One of the most human things we all do on this planet is get lost in feeling sorry for ourselves.
Our lot in life is difficult, and no one understands our plight. Family, work, the odds that are seemingly stacked against us...it is enough to illicit disappointment and anger, impacting those we encounter on a daily basis. No one is immune to it, and this isn’t a self-help website - we all stumble and fall short of our own lofty expectations for ourselves. The key, of course, is to march on and try to find the positives in what we do, and who we are.
Easier said than done...even for sports franchises.
Especially for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The past two seasons have been rough on the organization from top to bottom. Ownership questions, front office ebbs and flows, coaching changes and confusions, and a massive amount of player overturn and injuries have taken their toll on fans, much less those actually living through those adversities. Fan apathy was, and still is, a threat - the Grizzlies are walking a line that could send them tumbling toward long-term irrelevance, and the months ahead will play a huge part in determining which side of things Memphis lands on.
But nights like Tuesday remind us that sports are supposed to be fun...and this Grizzlies team is one to rally behind as they fight against the very human feeling of self-pity.
Pick yourselves up, Memphis. There is a bright side to the situation we find ourselves in.
Just last week I wrote about being in the moment with this team. These guys all have stories - things that, despite their occupations as professional basketball players making more money in one game than many make in a year, influence their world view and life path. However they got to Memphis, their journeys have brought them to a city that loves any narrative that involves an underdog overcoming hardship. They are interwoven with the greatest era in this organization’s history. On a roster of misfits there are plenty of those tales to be told, and those similarities of circumstance are bringing together a group that probably shouldn’t be meshing so quickly, playing competitive games against teams far more talented than them.
There’s C.J. Miles, a salary cap addition to the Marc Gasol trade and certainty for an opt-in on his player option because he probably won’t make over $8 million in one season again in his NBA career, playing small-ball power forward and making key plays in clutch situations.
There’s Joakim Noah, a cast off from a tanking New York Knicks team, posting a near triple double off the bench for Memphis in their win over Portland.
There’s Delon Wright, taking the proverbial bull by the horns, using a larger role and increase in minutes with the Grizzlies as his moment to make the most of in terms of development and earning as much money in restricted free agency as possible.
Jonas Valanciunas, Avery Bradley...multiple players with limited connection to Memphis and the Grizzlies, making play after play after play for Memphis and their Grizzlies, helping them achieve the stated goal of conveying the 1st round pick to Boston this year, ending that obligation. None of this would be possible if the team was “trying to lose” by putting an inferior product out on the floor. A desire to end the obligation draft-wise to Boston this year, and not prioritizing trying to get 5% better odds at Zion Williamson (or Cam Reddish/Jarrett Culver), is resulting in a much more fun, energetic, and inspired style of play than we saw during the Great Tank of 2018.
With Memphis closer to the 10th spot in the lottery than the 4th, this remains the logical move to make. If the Grizzlies are to be bad for years to come, why not be able to take full advantage of it without worrying about draft pick protections? Why lose for the sake of wanting a slightly better opportunity at Zion Williamson when it is far more likely you get a Ja Morant or R.J. Barrett, very good prospects but likely not all-NBA game changers like Williamson. Why be miserable for a Jarrett Culver or Cam Reddish or DeAnrdre Hunter or Romeo Langford or Darius Garland, talented players that have significant question marks that would be several notches lower in the draft if it were a better class?
Why do that when instead, we’re having memories created that can be looked back on fondly, not with disdain, all with dudes that just months ago were elsewhere, scattered among the NBA landscape, not knowing the new home ahead of them. Not knowing how their likely longing for greater opportunity would result in Memphis...
And how their movement would lead them to a new leader.
People want leadership. They crave it. The one player left on the roster with enough sweat equity in the organization to truly say FedExForum is a (grind)house he helped build has that quality on the court in game in spades.
Our conductor posted a career night scoring against the Trail Blazers, competing against (and beating) a player in Damian Lillard who, right or wrong, has taken much of the shine from Conley’s career on the national stage. In an era of elite point guards, it is Lillard, not Conley, who serves as the small market model on a cross-NBA scale. Dame has the talent, and the record, to back it up. Conley enjoys every opportunity he gets to show Lillard that he, too, is worthy of recognition.
And to think, if Utah had just given up Dante Exum and/or a 1st round pick, Conley may be with the Jazz right now.
Mike Conley is flawed. He’s aging (by NBA standards perhaps already “old” in terms of his prime), he’s undersized, and he’s had injury issues in the past. He showed he is still capable of putting a team on his back and carrying them to success...even if it isn’t as consistently present as it was two seasons ago. Our own Shawn Coleman wrote before the Blazers game about the many opportunities for memorable moments with Conley down the stretch, and how right he was.
Maybe Mike won’t be a Grizzly much longer. For now, he remains ours, and us his. The joy and pride that only the emotional investment a decade plus of blood (and broken faces), sweat, and tears can provide is a refreshing reminder of what once was far more commonplace...and what will hopefully be common again some day.
No, the Grizzlies aren’t making the playoffs. No, one win and a stretch of competitive basketball will not make the front office more stable, or the coaching staff more adept at in-game adjustments. Memphis should still brace for the winter that is to come - young players making dumb mistakes, organizational growing pains on multiple levels, and seasons of losing that will hopefully lead them back to playoff participation through a long-term, draft and restricted free agency based rebuild. The Grizzlies may not have a winning record again for several seasons...
That fear is, and will remain, very real.
The basketball purgatory Memphis finds itself in can naturally lend itself to bad thoughts, which lead to anger, and hate, and more reasons to feel sorry for ones self or even stop caring. But therein lies the importance of the fear - with that emotion comes the realization that the connection is still there. The ties that bind us as fans, even in the aftermath of multiple down seasons, are still present, attached to a team that, while the names on the backs of the jerseys have changed, still has the capacity to capture our imaginations.
The fear remains. But, at times, the darkest part of the night really does lead to a dawn. After a double-digit first quarter deficit, the Grizzlies stormed back and beat a better Portland team through effort, some skill, and a will that was unmatched when it matters most.
What we want from our sports is what we want from most things that are meant to entertain us - a chance to escape our fears. These unlikely Grizzlies are reminding us of that, and the value that sports can carry for us.
After a great play, you’re not fearful of draft picks and free agents and failed coaches.
You’re lost in happiness, fist pumping or hugging a stranger, not wanting it to end.