day Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaren Jackson Jr. is a Chris Wallace draft pick.

Well, as much of one as he could be, given how the power structure of the Grizzlies front office changed through the 2018-2019 season.

Jackson Jr. went 4th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft and was booed on his draft night, largely because many still saw Memphis as a team trying to compete for playoff glory at that stage (including myself). If the current front office and philosophy of asset acquisition was in place at that time, the pick would have been more supported. So when Wallace departed - first with lesser responsibility as soon as the Gasol trade negotiations behind the scenes, and certainly by the time he was reassigned to scouting with the ascension of Zachary Kleiman - no one should have been happier than Jaren.

Because now he could be given the room necessary to grow free of expectations...and thanks to a little luck, the running mate to take on the brunt of the star factor for the future of the Memphis Grizzlies.

The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery brought the Grizzlies the 2nd overall pick, and eventually Ja Morant. And goodness does he shine brightly - he is explosive and electrifying in a way that no player has ever been in Memphis history. He attacks the game of basketball and oozes confidence, a swagger fitting of the city that he now calls home. He and Jaren can grow and learn the ways of NBA professionalism together, much like Marc Gasol and Mike Conley before them. They’ll hopefully be here forever - like Marc and Mike were and will be - and add another chapter to the story of Grizzlies basketball.

Add in the ability of Memphis to take advantage of the foolishness of 17 other NBA teams (New Orleans with Zion Williamson, Memphis with the aforementioned Morant, and the Knicks get a pass on RJ Barrett out of fairness to consistency on my end) to pass on Brandon Clarke’s unbelievable efficiency and ability to contribute at an extremely high level on both ends of the floor? Through the Gasol and Conley trades (a 2nd rounder from Mike’s move helped the Grizzlies move up to get Clarke), enough cap and pick capital was gained to make moves and take advantage of the luck that fell in the lap of Memphis. And now Clarke looks the part of a Draymond Green-level contributor, potentially, to the next great Grizzlies team.

In the place of Grit and Grind? A malleable unnamed era still at the beginnings of being shaped.

A new personification of Memphis

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Folks are always in a rush to be first these days.

Christening this new era of Grizzlies basketball is no different. Proclaiming a nickname here, defining a style of play can be enough to make you heave. But where the previous greatest run of professional basketball in Memphis Grizzlies history was defined by four individuals - Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen - the next one, while Jaren Jackson Jr. and other will play key parts, will be defined by one man.

Ja Morant. Because he embodies the very best of all four of them.

He understands the city like Marc Gasol did, largely because he, like Gasol, spent a lot of time in the south growing. Of course the path of Gasol - little brother of an NBA player, private school education, etc. - was a bit different from the beginnings of Morant. But Ja gets what connection a community like Memphis can make to basketball thanks to his upbringing in South Carolina. He knows how important it is to give back to those that invested in you as well as those in need. That will pay off in emotional investment and connection from Memphis for Morant, as it did for Gasol.

Ja is raw energy like Tony Allen was. The difference, though, is folks tuned in to see what the hell TA was going to do in a somewhat joking/morbid way at times. When it comes to Morant it’s wanting to see a moment live before it hits social media and the highlight reels. Another commonality is both are genuine. There’s not much fake about Tony Allen. He is who he is, and he wears it on his sleeve. From Spongebob shoes to his flashy style of play, Ja Morant is a chip off the Grit and Grind block.

Besides the obvious point guard comparison, Ja Morant and Mike Conley share a charisma and willingness to take over key moments that only true leaders possess. To be in the final parts of a contest and want the ball in your hands is one thing. To be trusted by your teammates and coaches to do so, and to do the next right thing for your team is quite another. Mike Conley earned the moniker of “Captain” through playing through injury and aggressively embracing all that comes with being a leader. Early in his career, Ja looks more than able to be that guy for the Grizzlies.

He’s a personification of Memphis like Zach Randolph was, but in his own unique way. Sure, Morant missed the dunk above, but at the end of the day that’s not what matters. He was willing to try the damn thing. He’s not a big bodied bruiser like Zach. He perhaps should be a bit more careful with his mid-air antics. Where Zach was the bully of bullies, Ja is the unafraid fighter outpunching his weight class, not because he doesn’t know any better...

He just doesn’t give a shit. And Memphis loves it.

He competes at the highest level without fear. He sees your seven footer and tries to figure out how to out-leap him. Apply that literal attempt to the path ahead of the Grizzlies - forget the current standings and misguided postseason hopes. There will be difficult days ahead. Memphis is fortunate to have a young man out in front, with capable help beside him, to get the franchise to learn from both the good and the bad and move forward.

Perhaps upward is more apt, to continue the dunking parallels. But this next year and decade of Grizzlies basketball, ironically, will have a lot of similarities to the previous and last. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Instead of a core four, though, the future will be defined by a humble, hard working young man with a flash for the remarkable and a feel for what makes basketball special in Memphis because he’s lived it.

A hug, three smiles, and a leap. Seven words about three images that made all the difference to the 2019 Memphis Grizzlies. The ramifications of the actions that led to the men in those photographs coming to, and going from, the Bluff City will ring through the eras to come. These pictures tell more than the story of the year for the Memphis Grizzlies.

They remind us of what basketball is this city was, and is, and what it will be again.

Follow @sbngrizzlies