The year is 2001.
Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Shrek are dominating the box office. Sex and the City and The West Wing are all over television screens. “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys, “I’m Real” by Ja Rule & Jennifer Lopez, and “Family Affair” by Mary J. Blige are blaring through car stereos and Walkmans as they battle atop Billboard charts. Halloween trick-or-treating comes and goes but for Memphians they found one last huge treat at the bottom of their bags: Pro Basketball.
After the ABA’s Memphis Sounds folded in 1975, professional basketball alluded the city of Memphis for twenty six years as Memphians relegated their fandom to pro teams outside of the city while the University of Memphis acted as the city’s de facto pro basketball team as they sent players such as Penny Hardaway and Elliot Perry to the next level.
After a twenty-six year absence, professional basketball returned to Memphis as the Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis under the leadership of new owner Michael Heisley in 2001. This was after months of negotiations that saw other cities entertained as well as the proposal and denial of a rebrand to the Memphis Express after FedEx Corporation that houses their headquarters in Memphis. Instead, the Grizzlies nickname was settled upon due to the local history with the nickname thanks to the Memphis Southmen, the short lived World Football League team that was also known by the Grizzlies nickname.
The Vancouver Grizzlies struggled the previous season under GM Billy Knight and Head Coach Sidney Lowe, ranking towards the bottom of the NBA in the most statistical categories on the way to a 23-59 finish. While their record wasn’t pretty as they arrived in their new home in Memphis, there was plenty of reasons for excitement as the team hosted young stars such as Jason Williams and Stromile Swift. They selected international star Pau Gasol and AP/Naismith Player of the Year Shane Battier in the NBA Draft. Then there was the arrival of local Memphian and former University of Memphis star Lorenzen Wright to lead his hometown team in their inaugural season in Memphis. The roster also contained a familiar face in current Grizzlies color commentator Brevin Knight in the role of backup point guard.
The Grizzlies started off strong in their new home leading by three points after the first quarter and carrying a four point lead into halftime. The same magic didn’t continue after halftime as Rick Carlisle made adjustments in his head coaching debut. The Pistons showed why they would go on to be a top ten defense before season’s end holding the Grizzlies to 17 points in the third quarter and completely flipping the momentum by causing the Grizzlies to turn the ball over. The Grizzlies tried to claw back into the game but couldn’t overcome their third quarter struggles as the second half would haunt them falling 90-80 to the Pistons in their first game in front of 19,405 Memphians in the Memphis Pyramid.
The Detroit Pistons were led by Jerry Stackhouse who would be the game’s leading scorer with 34 points with Clifford Robinson not far behind with 24 points of his own.
The Grizzlies spread the wealth in the season opener with four Grizzlies finishing in double figures. The Grizzlies utilized an inside-out approach with Lorenzen Wright leading the team with 17 points and 13 rebounds. He was supported by 16 points and 10 points from Stromile Swift and Michael Dickerson who would lead the team with three threes on the night on the way to a 15 point finish. Future franchise cornerstones Pau Gasol and Shane Battier were relatively quiet in their NBA debuts scoring seven and four points respectively.
Opening Night in the Pyramid didn’t lead to the desired result due to the Grizzlies loss but it did make basketball’s return real. Professional basketball was back in Memphis much to the delight of Memphians who have carved out a slice of basketball heaven in what most would describe as “football country.” On November 1, 2001 a 20 year relationship was started as “Hoop City” adopted Vancouver’s Grizzlies and finally had an NBA franchise to call their own.
What are your favorite memories from Grizzlies opening night and their inaugural season in Memphis?
Catch up on the rest of Memphis Grizztory below:
Part 1 ABA comes to Memphis
Part 2 Rise and Fall of the Memphis Pros