Andrew Unterberger survived Memphis and lives to tell his tale…

Hot off the most resounding win of my trip (my seventh in a row, incidentally), I put on my blue suede shoes and boarded the Corolla for Memphis. Stopped at Van’s Pig Stand in Oklahoma on the way there for what would be something like my 17th barbecue restaurant over about a five-day span. Roadfood pointed out two specialties — ribs and the pig sandwich — so I had the former for breakfast and stashed the latter for a mid-road snack. The ribs were good, though it was definitely the earliest in the day I’ve ever had ribs and I probably shouldn’t have stood on formalities with applying the barbecue sauce. (Hey, I never know what the etiquette is with these things — they made fun of me at a Q in San Antonio for not understanding the correct ordering procedure. Damn pork snobs.)

The sandwich was also quality, but by then the sandwich had been sitting in sub-freezing temperatures for a good four hours, and was perhaps not eaten at optimal conditions. As frigid as it was in Oklahoma, it definitely just got worse heading east, and as I waited outside the FedEx Forum trying to square away my credential details for the night’s Grizzlies-Blazers game, I could feel numbness gradually robbing me of my various motor controls. “It’s not usually this cold,” everyone assured me. Harumph.

The Stadium: The FedEx Center was located on Beale Street in downtown Memphis, in what at least looked to me to be the heart of the city. Beale Street was full of flashing lights, the kind of tight assemblage of bars, restaurants and general good-time joints I had more associated with a city like New Orleans (and definitely had never pictured for a city like Memphis.) Chris Herrington, the Grizz reporter for the Memphis Flyer who took me under his wing for the evening, said the street was mostly for show and that he barely ever actually went there to go out, but it certainly made the area around the FedEx Forum look a lot more exciting than the locales of a good number of the arenas I’ve visited. And there the Forum was at the end of it, looking all shiny and new. As far as first impressions go, this was one of the more impressive ones.

The interiors were largely unremarkable — for better or worse, there was a lot of FedEx shit — and the entire arena experience was largely overshadowed by the historically poor attendance, which I’ll cover in greater detail later but needless to say, gave the Forum something of a ghost town feel. (On the plus side, I was able to get a Coke at halftime without having to wait in line.) It’s a bummer because from the exteriors and surrounding area alone, it seems like the Forum would be best served as the focal point of the entire downtown area, a conduit to the whole Memphis experience. Certainly wasn’t that way that night, if ever.

The Game: Truth told, I had really enjoyed watching the Grizzlies on League Pass all of last year — their starting five was one of the most exciting and unpredictable in the league, and their bench was a gleefully scattershot mixture of has-beens, never-wases, and why-the-hell-did-we-take-this-guy-with-the-second-picks. Even when they lost, the games were always entertaining for one reason or another. Since then, they’ve only gotten more lovable, picking up two inevitable fan favorites in all-heart, less-athletcisim rookie point guard Greivis Vazquez and endearingly frustrating defensive specialist/offensive de-specialist Tony Allen.

I hoped for a good game, which it was through one half, albeit in a lumpy, unsatisfying sort of way. No one on the Grizzlies seemed to be playing all that well — Z-Bo bumped and banged his way to about a double-double by half’s end, and Rudy Gay was hitting some jumpers, but there was no rhythm to the offense, and tons of mental lapses on defense. On the Blazers side, Brandon Roy was fairly miserable all night (7 points on 3-16 FG), and the fact that Chris used the phrase “flashback moment” to describe one of his rare good plays was a fairly depressing testament to just how much the guy had already lost in just his fifth year of NBA play. It was the kind of game where I had to keep checking the score to remind myself which team was supposed to have been doing well.

In the second half, the teams traded off terrible quarters — Portland answered Memphis’s total of 12 in the third with just 9 of their own in the whole fourth — and eventually, Memphis basically won the game by default, 86-73. It wasn’t really until after that I had noticed how unattractive the game was, because thanks to Chris, I had my best seats of my trip at courtside near the Blazers’ bench, and I was too busy being enthralled by every time my old Sixers favorite Andre Miller banged his leg on our table to stretch out. (Or out of frustration, or likely both.) The real joy of the game was getting to hear how animated all the Blazers’ assistant coaches got, yelling at the refs for foul calls, shouting encouragements at their hustling role players, and fucking with the Grizz players when possible. (One of ‘em yelled a fake shot-clock countdown at Marc Gasol on a key offensive possession, with nine seconds still left in the 24. Crafty.)

The Fans: “What was the most poorly-attended game you’ve been to so far?” Chris asked me when I met him about 40 minutes before tip-off. “Well, this is going to be the worst.” He wasn’t kidding. When I showed up at the arena about a half-hour before that, I had a brief moment of panic that I had gotten the game date wrong, so empty was the surrounding area. It was the perfect storm of weeknight, mediocre team in town, and sub-Siberian weather temperatures (all reports indicating that Memphisites don’t take too kindly to inclement weather) resulting in an attendance that made the game feel more like a promotional event than a regular-season contest. In the second half of the game, I wondered why I hadn’t noticed a standout most-popular jersey in the stands, until I realized that was because I had seen three, maybe four people total in Grizz jerseys to that point. Yikes.

To be fair — and I’m starting to lose count of the number of times I’ve had to use the phrase “to be fair” to help excuse fanbases in this section of my various articles — the crowd in attendance wasn’t bad. I actually kinda dug the more intimate feel of the event — the arena was so empty that it really ended up being less depressing than a half-full stadium would have been, since it was so far past the point of having pretensions towards being a legit NBA turnout. And the Memphis faithful did their part in yelling at the refs to call flagrant fouls, powering General Greivis through a nice and-one, and showing the appropriate appreciation for a lovely OJ Mayo buzzer-beating three to end the first half. If I lived in Memphis, I would be proud to go to 15-20 games a year for this team.

I asked Chris if he thought there would ever be an audience for Grizzlies basketball in Memphis. “Yeah, if there was ever a good team, winning games, winning playoff series,” he answered. “They’d draw, I have no doubt about that.” Are they so far off right now? “I really look forward to the playoffs,” said optimistic fan Lafaytette. “Come back to win some games, get about 45, can have a real good season.” Chris agreed: “I think this roster should win 40-something games, and compete for a playoff spot. If not, they’ve underachieved.” And do the extensions for Gay and Conley help with that? “I feel like they earned [the contracts] with their play,” said fan Thomas. “I felt like at the time it was necessary if we wanted to keep them around.” Lafayette liked the security of it: “Gotta have some stability at those two positions to have a good team.”

One thing everyone agreed on: Hasheem Thabeet is useless. “Hope we can get a trade for him,” Lafayette told me. “Hope we can just get something out of that #2 pick.”

Most Popular Jersey: Mayo, I guess? I saw at least two of those. And no Rudy Gays to be found — shame. Maybe he should have pulled a Marvin Gaye with that last name for marketability’s sake. Retros, forget about it, though I saw one True Bluer in an old Vancouver Grizzlies jacket.

Also Worth Noting: The general lack of history after ten years — which still includes zero playoff wins — manifested itself in interesting ways around the stadium. The lack of retro jerseys was explicable by the general lack of fans, but also due to a lack of franchise-defining players. (“Pau was not popular in Memphis,” Chris told me of the Grizz’s one-time money man. “He was undervalued for stylistic reasons.”) The signs around the stadium advertising the team’s tenth anniversary just made things worse, as did the video played at a time-out of Mike Miller hitting a buzzer-beater in a regular-season game to beat the Spurs a few years, over-billed somewhat by the video as one of the “Moments That Changed the Franchise” or some such. “That’s what we got,” Chris admitted glumly.

Swag Acquired: With no Gay jerseys available for under $90 (I mean, really??), I instead opted for a t-shirt with the “Ten Years of Grizzlies Basketball” graphic on it. I figure that thing will only get more bitterly ironic over time — or, at the very least, more confusing as to where and why I ever bought it.

2010 Jam of the Day:

Princess 1 – “Primary”. Skip the song if you want, but watch the video. If ever there was a way for a music video to get stuck in your head, this would be it.

And on the fifth day, 60/30 rested. Day off then down to New Orleans. Eight W’s in a row and I’m officially back up to .500! Couple more and I might start making myself available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

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