If you’re a Memphian, or at least a fan of all Memphis sports, you are thriving right now.
As I’m typing, the Memphis Grizzlies sit atop of the Western Conference — thanks to the excellence of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the emergence of a few journeyman role players, and the terrorizing defense. It’s caught the league by storm, as they’ve beaten the blog-boy darlings: Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Denver Nuggets. It has certainly caught many people off guard, including myself. It was easy to write this team off as a middle-of-the-road squad, given the team’s age, their record last season, and the not-so-sexy additions they made this past offseason. However, because of their stellar play, their brilliant duo, and the tantalizing promise of their blossoming unicorn, you’re absolutely psyched about the direction of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Tigers are brewing something special in the college basketball world. This past spring, they made a splash hiring hometown legend, former NBA superstar Penny Hardaway as their head coach. Penny also surrounded himself with NBA champion Mike Miller and Sam Mitchell, who has both coached and played in the league. With the “One-Cent” customized Mercedes van, the Nike Memphis jumpsuits, and the Foams on their feet, Penny and Miller have brought this intimidating swagger that has already shifted the recruiting circles.
Within a month of Hardaway’s arrival, he managed to convince Alex Lomax, his starting point guard from East High School, to withdraw from his letter of intent with conference rival Wichita State to come home. In addition, he managed to win a late recruiting battle with Baylor for Tyler Harris, another hometown guard with a sweet shooting touch and an uncanny ability to create his own shot. He’s already made noise in the class of 2019 as well. He managed to sign 4-star recruit DJ Jeffries, after the hometown wing de-committed from Kentucky.
More notably though, Penny made a statement this week, as the number one player in the country, James Wiseman, committed to Memphis over Kentucky, Florida State, Vanderbilt, and Kansas. The commitment generated a type of buzz around the city that we’ve not really seen in quite sometime. Students at the University of Memphis were crowded around televisions, eagerly anticipating the unicorn big man’s commitment. It seemed like local radio shows exclusively talked about James Wiseman for two days. With Wiseman’s recruits, the Penny’s Tigers aren’t done, as they’re in the running for 5-star recruits Matthew Hurt, Trendon Watford, and Precious Achiuwa.
You can just tell that it’s a good time to be a Memphian right now. Are Memphis Grizzlies and Memphis Tiger basketball exciting at the same time for the first time ever?
Let’s rewind to the 2008.
John Calipari was coaching the Memphis Tigers, and they were led by an excellent trio. Joey Dorsey manned the paint and was an absolute bully at the college level. Chris Douglas-Roberts, now known as Supreme Bey, was a smooth scoring wing that can put anyone on a poster — ask Kevin Love. Leading the way was Derrick Rose, a superstar freshman whose athleticism was simply marvelous. They steamrolled through the competition, making it all the way to the national championship before generating one of the biggest nightmares in Memphis sports history.
In the professional ranks, the Memphis Grizzlies were...not good. In 2008, they had just shipped a disgruntled Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie, two first-round picks, and the draft rights to some chubby kid named Marc Gasol. At the time, the trade was so bad that it sent Stephen A. Smith into an all-time rant — I highly recommend you watch it, it’s incredible. They weren’t even winning 25 games a year, as a young Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo, Hakim Warrick, and Mike Miller were leading the charge for the Grizzlies. In addition, around that time, two pillars of the franchise were head coach Marc Iavaroni and big man Darko Milicic — if that illustrates how the franchise was doing.
While it was a great time to be a Tiger fan, it was quite frustrating to be a Grizzlies fan. Due to the Tigers’ brilliance and Grizzlies’ crumminess, there would be a weekly debate about whether or not the Tigers could beat the Grizzlies — a silly argument nonetheless.
Fast-forward to the years between 2011-2013.
The Grizzlies finally separated themselves from the league’s basement to become a playoff team. Veteran additions Zach Randolph and Tony Allen came in and brought life to this once-dull Grizzlies franchise, instilling a culture that’s still the team’s identity to this day. Alongside the wily vets were Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, two rising young players that were a hand-in-glove fit next to Randolph and Allen. Though he was an awkward fit next to this quartet, Rudy Gay was one of the more exciting wings in the league, as he was bound for a 30-40 point game or a highlight-reel play at any moment. These 5 players ushered in a new, exciting era of Grizzlies basketball that we haven't quite experienced before.
Meanwhile, the Tigers were still in the post-breakup stage with John Calipari, as the jealousy was at an all-time high. Their ex-coach was experiencing success at Kentucky, nabbing phenomenal recruits such as John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis and winning a national championship. Josh Pastner did fine at Memphis, getting the team to the NCAA tournament and having mild success in the recruiting ranks. It was just so hard to get excited about this team though, even though they acquired hometown heroes such as Joe Jackson, Adonis Thomas, Austin Nichols, and Nick King. The expectations that Cal set were just too high for anyone to really be satisfied with this team.
There, it’s a case of an exciting Grizzly team but a lackluster Tiger squad. Could the two teams finally put it together at the same time?
Get back into the now.
After a lost season, the Memphis Grizzlies are back. Marc Gasol looks like the Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, rather than the aging, declining player we saw last season. After missing all but 12 games due to a heel injury, Mike Conley looks like an All-Star and has erased all doubts about experiencing a decline. Jaren Jackson Jr. looks like the future of this franchise and one of the brightest young stars in the league. Not to mention, he has a charismatic personality that the city has already fallen in love with.
The college squad is making some noise too, as there’s a new excitement watching games — evident in their double-OT thriller against Yale. The cool coaching staff of Hardaway, Miller, and Mitchell are making waves in the recruiting scene, and the arrival of Wiseman signals that they’re just getting started.
Brace yourselves, Memphis. For the first time ever, both Memphis basketball squads are exciting. With a great young unicorn like Jaren Jackson in town, and the “Penny Effect,” that excitement isn’t going away anytime soon.