Memphis Grizzlies fans of a certain age and/or era remember a time when arenas were nearly empty for a different reason. Where the play on the floor was often listless and was only matched by the lack of energy in the stands at times. Memphis is, was, and always will be a basketball town. But that originated with the Memphis Tigers, of course. While the Grizzlies’ arrival in the Bluff City brought excitement at first, but winning has to come.
Then, when it did, it was short lived in terms of postseason successes. A run of under-appreciated play by gifted players and coaches wasn’t enough to connect to playoff victory. There were teams that did improve, and individual seasons that were impressive. Yet the type of legendary moments necessary to build an iconic group weren’t there. The team wasn’t devoid of personality, but connections were few and far between. Pau Gasol was never quite the right fit despite his elite production. Mike Miller was a tremendous scorer but not enough to get Memphis over the proverbial playoff hump, Jason Williams was a human highlight reel but past his prime. The list of competent or better players was more impressive than their playoff record suggests, but they were simply pieces of a puzzle that never fit together at the right time.
Then, through the years, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen arrived in Memphis. And the rest is history.
For a section of the Grizzlies fan base, starting with 2011 the playoffs were all they ever knew. Not just making an appearance. Series wins. Pushing the best the NBA has to offer to the brink. When Memphis left the postseason in the first round, it was no longer the expectation as it had become through the mid-2000’s. It was - aside from one campaign (2015-2016, AKA the 28-player season) - a disappointment. Even a failure, at times.
Expectations rose. And the stakes were high. Then, Grit and Grind went away. So did the playoffs. For two pretty painful seasons, the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans had to endure some hard times. It brought back memories of barren Pyramid nights for some. For others, it was a bitter first taste of late springs in Memphis without playoff basketball.
It was supposed to have ended this past weekend, with Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Taylor Jenkins, and the Memphis Grizzlies playing LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, it didn’t.
Instead of help defense on the court, the Grizzlies organization is running help defense in the community. They’re providing a different kind of assist these days, for example feeding front line medical workers at Tiger Lane in Memphis. It is absolutely what the city, and the world at large, needs right now. Sports are extracurricular to life in general, but are especially superfluous in the face of a global pandemic. The Grizzlies organization has become interwoven with the city of Memphis in many ways, and the support from coach Taylor Jenkins, Jaren Jackson Jr., and the Grizzlies at large for those sacrificing most for the health and well-being of the city is wonderful to see.
Selfishly, though, it is natural to long for the return to a world where the NBA is back...and with it, potentially, playoff basketball in Memphis. The Grizzlies were 3.5 games up on their closest competition for the eight seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. At worst, the Grizzlies would have that advantage over their competition in some form or fashion - either a “top seed” in a playoff for the eight seed, the outright spot in the postseason itself, or something in between. It is not illogical at this stage to think that Memphis would be a favorite to make the playoffs, however the season resumed.
Does that mean that 18,119 fans will eventually be screaming in FedExForum anytime soon? Probably not - it’s unlikely any resumed NBA season/playoffs would be played in front of fans, and most feasible outlined plans have the NBA playing in Las Vegas or Florida. Would it lead to a jump start for a local economy that, like many local economies across the country, could use it? Again, unfortunately, it’s unlikely. The layers and levels of impact from COVID-19 will be felt for a long, long time to come - perhaps the duration of the lives of those that lived through this time. The uncertainty of what “normal” will eventually look like leads to a great amount of anxiety and darkens what is supposed to be a time of renewal and rebirth.
But the sight of Memphis Grizzlies basketball - postseason Memphis Grizzlies basketball in any form - would be a sign of that normal we all are longing for, in more ways than one.
It is coming. This year, next year, two years, or any time inbetween, we will be able to embrace loved ones once again. We will travel in and out of our homes without fear and be able to enjoy a concert or a night out at bars and restaurants. We will send our children to schools to be back with their friends. We will go back in to our workplaces en masse with a greater appreciation of the health care providers, grocery store employees, and others who continued to help our society function as the world around them became less and less recognizable. We will endure, and we will be stronger.
Maybe one of the earliest signs of that will be the return of sports. With them, whether it’s a continuation of this season or the beginning of the next, will be a return to eventual NBA playoff basketball for the Grizzlies. It will be Ja Morant dunks, and growl towels waiving, and believing in Memphis once again. That feels more inevitable than it has in a long, long time.
Never will normalcy be more appreciated than in these moments to come. Times that are so far away, but close enough to our collective psyches and shared human experience that it gives us hope. Hope that the struggles ahead will lead to a return to the lives we all miss, and in particular a familiar sight for the sore eyes of Memphis Grizzlies fans everywhere.