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Joy, youth, and the Memphis Grizzlies

It was good to see that light again.

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NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Joe Rondone-USA TODAY Sports

I thought I was alone. But in this life, you’re never alone.

“Why are you crying, Daddy?”

A simple question from a 3 year old - she doesn’t usually see such things from her old man. And yet, there I was, watching the scene unfold in front of me from afar, feeling the wave of emotion that I remember quite well. It was a sight for sore eyes - Memphis, being shown as the beautiful city that it is on national television, the Grizzlies back in the 2nd round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015. It had been a long run - an emotion one - for those of us that have followed the team since that time. Players departing our fan-based lives, new ones arriving. You know, circle of life stuff. For sports and life intertwine and mirror one another far more than you ever know...until you invest yourself in them.

I told my sweet Abbie that Daddy was so happy to see a place he loved so happy. “Happy tears”, I said. She smiled and ran outside, found a stick, and started whacking a tree with it.

She cackled every time the stick made a cracking sound against the bark of the tree trunk.

In that moment, I reflected on the mind of a child. Not just my Abbie, or my older daughter or 1 year old son. Any child, regardless of their environment or situation, finding the simple happiness in the life all around them. A push on the swing. A bubble glistening in the sunlight, whishing away on the breeze. A balloon blowing around the room, making a noise that can make even the most hardened, jaded adult allow for a slight smile to show through. Throughout their day, they take the moments that come their way and often (not always, think the parents reading this) take them as the best times of their days.

I stared out the window, thinking about my own life. And how much we can learn from the love and joy of a child.

The Memphis Grizzlies lost Game One of their Western Conference Semifinal series to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday afternoon. There is plenty to try to correct between now and Tuesday night’s Game 2 tipoff. Rotations must be tweaked - Jaren Jackson Jr. has to play more than 31 minutes when foul trouble is not a trouble at all, as it wasn’t on Sunday. More must come from the likes of Desmond Bane and Tyus Jones - two of the three best Grizzlies players in the Minnesota Timberwolves series - than what they gave in Game One. Dillon Brooks’ shot selection must improve, and the team’s defense on the tremendous Jordan Poole must be strengthened.

All that matters, and this is professional basketball we’re reading and writing about. So looking for silver linings can easily be argued as the folly of a fool. But you, dear reader, have likely read a piece or two from me over the last nine plus years and know that foolishness is a folly I fondly look upon.

The Grizzlies were the favorites in their series against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis was a #2 seed taking on a #7 that had to win a play-in game just to earn the opportunity to play the 56-26 second-best team in the NBA record-wise. For the very first time in this #GrzNxtGen Era, Ja Morant, Taylor Jenkins, and the franchise were viewed as the frontrunner.

This wasn’t a feel-good effort against the hungry and experienced Portland Trail Blazers in the Bubble. This series didn’t involve Memphis being outmanned and outmatched by a Utah Jazz team built to compete for a title now. It was the Grizzlies - one of the NBA’s youngest teams - expected to be victorious.

So the Game One loss to Minnesota hit hard. Because it was not supposed to happen. And it called in to question everything many though they knew about the youthful Memphis squad.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Joe Rondone-USA TODAY Sports

Belief was hard to hold on to at times against the Timberwolves. The team themselves seemed to have lost their way with regard to one of the things that made them most endearing throughout the season - the sheer amount of fun they had playing together. The postgame group celebrations were less college after party and more “thank goodness we survived” until the Game 6 clincher. Memphis did not look like themselves. It was as if doubt crept in to their minds for the first time - “maybe we shouldn’t be here after all”. They’ll never admit that, but your eyes and body can say things words never would. And when you looked at the Grizzlies, you saw a team that was unrecognizable compared to what they had been just weeks before.

But in Game One against the Warriors, that unbridled, audacious joy returned. The energy of the Grizzlies was just different throughout the game - there was more pep in their collective step, more excitement to be on the floor, running and gunning and trying to upset the mighty Golden State team and their legendary core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.

Ja Morant literally danced as Desmond Bane released a three.

The Memphis Grizzlies have very few people believing that they have a chance in this series. 20 ESPN analysts were asked for their series predictions and not a single one of them picked Memphis. Media members in Memphis themselves have chosen the Golden State Warriors to end the season of the Grizzlies. This is logical - Golden State has multiple Hall of Famers on their roster, nearing the end of their primes, and their window to win another championship is now. Memphis’ time has just begun, and while it’s risky due to health and roster moves to assume the Grizzlies will be back in this place every season their ascent to their current status is reminiscent of what the Warriors themselves were when they started on their journey almost a decade ago together.

They are once again the underdog, not believed in by people outside the fan base (and in some cases even then the Warriors are the pick). For a group of basketball misfits from mid-majors and second round selections, this is exactly where they are most comfortable. Where they feel most at ease - and can be unapologetically themselves. That shined through in Game One.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Joe Rondone-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis lost the game. The Warriors won. That was the anticipated result by many, and Golden State earned the victory. But the fall for the Grizzlies was a reminder of where the team remains in their journey. They ran in to a team with Steph Curry, who made a big defensive stop on Ja Morant, and Klay Thompson, who converted a big three point shot, because they’d done it numerous times before in similar spots and on even bigger stages. For at least one contest, the best of Grizzlies stars Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. was not enough. Golden State was better when it mattered most.

But they were supposed to be.

Memphis was again in their element, fighting against a basketball world that doesn’t see them as a threat to their competition. And in that arena, they rediscovered one of the most wonderful gifts of youth - the ability to find joy in what you are doing. The Grizzlies were against a tougher opponent, on limited rest, and yet they looked as if they were back to where they want to be as they travel this postseason path.

Enjoying that shared struggle, and success, together. Sports imitating life.

Winning matters. But so does the process - and the Memphis process was much more up to their standard in this game than perhaps in every game the Grizzlies played against Minnesota expect maybe Game 2. Where this team is going is still very much to be decided, both now and beyond. This is the start of their journey - the Warriors are closer to the end of theirs than the beginning. That urgency is another lesson Memphis could take from this series. Every moment matters. Every possession, every bounce of the ball - none of it can be taken for granted.

Golden State understands that. The Grizzlies must continue to learn it.

But, even as they try to rise after their latest fall, at least the team picking themselves up seems to be back to loving the game. And those they’re playing it with.

It’s almost midnight. I sit downstairs in a dimly lit room, as I have throughout my time working as a blogger. The reflection of the computer screen hits my glasses lens and I take them off, wipe them down - a reminder of the time that has gone by. Much of what I do comes late at night, when my family is asleep. It’s led to many late nights and early mornings, and the wax of the candle being burnt at both ends dripping more and more as the years go on. I hit play on a possession I am going to try to analyze for a piece - I watch off ball, on ball, the movements of the set and the way the Warriors respond. I begin to type out the feature, “the plays that led to the loss”. It was a working title.

Then, I hear creaking behind me. The steps of my six year old - the one that made me a dad, my Caroline that I wrote about here all those years ago now. She needs a drink. I help her get water, and shoo her up to bed. But before she goes, she sees the light from the machine I have spent so many nights with filling the room and asks me what I am doing. I tell her daddy is working - as I often have done the last almost decade - and that I will be in bed soon.

Then, she says “you really love the Grizzlies, don’t you Daddy?”

“Well...yeah, I guess I do”.

“And Memphis, too?”

“Yes, and Memphis, too”.

“Well, I hope I get to see Memphis some day. Cause you love it, and so do I”.

She walks the slightly uncoordinated little girl walk that all moms and dads of such beautiful creatures know up the stairs to bed. I sit there in the almost dark, take a deep breath, reflecting on all the nights and hours I’d spent staring at that screen shining back at me. I look up above to whatever gods may be, thanking them for the wisdom I just received from my 1st grader. I erase everything I had been writing, and start on this piece.

I thought I was alone. But in this life, you’re never alone.

One more time, the creaking of steps...

“Why are you crying, Daddy?”

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