At the end of the Zach Randolph Jersey Retirement ceremony, which came after a 113-106 victory over the Houston Rockets, the number 50 was unveiled at the top of FedExForum. It was a fitting end to a remarkable evening - one filled with nostalgia for the greatest period of success for the Memphis Grizzlies franchise to date. Zach Randolph was the main character of that chapter of this Memphis story that would fit nicely on the silver screen, with others from that time appearing both in person (Marc Gasol and Lionel Hollins were two of many in attendance) and via pre-recorded video (Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, and several others). But the culmination of the wonderful night was the unveiling of the retirement plaque, the first of several in the years to come.
It of course was fitting that Zach’s #50 is the first retired number in franchise history. That’s been explained here and here at GBB. But beyond the well-deserved honor, something stood out in terms of the praise heaped on Z-Bo from Grizzlies past.
The Memphis Grizzlies of the moment understand what Randolph meant to the franchise. And they want to continue his work - perhaps to earn their own place in the rafters some day.
Dillon Brooks said the ZBo retirement ceremony was special, with ZBo’s impact on the city and this franchise. He also said it motivates him, because he wants his jersey in the rafters with his— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) December 12, 2021
Any player worth their salt as a professional has similar aspirations. But what makes this time so important for the Grizzlies franchise as they evolve and enter a new era is the organization’s desires for something more matching those of their players. The goal is a championship, to be sure, but the team means more in Memphis than just a ring. Zach Randolph proved that, as did the rest of the crew that made the Core Four run so special. They got swept in the Western Conference Finals - that was their peak in terms of winning. But that mattered not to those that celebrated Zach for all he was to the city - and all that he still is.
Winning isn’t enough. Substance and character count as well. And the Memphis Grizzlies get that...and that is why they will achieve those loftier goals in the years ahead.
The city of Memphis does not have the benefit of coastal living - gorgeous weather, major cities with multi-million (or perhaps even billion) dollar deals for players and “brands” are largely out of reach. The nightlife of Memphis, while fun, is not going to attract those that seek out that style of living (you know, most young, rich people) on a consistent basis the way Miami or similar spots would. You need to find ways to differentiate yourself to make your young talent that you’ve been fortunate enough to acquire want to stay beyond their second contracts.
One sure-fire way to do that is show them love - like the Grizzlies did to Zach Randolph, who they acquired via trade in 2009 and kept in Memphis for almost a decade. But beyond that, they have to make it clear that the attention the players receive isn’t superfluous. It isn’t for show - it cannot be a bluff. The investment has to be real.
Thankfully, the organization has already laid that groundwork. They’ve already re-signed Jaren Jackson Jr. to a fair 4-year $105 million contract, and Ja Morant will almost surely sign a rookie max extension when the time comes this summer. But those retentions are almost common place given how free agency works in the NBA - Memphis would be able to match any offer either Morant or Jackson Jr., or any other 1st round rookie approaching their second NBA contract (like Brandon Clarke and eventually Desmond Bane). But it about convincing them to stick around beyond that...and perhaps getting others outside the organization to want to be here either in trade (more likely) or free agency (far less likely).
How do you do that without the creature comforts of other places, or the major metropolitan living that almost every city in the NBA provides more than Memphis?
You prioritize the health of your young big man over immediate winning, or good public relations when his recovery takes longer than perhaps it should. You bring in prospects close with your #2 selection in the 2019 Draft from his time at Murray State, giving them opportunity to earn their NBA way via the Memphis Hustle G-League squad (which, by the way, Shaq Buchanan is very much taking advantage of). You invest time and energy in to relationships, making it known that their presence on the roster goes beyond just what they can do physically. Their input on social issues, on ways to make Memphis better, on growing the game for all and using their platform for positive change...every bit of them matters. And it’s not forced. It’s organic. Real.
Just like Grit and Grind was.
As Zach Randolph took his rightful place as the first Grizzlies player immortalized at FedExForum, Ja Morant was watching from home. The rest of the Grizzlies roster sat and took in the ceremony - the video narrated by Ice Cube, the throne on which Zach sat, the mentions of the documentary about how Randolph and this city entered a life-long connection that is so rare in professional sports. The ceremony was broadcast on NBATV as well, and perhaps NBA players with the night off saw how the city of Memphis and the Grizzlies organization honored their favorite son.
Maybe elite college and high school players, pros years from now that admire Morant the way many did Randolph years ago, viewed these scenes and learned about the 2013 Clippers Game 6 where Zach skipped off the floor of a game that felt more like a WWE pay-per-view than an NBA game. Perhaps they went back to 2011 and the arrival of Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies superstar. If they did, they surely heard the cheers of the people then - the chants, the energy that cannot be explained, you just had to FEEL it. You didn’t watch those teams as much as you experienced them. And it wasn’t because of their dominant physical gifts. It was because when you show love for the city and its inhabitants, Memphis is capable of something that not every major city and professional sports franchise is...
Love. Real, imperfect, raw, organic, love for their team. Because the Grizzlies oftentimes are among the best of Memphis. And that cannot always be said for much larger cities.
The best is yet to come for the Memphis Grizzlies franchise. That was never more apparent than on the night where they honored their greatest player from their greatest era...