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The Grizzlies need each other

Now more than ever.

Memphis Grizzlies v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA began mandatory workouts for teams yesterday, with the “lucky” 22 heading in to the Orlando bubble in the next week or so depending on departure date. With these first organized non-voluntary team activities came media availability across the Association. The Memphis Grizzlies were no different - Head Coach Taylor Jenkins led things off for the franchise, striking an important tone early on for what his team is facing as the season resumes.

But it wasn’t Taylor Jenkins whose comments made the most waves with the national media (surprise, surprise). In fairness, when the reigning (and likely repeating) MVP of the NBA speaks, people listen.

Surely fans can relate. 2020 has been a hell of a year for everyone to varying degrees. The Black Lives Matter movement has been extremely necessary in the pursuit of social change, but has been exhausting for those protesting and dealing with any backlash. COVID-19 has forced the world to a stand still and a moral quandary, one where some (and likely soon to be many) have to make a choice between risking health and losing wealth - or perhaps finding the intersection point where the risks are balanced as best they can be from person to person. It is why the NBA and other sports leagues are attempting to resume or begin in the first place - sure, the return of professional (and all) athletics will help the psyches of many. But in reality, the almighty dollar reigns supreme - and in the NBA’s case, when billions of dollars are on the line that’s not to be taken lightly.

But at what cost? Especially considering when some, regardless of whether or not the NBA season finishes, say that this season (and its eventual champion) will carry as *asterisk no matter the outcome. Far too much variance, way too many disruptions, no home court advantage, the specter of potentially debilitating illness hovering over you as you spend weeks - and perhaps months - away from your comfort zone. It won’t be “normal”...

Of course it won’t. And as Giannis said, whoever emerges as the final team standing shouldn’t be burdened with an asterisk. They should be given a proverbial sports badge of honor.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is right. This endeavor the league is entering in to is going to be the most tenuous one of the modern era. Roughly half of the people in this country (and even a large portion of fans and media) feel that this entire experiment shouldn’t be happening in the first place. When those whose income/livelihood are directly connected to your league being active are questioning whether or not you should return to play, it should make everyone at least listen to their point of view. None of this will be easy, or ideal - risk is very much part of the proceedings. It is about how much of it is chaotic and how much is calculated through the regulations and regimentation within the Orlando “bubble”.

Beyond the amenities and “first world problems”, the reality is that this is about to be as alone, and as restricted, as many of these players have ever been. How much are they willing to endure together?

The importance of togetherness, and the cultures that have been established in the 22 squads entering Disney World, will be more evident than ever before. Which is why Jenkins’ press availability should give Grizzlies fans even more reason to be optimistic.

The players know that their coaches care about who they are off the floor. Not just how many wins they can help them acquire, or how well they can execute offensive or defensive X’s and O’s. The Black Lives Matter movement matters much more than the bouncing of a ball to many, and the advancement of that cause is paramount. Having those honest - and necessarily uncomfortable at times - conversations is evidence of trust building and comfort with one another. Putting words in to eventual action will only further that bond. The emotional investment, and probable willingness to be vulnerable in those team roundtables, adds to the “family” idea that will be massively important as these guys spend so much time with each other (and so much time from their actual families).

That expands to the COVID-19 pandemic as well. All 17 Grizzlies player eligible for the bubble are heading to Orlando, according to Jenkins. Every player had to make a choice about their participation, and some (for very good reasons) across the NBA chose to sit out the restart. The Grizzlies have chosen to go collectively, and with that comes great responsibility. These 17 people (and the rest of the Memphis traveling party) are putting their health and well-being in the hands of this organization and the NBA at large. A lot of trust goes in to such decision making.

It is on those in charge to not only make things as safe as possible and make sure it’s known that there are no “wrong answers” right now. It needs to be known that they’re going to do this not as individuals, but as a team. No one is matter how lonely it will surely feel being away from loved ones for longer than many are used to. Our military men and women are used to deployments longer than this “bubble”, as are some with jobs that take them further away on oil rigs and at construction sites. But this sudden long-term departure will be a shock to the systems of players and their families. That’s going to be very hard to balance with the demands of the schedule ahead.

Again, Taylor Jenkins gets that.

The organization understands these are humans. Eating right. Resting well. Comfort not just because you’re in a four or five star resort, but because you’re cared for and there’s been an effort to prioritize what is happening to you outside of the eight game race to the postseason. Jenkins is used to far worse “conditions” as a G-League coach - Disney will be a vacation comparatively speaking. But what of course makes this unique is a G-League or NBA road trip eventually ends. Memphis will be in the “bubble” for weeks, and potentially months. The way the young Grizzlies “live” - their time together and ability to be disciplined within the environment the NBA hopes to establish - will matter just as much as their play on the court.

And in the long run, the relationships developed will only help build upon the culture and chemistry already present. That will help the likes of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Justise Winslow, and everyone else that figures to be part of the new core of the Memphis Grizzlies that has been established in the past year.

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

So much of team sports is hyperbole. Saying that a group of people that spends on average a few hours together at a time while they’re in-season is a “family” is at times one of the biggest examples of that - especially in professional sports. You help up a fallen teammate, you find ways to support one another where you can...but beyond the court the relationship ends a majority of the time. There are exceptions, of course. But everyone has a price in the world of business, and the NBA is no different. No matter the organizational strength, more often than not the best financial situation wins out.

In this scenario, the term “family” carries more weight than perhaps it ever has for pros. In the absence of a mom or dad to talk to in person, a rookie might turn to a veteran that he trusts or a coach he is willing to confide in. Without children to spend time with - at least at first - players will be around one another more than ever before. Jenkins said in his press availability the team is planning activities for everyone to do together, ranging from team meals to bonding experiences to help fill that void.

That word, “void”, perhaps is the best way to explain what lies ahead. The young Memphis Grizzlies, along with 21 other organizations, are about to enter the most unique set of circumstances any professional sports team ever has. They will be without just about everything that they hold dear, and all they will have that is familiar is each other. That can impact mental health, in addition to the health risks of contracting COVID-19 and restarting the season physically in this way perhaps making them more susceptible to soft tissue injury. They will rely on their faith in those organizing the routines of the bubble and on the experience they’re all about to share - and in some cases endure. The Memphis Grizzlies have established a foundation to build upon, according to the man responsible for the on the court product as the franchise heads in to the unknown.

It’s about to be tested. But at least they’ll be taking on the challenges that await them together.

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