When the Memphis Grizzlies came to the Bluff City roughly two decades ago, it wasn’t meant to be just another professional sports franchise setting up shop to win titles and be a part of a money making league in the NBA. It was much larger than that.
Memphis was hurting. Economically, socially - in just about every way for a metropolitan area to be struggling, Memphis was there. The Grizzlies were meant to be a spark, a fulcrum for the community to pivot toward a new century where growth and development of both downtown businesses and regional relationships were priorities. The owner of the Grizzlies at the time Michael Heisley and local politicians influential in the decision making process that brought the Grizzlies to Memphis from Vancouver understood that this wasn’t solely about the bottom line. It was about investing in a place - changing it for good.
Becoming interwoven in the fabric of a place and symbiotically existing, a people and their team, becoming something that both can be proud of.
It isn’t perfect. Of course an NBA team isn’t going to eradicate the systemic racism that has been a part of the fabric of the former Confederacy (and America as a whole) for generations. A playoff run will not eliminate the hurt that a Black majority in the city feels whenever they are reminded of disproportionate police brutality, or overall poverty, or quality of schools in Black neighborhoods. The socioeconomic status of the city would not be improved by a Pau Gasol midrange jumper, or a Zach Randolph jab step. The work would have to be done beyond the court.
Yet the Grizzlies were to be the catalyst - and for their first two decades in Memphis, they have served in that role admirably. From a close working relationship with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation and their work with mentoring youths in the city, children being invested in as the necessary change in our world has been a priority. From keeping on electricity to paying for presents at Christmas time and school supplies as classes resumed in the fall, players have put their financial fortune to work helping those in need that supported the team.
The on the court product improved. Pau Gasol’s run alongside Mike Miller and others, of course the Grit and Grind Era...the success of the team helped amplify the connection between the organization and the city. But make no mistake - the Memphis Grizzlies are not just a basketball team. They’re a civic institution at this stage, as their latest endeavor - a Believe Memphis face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 - once again displays.
#GrizzNation, we're distributing 20,000 ‘Believe Memphis’ face masks in the community!— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) June 23, 2020
Find out how to get yours here: https://t.co/9dWXDDQWFD@BassProShops | @MidSouthFord | @GrizzBank pic.twitter.com/suRzbh4Mq6
So when rumors about the team leaving the city perk up, as they almost always do at least once or twice a year, it brings about legitimate concern. This isn’t about just losing a team you cheer for. If the Grizzlies ever left Memphis, it’d be more like losing a family member than a basketball franchise.
The good news? That won’t be happening...at least not any time soon.
But DO NOT worry about the team moving anytime soon. Related https://t.co/VTt09ooCc2— Geoff Calkins (@geoff_calkins) June 24, 2020
Geoff Calkins of the Daily Memphian reported Wednesday that the city of Memphis and Shelby County could have to pay millions of dollars in order to prevent the Memphis Grizzlies franchise from ending their lease with FedExForum early due to an under-selling of paid tickets to games. The key work there is “could” - both sides seem interested in coming to an amicable resolution according to Calkins, and for all the reasons listed above that makes sense. When times are tough - and for both the NBA in terms of billions lost and the city of Memphis with businesses having to close forever due to the pandemic, times are indeed tough - family works through those issues and tries to find common ground. This will likely be the end result here as well.
But Geoff makes an important point in his column that accompanies his terrific reporting on this situation. The constant fear over the Grizzlies leaving is unnecessary - between an ability for local owners to buy the Grizzlies from owner Robert Pera if he is interested in selling before 2029 and the fact that Pera himself has specifically said he is invested in Memphis long-term, the Grizzlies are almost certainly not leaving any time soon.
But whether it is when the lease does eventually end around 2029, or maybe even before then if Pera goes back on what has been said and done publicly, the city of Memphis and Shelby County have no control over what Pera decides to do with his NBA franchise property. It is on local leaders and the people of the city to continue to use the resources and advantages that having an NBA franchise brings, among other things already present in the city, to build a market where an NBA team won’t just exist, but thrive.
As Geoff points out, you need FedEx to remain a viable business capable of leading Memphis’ private sector for decades to come as companies like Amazon become larger players in their industry. Young, talented people need to continue to come to the city and - perhaps more importantly - stay there after growing up in Memphis - to help rebuild and innovate in an eventual post-COVID-19 world. Investing in infrastructure and education, continuing the work that didn’t just begin when the Grizzlies arrived as that pivot point in the history of the city...that is within the control of all. Focusing on Memphis, and not the Grizzlies’ plans, will be a much more productive endeavor with a more favorable eventual conclusion.
And the Grizzlies need Memphis, too. So much has been put in to the Memphis community to help set a regional footprint of support, the type of generational fandom that mothers and fathers eventually pass down to their sons and daughters. Even in a larger market, that would take time to start over building again. The economic impact of a departure would be thousands of lost jobs and millions in lost revenue for the city - plus an empty FedExForum for 41+ dates of the year - but it would touch the Grizzlies as well. Relocation isn’t cheap, and the time and capital that it would take up makes it something even a willing owner (which Pera doesn’t seem to be) would likely want to avoid if possible.
It’ll come down to those talented young people and the work they will do in and around the city. And in typical Memphis Grizzlies fashion, the team that takes the hardwood reflects the reality of their community. The youngest team in the NBA also happens to be one of the most exciting, showcasing a fun style of basketball that is led by a future superstar in Ja Morant and a wonderful co-star in Jaren Jackson Jr. They’re not alone - a young core of Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, and others are under contract for multiple seasons and figure to help shape how the organization helps those in need in the city moving forward. As life eventually gets back to a place where large gatherings bring about joy and not anxiety/danger, the ticket selling issues of this season in particular should become a thing of the past.
For remember, the Grizzlies were supposed to be really bad this year. Yet the young squad outperformed expectations, and has the look of a team that will continue to do that as they add even more talent in the years to come.
Overachieving and rising above what others expect...what a Memphis thing to do, indeed.
Let those outside of the Memphis community that don’t know any better talk about the smallest NBA market not needing to have the Grizzlies anymore. Those people may also criticize holding flawed players like Tony Allen in the high esteem that Memphians do, or push for Zion Williamson to make the playoffs instead of Ja Morant so that Zion can have his Michael Jordan-’86 Celtics “moment”. They’re ignorant to the purpose of the Memphis Grizzlieas franchise and the grace they carry themselves with. They’re incapable of understanding how far Memphis has come, and how far yet they’re willing to go to make their home even better than ever coming out of this pandemic and much needed moment in our nation’s history.
They don’t see the roots that have attached the Grizzlies to Memphis...and just how much both sides would miss each other if they were ever to part.