These are dark days in our world. You reading this already know that. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the global landscape, impacting literally every level of our lives. Illness and death are seemingly all around us, either in our personal lives or via the media coverage of the ongoing worldwide crisis. Thanks to the Omicron variant, just about everyone has been touched by COVID-19. Your kid’s daycare is shut down. Your local school has 20+ teachers in quarantine. Your grocery prices are too high. Your mental health is not where you’d like it to be.
Hard times continue.
But during seasons of strife, throughout the history of humanity, we as a human race look to those doing the good. The “helpers”, as wise philosopher Mr. Rogers would call them. The medical personnel, the educational community, those in essential jobs that are working when perhaps they should not be to help make sure that our society continues to march on.
And when you’re looking for a break from the world around you, you turn to entertainment. Music, or television, or movies. Thankfully we’ve never had more options to take our minds off of the reality of the current state of things.
For some, that escape is sports. And for those that follow the Memphis Grizzlies the exit from existential crisis, if only for a couple hours, is about as joyful as it gets.
It shines through in the pride that the team has in their current success, not because of just one player (although Ja Morant is special), but the collective. This group of young men that takes the floor wearing Beale Street Blue is one of the youngest in the NBA. They have no business being where they currently are - in the midst of a now 11-game winning streak, in third place in the Western Conference, seven games in front of the Dallas Mavericks for the Southwest Division crown. These Grizzlies have no interest in bowing to the modern kings of the game like LeBron James and Stephen Curry on their way up the NBA ladder, looking for ways to unseat them long before they’re supposed to instead. They talk their talk, and walk their walk, all with giant smiles on their faces.
It echoes in the cheers they are receiving, both nationally and locally. From Kendrick Perkins and Skip Bayless all the way down to local media and lowly bloggers, there is not much to critique at the moment for this franchise. Individual players could always play better at times, but the overall organization is thriving. Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman has done what most thought was impossible - a young, rebuilding roster has become the darlings of the NBA. They’ve earned it with their play over the last month and a half. Led by the All-World Morant, supported by the defensively elite Jaren Jackson Jr., and buoyed night to night by a varying array of career-high performances by role players, nothing about this run is a fluke. They’re a great basketball team. With a great culture built around a uniting chip on their franchise shoulder. They have all, in some way, been overlooked at some point in their lives or careers.
Where the distraction from the pain of the world in this moment really comes through is in the realization that, somehow, lightning has once again been caught in a bottle. Even the most ardent Ja Morant supporter entering this season would not have said he would be as beloved in the city of Memphis or in the Grizzlies fan base as the legendary Zach Randolph, the greatest player in the franchise’s short history. But it is happening before our eyes. Ja’s stare down of children wearing Warriors uniforms has become so influential that he inspired a jersey exchange with the Grizzlies involving any non-Memphis kids jersey being turned in for a Morant or Jaren Jackson Jr. one. His Memphis as F*** Twitter shenanigans are endearing him to Grizzlies fans almost as much as his elite play on the floor. He’s not Z-Bo yet. But in year three of his Memphis tenure, he is well on his way to legend status.
This is true of the #NxtGenGrz as well. This generation of the Memphis Grizzlies - the one somehow immediately following Grit and Grind - is organically developing a connection with supporters of the franchise in much the same way that Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Z-Bo did years prior. Love is being shown, not just for the city but for one another. That is rare in professional sports - for teammates to genuinely enjoy spending time together, both on and off the floor. To legitimately put the good of the whole ahead of what may be best for the individual parts. What is happening in Memphis is in every way, shape, and form, real. Even when the winning streak stops, that statement will remain true. That reality should send the best of shivers down your spine.
Yes, Memphis. Something as uplifting and exciting as Grit and Grind is once again occurring within the Grizzlies. And the truth that your favorite basketball team loves playing together, for their fans, and for their city can set you free from the frustrations of day to day life...even if just for a little while.
The Memphis Grizzlies cannot end a pandemic. They won’t be able to solve economic inequality, or close the troubling chapter of race issues that remain a problem not just in Memphis but across our nation. They’re just a basketball team. But for anyone experiencing what is happening with this organization, “just a basketball team” doesn’t do them justice. They’re a reminder of what coming of age and finding success in that process looks like. They serve as a welcome distraction from the failings of society in this moment in our history. And as they make their own mark in the history of the Memphis Grizzlies, they help us see that even when things around us seem so sad, pure, unbridled happiness can appear in the most unlikely of places.
The swarming of John Konchar after his career-best performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves encapsulates this perfectly. An unlikely hero, undrafted from Purdue Fort Wayne, is embraced by the franchise’s savior from possible NBA irrelevance first, followed by the team that believed in themselves when no one else would.
That image, and the sheer joy captured in that moment, can sustain far more than it should. Even in the darkest of times.