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The Grizzlies, Memphis, and the joy in identity

Over the past decade, the Memphis Grizzlies have built their own identity in a league of copycats. It’s a perfect match for the city.

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Brooklyn Nets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

An identity is crucial to success in the NBA. Teams tend to put it together once they figure out who they are and make it a part of their identity.

An identity is also important in the eyes of the viewer as well. The saying, “it’s a copycat league” rings true. If a team won with playing 2 towering big men, other organizations would seek out the formula. Most recently, there was an urgency to go smaller with their lineups, play faster, and shoot a truckload of 3’s — due to the success of the Golden State Warriors. While some of those areas may be applicable to thriving in this league, the casual fan may consider it vanilla — as every team looks and plays the same.

Since their rise to prominence in 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies formed a unique identity that resulted in success on the court, as well as a special connection to the city and the fanbase.

When Tony Allen said “it’s all heart, grit, grind” after a regular season win in Oklahoma City, it started a special movement. “Grit and grind” became the identity for the Grizzlies. On the court, they were going to drag their opponents into the mud and make them play their game — not the “copycat” play across the league. While they didn’t have the All-Star perimeter scorer, or didn’t shoot a lot of 3’s, they would grind their way to every bucket — post-up’s, second-chance points, or cuts to the basket. They would also show tremendous grit and physicality on both sides of the ball, as teams knew they would be banged up after playing the Grizzlies, especially in a 7-game playoff series.

The “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies became one of the teams in the NBA with a true, unique identity. The Core 4 — Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley — built an identity, one that helped put the Memphis Grizzlies on the map. In the process, it created a special bond with the city and the fanbase. It rang true with both the team and the city, as Randolph once said, “It’s a blue-collar town, and I’m a blue-collar player.”

You don’t get that type of connection in many other places.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

As the Grizzlies have ventured into this new era of Memphis basketball, an identity has been ignited.

While it seems like they play to the league’s trends on the surface, there’s their own flavor and spin with it. With this team, you feel like there will be a SportsCenter viral highlight in each game. There’s just a swagger with the young Grizzlies. They’re brash and audacious — not afraid to talk trash regardless of their pedigree (see: LeBron James), or to try the unbelievable on the floor (see: Ja Morant’s poster dunk attempts).

This Memphis Grizzlies squad is also described like a college team or an AAU team. They play and conduct themselves with this infectious joy. They celebrate each other’s success, and they’ve developed this synergy both on and off the floor — making them one of the most fun teams to follow in the NBA.

Though the styles contrast, there are similarities between this iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies and the “Grit and Grind” era. On the floor, they are more perimeter-oriented, but there’s also an emphasis to get buckets in the paint. The difference is, this team plays above the rim more often. The blue-collar elements also stick with this team, as they embrace the underdog mentality.

Ja Morant’s ascension has been well-documented, only receiving one Division-1 offer because a scout found him in a gym by a vending machine. Desmond Bane also received just one Division-1 offer and slipped in the draft due to age and wingspan. John Konchar came from a small school known as Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, rising from an undrafted two-way player to a rotation player in a matter of 3 years. Plenty of players on this roster were overlooked by others for their physical tools or for their age, and together they’ve formed this underdog mentality and are not satisfied until they reach their end goal.

There’s also one other important similarity between these two eras of the Grizzlies’ identity: it’s brought a joyous energy to the city and the fanbase. Whenever this franchise is clicking on all cylinders, there’s a special buzz in the city, and it reaches its maximum levels when it’s time for the playoffs. It can be the talk of the town.

It’s also fitting for the city’s lone major professional sports team to have their own unique identity, as Memphis has one of their own. Memphis is a special place with its own flavor. Often times known for barbecue and Elvis Presley, there’s so much more to this city. The history in blues music creates a sweet soul. As St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was founded here, it shows the selflessness and the heart of the people in this city. The small businesses around the town — whether it’s restaurants, shops, breweries, or live music — have a Memphis spin to it, and it’s so easy to gravitate towards. There’s a lingo that resonates at its best here. Memphis has such a unique identity that “Memphis” is also used as an adjective. How many other cities have that?

These identities form a special bond — a beautiful marriage — between the organization and the city.

As the Grizzlies look to build on their successes from last season, and to achieve the elusive goal of bringing the first championship to Memphis, it’s also going to be fun and fascinating how they continue to solidify their identity — one that feels synonymous with the culture of this city, and builds a connection with the fanbase, like their predecessors.

Whenever there’s a sports organization that feels like a perfect match for the city, it gives off a feeling fans desire in choosing their team: joy. It’s felt with the Grizzlies and Memphis.

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