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Memphis and their Grizzlies: The Neverending Underdog Story

A city, and team, worth rooting for

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It is one of the most famous dunk attempts in Memphis Grizzlies history.

And it missed. But the assault on the rim never should’ve happened in the first place.

So it has gone for the young basketball career of Ja Morant. An audacious, angry declaration of war against all those that doubted him dating back to the days of playing in the side gym at AAU tournaments. All along, his belief in himself never waned. From the backyard court at home in South Carolina to the NBA hardwood and everywhere in between, Ja has proven that just because his story started out in the shadows that doesn’t mean that is is how it would end. Ja Morant would not be denied. And now there’s a Rookie of the Year out of South Carolina, just as everyone predicted.

It just isn’t the one folks expected.

So when Ja rose up on Kevin Love, it wasn’t out of character for him. And the city of Memphis loved him for it. For even though it goes down in the record books as a missed dunk attempt, it is much more than that. It is a symbol of an attitude that personifies Morant’s new home.

A ruthless refusal to accept the hand they are dealt. That describes an underdog. That describes Ja Morant. And that describes Memphis.

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

It is one of the most famous images in Memphis Grizzlies history.

And it had nothing to do with basketball. But the moment between a young man and his hero never should have happened in the first place.

Zach Randolph, upon his arrival in Memphis back in 2009, would not have been called a hero by very many folks. His “Jail Blazer” reputation preceded him - he was troubled, and despite his elite basketball skill he carried quite a bit of baggage to the Bluff City. But over time, slowly but surely that all eroded away. The beauty of this process was, while Zach certainly shined on the court and helped bring on the greatest era in Memphis Grizzlies basketball, it was his actions off of it that solidified the legend of Z-Bo.

The donations to keep heat and electricity running in houses. The holiday meals and gifts that were paid for. The compassion and emotional investment all across the areas of Memphis that needed that attention the most. Zach understood what those that were struggling were going through, and he stood as a shining example to aspire to. You can learn, and grow, and change for good. Your past does not have to determine your future.

So when Zach made a point to return the love that was being shown to him by a fan in such a meaningful way, it wasn’t out of character for him. And the city of Memphis loved him for it. For even though Zach Randolph to some will always be viewed in a negative light, in Memphis he is not just a basketball player. He is much more than that - he is a civic icon. A success story of the highest caliber. A person that made the most of his given abilities and rose above what he was to become something more, all while reaching out to help others along the way.

It doesn’t get more Memphis than that.

It was one of the most famous names in Memphis Grizzlies history.

And it had nothing to do with what Marc Gasol contributed to it. It held that status before Marc arrived - his brother Pau Gasol, who was coincidentally involved in the trade, was the greatest player in Grizzlies history to that point. But Pau and Memphis had fallen out of love, and it was time for the elder Gasol brother to move on. Not many people expected very much from Marc, as was evident in the reactions to the trade when it went down.

All Marc did was become the most highly acclaimed Grizzlies player in history. Which is quite impressive, when you consider what Memphians saw him as when he returned to the city.

He was Pau’s little brother. The chunky kid that was called the “big burrito” at Lausanne, who grew up in Memphis not once but twice. He was a teenager the first time, watching his brother and the Grizzlies labor in the Pyramid and then FedExForum. He left for Europe and upon his return to the city transformed who he was, and what the perception of him would be. He was always skilled, but he became a focal point of scheme and game plans. He was always smart, but his basketball mind became the stuff of NBA Twitter/blog legend. He was always a Gasol, but he stepped out of the Pau shadow during his time as a Grizzly.

He made the Gasol name his - at least in Memphis.

So when Marc chose to stay, and showed disappointment when his time in Memphis came to an end, it wasn’t out of character for him. Because he became a man there. A father, a leader of men, and of the community given his work with St. Jude and other organizations. It was his city and team, which no one would have predicted when he came in that infamous trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. Grit and Grind was inspired by Randolph and Tony Allen, it was guided by Mike Conley, but it was built upon the cornerstone of Marc Gasol. It wasn’t easy - it took work. And time. And he wasn’t able to do it alone.

He needed Memphis. And Memphis needed him. That symbiotic relationship made the fact that it was real - that Marc was a son of the city, one that wanted nothing more but to help build upon what had been built by those before him.

Los Angeles Clippers v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Two Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The definition of an underdog, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest.” The Grizzlies, and their city of Memphis, are the quintessential underdogs. The earliest success for the Grizzlies in the playoffs involved getting swept multiple times. Memphis as a city is more know for its flaws and darkest moments than for all the good that has come from the land just east of Arkansas alongside the Mississippi River. The struggles of Memphis are real - but there are people day in and day out striving to make things better, attention or no attention.

Some of those people have made up the Grizzlies organization since their arrival almost twenty years ago.

From Michael Heisley getting the team there in the first place to John Konchar going from a Mastadon to a presumed Grizzlies full timer next season whenever it begins and everywhere in between, the story of the underdog has defined what being a Memphis Grizzly is. And as Memphis builds a better future for itself through the blue collar mentality that made Zach Randolph so beloved, that underdog philosophy continues to shine. It shined when Three Six Mafia won an Oscar for a song called “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”. It shines when Brandon Clarke puts up historic rookie numbers despite tumbling down draft boards almost a year ago.

It shines when a single parent goes to work a second job to try to provide better opportunity for their children, or when those kids get themselves ready to go to school and do their homework despite mom and/or dad not being home. It shines when a nurse works a sixth shift in four days, or a local citizen donates their time or treasure to a local food bank. It is illuminated by the faces of all who give of themselves to not just provide aid their fellow men and women, but literally and figuratively rebuild the city itself. It isn’t heroics - it’s day to day life for many Memphians.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Six Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

So whether it’s the team first making the playoffs in 2004, 50 wins with the legend Hubie Brown at the helm, Zach Randolph becoming an All-Star in 2010, when the 8-seed Grizzlies upset the 1-seed Spurs in 2011, or the 2019-2020 Grizzlies drastically outperforming expectations, the professional basketball team in Memphis has consistently modeled being the ultimate underdog quite well. That is a reflection of the struggles of their city - no one outside of Memphis expects much from a city with so many holes, or an NBA franchise with such a small market to play in. That suits the Grizzlies and their community just fine. Because it is what drives them. What brings them together.

There is beauty and sort of peace in a common fight, and in a city so often divided in too many ways the unifying force that comes with being counted out so often can make a massive difference. It is part of why the Grizzlies came to Memphis - to provide a new way for Memphians to come together. Some teams and cities can simply judge success in wins and losses. In Memphis, it isn’t that simple.

It’s about moments of impact. Finding a greater purpose and using that energy for the greater good, all while striving for something better. In that pursuit, you find yourself and each other. For close to two decades, the Grizzlies and their Memphis home have gritted their teeth, grinding down that path of progress together. The work is not done - it is a neverending, long, and winding road. The pursuit of that ideal though, with all the obstacles and issues in their way, make for a story worth telling.

It also makes for a city worth fighting - and team worth rooting - for. No matter the odds against them.

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