In the year 1910, now over a century ago, former President Teddy Roosevelt was giving a speech in France. He had been out hunting for a year before beginning this tour of speaking engagements throughout north Africa and Europe, and his remarks on an April day in Paris were met with cheers and have become part of oratorical history. His words resonate to this day - athletes from time to time will quote them. Miley Cyrus has them tattooed on her arm. They appear in commercials, and on the doors of teachers attempting to motivate students through a battle cry that translates across all stages of life. The most famous part of his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech has become known as “The Man in the Arena.”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better...”
The Memphis Grizzlies are on the precipice of a level of success that this iteration of the organization has never achieved. After their win over the San Antonio Spurs, Ja Morant and his team find themselves in familiar territory. One game to decide whether or not their season continues. One opportunity to secure a playoff birth. Win? You only further accelerate the rebuild timeline, being one of the youngest teams in the NBA achieving relatively uncommon success when considering their relative inexperience. Lose? You sit outside a chance at home playoff games, at more growl towel-waiving, Whoop That Trick-playing fun. More importantly, you miss valuable, meaningful experience in the form of reps against a superior opponent.
And perhaps you bring about more questions than answers about the future of the franchise.
The offseason looms. Whether the Grizzlies win or lose tonight, there will eventually be decisions that have to be made. Is the Memphis roster already in place and simply needs to continue to cook low and slow, like Memphis barbeque? Or is the need for one more star so great that a combination of prospects, matching salaries, and draft picks will be departing the Grizzlies this summer? If the answer lies in the middle of those two extremes, where on the spectrum should Memphis fall? Who is “untouchable”? Who can be prioritized as a key cog in the Grizzlies machine? Do you address concerns via the draft? Will more money be freed up by declining Justise Winslow’s team option?
Tough questions. Ones that can be dissected and deconstructed over the span of the weeks and months ahead. And regardless of what Memphis does, their performance and following actions will be scrutinized by all. There are levels to the future of the Grizzlies. And the thought process for what the next moves should be for Memphis will be the prevailing theme for all discussions beyond this current postseason reality. For now, one question shines through.
“...The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause...”
Can the Memphis Grizzlies learn from the mistakes they made just five days ago? It’s a fair query. Because the strength of the Golden State teams hasn’t changed since this past Sunday. Newly minted 2020-2021 MVP finalist Stephen Curry is still very much the best shooter of the basketball on the planet. He still has running mates that fill his skill set in Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and others. Curry still possesses a championship pedigree, and has encountered games like this - and truthfully ones that are much more important - multiple times in his career. The young Grizzlies are lacking in those possible chances as playoff births, much less title chasing and clinching contests.
But like the era that preceded them, these Grizzlies play the game without a care for those realities. They more often than not fight like hell - whether or not they succeed in terms of wins and losses in the end. They refused to lie down in the face of a literally historic game in Curry’s career in terms of attempts from range, and got the game tied in the fourth quarter before Memphis’ spiritual leader Dillon Brooks fouled out. Brooks will once again make his presence known - he usually does, for better or worse - and his ability adapt how he defends Steph while still being what makes him so successful (a tenacious, physical, trach-talking, pain in the ass) will play a critical role in this contest.
It takes grit to be able to withstand the massive wave that is the offense of Stephen Curry and still get up. That enables the Grizzlies to make up for what they lack in talent and/or experience. They cannot control the skill level of their opponent. What they can control is the effort they exert to try to hang with them, and the attitude that they go about their business with. They believe in one another, and play for one another, because that is the only thing within their reach in terms of dictating the outcome of this game. They can’t stop Steph Curry. But they can help each other up after a battle well fought - they can fight the fight, run the race, learn the lessons ahead while still pushing against the immovable object before becoming the unstoppable force necessary to beat those better than them.
And that is indeed that next step in the evolution of the Next Gen Grizzlies. For on Wednesday, they defeated a Spurs team that put forth a gutsy effort - but wasn’t better than they were. Now?
It’s time to win the games you aren’t supposed to win. Or at least prove you can learn how to put yourself in a place to win more consistently.
“...who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
They may not be ready yet to take that leap. The Memphis Grizzlies rebuild being complete so quickly is both encouraging and enigmatic. When you are two years ahead of where you should probably be, at least when comparing yourself to NBA counterparts, it is hard to place the weight of winning expectations too squarely on their collective shoulders. It is a burden they have not yet learned how to carry. But with this youthful Memphis team, we know that while they may falter under the poundage and pressure the Golden State Warriors will apply, they will at the very least do so while, as Roosevelt put it, “daring greatly”.
For the culture, the “standard”, of the Memphis Grizzlies is not one for cold and timid souls. With leaders like Brooks and Ja Morant, how could it be? If you are to be a Memphis Grizzly, you are expected to compete. To step on the floor prepared to give all of yourself to the greater cause. At times they have fallen short of this identity - they have not always played with the energy required to thrive in The Arena. But the pursuit of the perfection will lead to excellence if the chase is invested in from the body, mind, and spirit of those involved.
At the end of this night, the Memphis Grizzlies will know either victory or defeat. They will either continue the road trip they surely packed for and head to Utah for a playoff series against the Jazz, or they will fly home to the Mid-South (or to Cabo) to rest and then begin preparations for next season. Either we will see (hopefully if it is safe and cleared) 18,119 fans holding up Growl Towels in a common belief, or we will see end of season grades and all sorts of post-mortem takes about went right and wrong.
There will be a moment tonight when the game is seemingly on the line. A run to stop, a possession to get a bucket, or even a game winning shot with the game in the balance either way. Ja Morant will have the ball in his hands. Or Dillon Brooks will have the great Stephen Curry across from him with possession of the basketball. Perhaps it will be a split-second fleeting blink of a moment, like a Jonas Valanciunas put-back rebound as time expires while Draymond Green tries climb over him without success (or a foul call). Regardless of the type, in that moment more data will be “collected” than any number of games can tell you.
We will learn whether or not this Memphis Grizzlies team is ready to win when much of the world says they shouldn’t.
To live your life in The Arena, you must be willing to fight the fight - regardless of result. For having the courage to be something, or someone, worthy of mass attention (or scrutiny) goes beyond physical ability. It is a mental capacity - a form of toughness that not everyone is able to possess. To stand before your peers, your fellow man or woman, and be vulnerable in failure or triumphant in success. Or to be wise enough to know the difference and distance between the two realities is not that vast.
The Grizzlies are 48 minutes or more away from Memphis history. Or they’re 48 minutes away from falling short of their stated goal. Either way, this franchise will likely continue their history of standing valiantly in the face of high odds. For while winning and losing of course matters, that comes for everyone one way or another. How you do it...that is what determines the character of your organization. Of your team.
The Grizzlies are about to once again enter The Arena. But Memphis certainly understands that you never really leave it - you live it. There’s few cities in the NBA that is as aware of the scrutiny that comes from public struggle. Memphis, and the Grizzlies, hold that common thread together.
And they will stand against their respective foes in a similar way. Unconquered. Ready for whatever may come, be it success or failure. Because to win or lose doesn’t define you.
Refusing to be a cold and timid soul that will never know the difference does.