The 2021 season will be one of celebration for the Memphis Grizzlies. Last season saw the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s existence between Vancouver and Memphis. With this celebration came the revival of the beloved “teal” Vancouver jerseys as well as the team playing on an alternate court that connected the past to the present. The celebration continues this season, as the franchise will commemorate its 20th season in the city of Memphis. The celebration will continue on the hardwood with the alternate court reminiscent of the floor the Grizzlies played on in the Memphis Pyramid, when they first arrived to Memphis. This season will also see the return of black road uniforms from the Grizzlies first three seasons in Memphis. It is a massive accomplishment that the franchise has gotten this far, especially after brief periods of turmoil, and those pesky rumors of relocation.
Pro basketball has a complicated history with the city of Memphis, so complicated that there is are a few anniversaries that will fly under the radar this season. Along with the previously mentioned 20th year for the Grizzlies, this season will mark the 25th season of pro basketball in Memphis and represent the 50th anniversary of pro basketball’s arrival to the city of Memphis. In the first edition of Memphis Grizztory, let’s take a look a brief look at the Memphis Pros and their inaugural game in the city on what is a special day for pro basketball in Memphis.
Professional basketball first arrived in Memphis in 1970, after Mississippi businessman P.L. Blake bought the American Basketball Association (ABA) affiliated New Orleans Buccaneers and moved them to Memphis. Blake rebranded the team as the Memphis Pros, as the name could fit on the jerseys previously worn by the “Bucs” as a cost-saving measure, while also establishing a new identity. The team would find its home in Mid-South Coliseum, the home of the then-Memphis State Tigers, that was also booked to house events for Memphis Wrestling.
The packed schedule of the Mid-South Coliseum provided an enormous obstacle when it came to setting the team’s schedule in its inaugural season. Prior to the Pros arrival, Memphis State was the city’s de facto “pro team,” as they — alongside Memphis Wrestling — were the main event in the city. After weeks of negotiations, the Memphis Pros finally made their debut on October 20, 1970 against the New York Nets in front of 13,000 Memphians in the Mid-South Coliseum.
The team presented some regional flavor from Pros Head Coach Babe McCarthy, a Tupelo, Mississippi, native, to the players such as Wendell Ladner (Southern Miss), Bob Warren (Vanderbilt), Wil Jones (McGehee, Arkansas), and Skeeter Swift (East Tennessee State University), which helped increase interest in the infant franchise.
Memphis fans were treated to a nail-biter in the city’s inaugural ABA contest, as the Pros played the Nets a close game through all four quarters. The Nets were one of the best defensive teams in the ABA, ranking 3rd (allowing 109 points per game) after the 1969-70 season. After the first quarter, the teams were tied after 25, as the Pros competed with the playoff team in their first game together. The second and third quarter would prove to be the difference, as the Nets would outscore the Pros by five points. They did not allow the Pros to outpace them, as the Pros ultimately fell 108-103 in the first pro game in Memphis history dropping a close one to a playoff-caliber New York Nets team.
The Nets were led by ABA All-Star point guard Bill Melchionni, who would lead the game in scoring with 30 points, as well power forward Sonny Dove and rookie center Billy Paultz scoring 24 and 23 points respectively.
The Pros would be led by #23 “Snapper” Steve Jones, who was an All-Star guard the year prior in New Orleans and would go on to be an All-Star for Memphis in the 70-71 season, scoring 26 points on 11 field goals. He was supported rookie small forward Wendell Ladner, who began what would be an All-Star campaign, with 24 points, and Bob Warren — who holds the distinction of scoring the first professional three-point basket in Memphis history — by making the Pros only three of the night as a part of his 15 points.
With this opening night contest, the relationship between Memphis and pro basketball was sealed. As you will see as this series continues, this relationship would be one full of odd twists, but it all plays an element in the passion that the city has for basketball and the Grizzlies. It will also put into perspective how special it is to have had this team in Memphis for the past 20 seasons, and how far basketball has come in Memphis as a sport and as a business.
Stay tuned for more Memphis Grizztory as I track basketball history from the ABA to the celebratory 20th season for the Grizzlies in Memphis.