Those that experienced the height of the Grit and Grind Era will forever understand something that so many Memphis Grizzlies present-day fans will never be able to comprehend. The emotion of that time outweighed the expectation. The journey was more important than the destination. Of course winning and pursuing a title mattered. But the end of each season felt even more disappointing beyond the realization that there’d be no title parade in Memphis because in the back of your mind, you knew you were another year closer to the end.
Those that experienced it know. It was organic. It was pure. It was very, very real.
And such an experience is supposed to be once in a generation...
Or is it?
The news of Jaren Jackson Jr. signing his rookie contract extension was met with almost universal praise from those that follow the Memphis Grizzlies franchise closely. It was filled with a mix of good and bad for both the franchise and the player - a descending deal than also provides financial stability for a young talent that has had injury concerns strikes a balance of fairness. Jaren was paid for the player he is expected to be - which is why the Memphis organization invested so much time and so many resources to make sure would come back fully healthy in the wake of his Bubble knee injury. It’s more than money. It is commitment to the young man helping grow the Grizzlies moving forward.
And he has shown, even in a limited amount of time, that he is capable of being a cornerstone of such an endeavor.
Getting caught up in the numbers - especially the games played, the rebounds, the fouls - can lead to you missing the greater picture. At the young age of 22, Jaren Jackson Jr. fully understands what makes Memphis special - the opportunity for your platform to expand your influence beyond that of just being an athlete. He’s looked up to by so many young people in the city, and viewed as a role model for how he approaches the game and his life at large. What he’s done for kids in Memphis, for the responsibility of voting, for female sports in terms of providing much-needed attention to developing the women’s game - it is understated because that’s how Jaren goes about his business. He’s not doing these things for attention. He’s doing them because they’re part of who he is.
Mike Conley and his charity work. Marc Gasol and all he did/does with St. Jude. Zach Randolph and the assistance he provided to the Memphis community. Up and down the greats of the last Grizzlies era was an understanding of what it meant to be a member of Memphis. In a market such as Memphis, the work you do makes more of a direct impact. You have an opportunity to physically see the fruits of your labor - to put a name to the struggle of a family unable to keep the lights on, or a face to the little boy or girl you gave a donation to help save. Charity is charity, and good deeds are good deeds regardless of contact to those that get assistance. But there is a great truth in the idea that connection breeds reality.
Organic. Pure. Real connection.
To experience something like Grit and Grind as a fan is a gift. No, it’s not a championship. But in some ways it is even more meaningful because those that fought the fight and fell short of that goal were in so many ways the heroes of the community, warts and all. They felt as if they were an extension of the city itself - the tip of the sword wielded by a place that desperately seeks out those that both believe in and work to improve it. The combination of on the court success and off the court commitment made for legitimate emotion - something that often is lacking in professional sports, especially so for a team still relatively new and comparatively less successful that more long-term franchises.
Could it be that this could be beginning again?
Ja Morant is surely going to be signed to a contract extension (likely a max one) next offseason. Both Ja and Jaren Jackson Jr. will then be cemented as the standard bearers for the next great Grizzlies team - the squad that is supposed to get Memphis back to the Western Conference Finals, and hopefully beyond. This theoretical trip to the NBA Finals in, say, 2024 would make them the greatest team in Memphis Grizzlies history. But in Memphis, what could elevate this group to a higher plain above Grit and Grind is who - and what - these players stand for beyond the court. The family man that Ja has always seemed to be in his interactions with his daughter. The story of the likes of Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, and De’Anthony Melton as afterthoughts that have become key cogs in the Grizzlies Standard. The pursuit of that culture by Taylor Jenkins while helping his young team navigate a pandemic and a social justice awakening in this country over the last two years.
There is plenty for fans to invest in when it comes to who these young Grizzlies are not just as athletes, but as people. And who they could potentially become.
We witnessed Zach Randolph redefine his NBA narrative. We saw Mike Conley and Marc Gasol become husbands and fathers. We felt first hand what they and so many others over the span of several years can do together regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences. Now, that potential once again exists - but with a group of players that have the ability to surpass what the previous generation did.
Renaissance means revival. Rebirth. And that is exactly what Memphis is on the precipice of. A rediscovery of what made the past so special to so many. A redefining of what should be expected of those that represent the city as members of the Grizzlies. And a future that feels awfully familiar while being completely different, all at the same time.
Allowing your hopes to become expectation carries risk. But when the Grizzlies knocked off the Spurs over a decade ago now, unofficially kicking off the peak of Grit and Grind, that same risk became a reward the likes of which none of those that experienced it can deny. The possibility that these young Grizzlies, just a generation later, could not only reimagine that era but improve upon it is real.
And it is very, very much worthy of investment.