Grantland columnist and ESPN analyst Bill Simmons visited Memphis last week to watch the NBA Western Conference Finals between the hometown Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs. The way this match up went was best described by SB Nation’s Spencer Hall.
The Spurs played out the series like landlords overseeing an eviction.
Simmons, it seems, saw things a bit differently. During his BS Report podcast on Wednesday, he spoke about his experience in the city and the effect that Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination had on the people of Memphis – (!) – to Jalen Rose, who may or may not have been holding a baseball bat at the time:
I didn’t realize the effect [the King assassination] had on that city.
I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone for how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. It as like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting and it’s just that mindset they have.
I’m a firm believer in using sports as a means of examining larger social issues. In doing so, we look at the small and familiar to gain a better understanding of the big and unfamiliar. I’m not so sure about reversing that stream because it inevitably reduces whatever “the big” represents. Sports are so drastically unimportant that using something of enormous importance like the assassination of Martin Luther King to explain an element of it lacks perspective, context, understanding and everything else that should inform the most basic of opinions.
With that in mind, it’s easy to pick on Simmons. Several outlets already have.
In Bill Simmons’s world, there must always be a unified theory that explains how and why everything happens. And that theory must be something dreamed up by Simmons, and Simmons alone. And that theory is NEVER wrong.
The Martin Luther King assassination was a national tragedy. Through a series of fateful events, Memphis became the stage for that tragedy. The civic effects have been studied by many people, most of whom probably spent more than five minutes in the city. But does this mean sports fans are walking around with dark clouds around their heads 45 years later, equating a missed Zach Randolph jumpshot with the worst moment in the city’s history?
Even Business Insider got in on the act:
It certainly sounds silly to claim that there’s a causal relationship between a 45-year-old murder and the relative energy level of an NBA crowd at a specific game.
However, along with the heavy doses of scorn it should be remembered that Simmons puts himself out there a lot. So much so, that mistakes are a little bit easier to forgive, especially when they’re rooted more in a failure to think things through than maliciousness or attention-seeking.
I also think I might have a clue as to why he’d say such a thing.
I love Memphis. If I had carte blanche to pick up and move anywhere in North America, Memphis would be a top five consideration. It’s beautiful. It’s hot. It’s a party town, a sports town, a fun town, and a sad town. It has a history. And it has an amazingly inexpensive trolley system.
For a single dollar, Memphis Transit patrons can ride the Main Street Line where drivers are so accustomed to vacationers, they often act as informal tour guides, explaining the significance of different stops along the way. The last time I was in Memphis, I realized that I’d never been to the National Civil Rights Museum built around the former Lorraine Motel where King was shot and killed. I took the trolley from my hotel there, and as the operator approached, he explained the importance of his next stop in the least manicured and most real way possible.
He started by saying that there was “a lot of history” at the next stop, and then he delved into that history, highlighting what Memphis was like in 1968, and what it was supposed to become before King was assassinated there. His sermon from the front ended just as the street car came to its destination. Again, he said, “A lot of history. A lot of history.”
Once inside, this message was reinforced. The effect that King’s assassination had on Memphis was presented as a parable for its effect on America and the Civil Rights Movement. It was devastating, but both Memphis and the idea of civil equality continue to move forward.
I wonder if this experience was similar for the visiting Simmons. Perhaps during his stay, the effect of King’s assassination on the city was emphasized, and he interpreted the crowd’s reactions in Memphis through this lens. For an outsider hearing the same explanation over and over again for the same attribute, it’s easy to accept that explanation as fact without understanding the importance of who is giving that explanation.
Unfortunately, his expanding of this explanation and tying it together on a podcast about sports demeans the reason why King’s assassination affected the people of the city so forcefully. What makes this so egregious is that the parallel is drawn for the sake of an easy explanation on a topic that is much more deserving.