Going into the postseason this year, there were so many sizzling, sexy storylines that it was a pretty big tossup what the biggest one was going to be. Kobe leading the Lakers to a three-peat? Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant taking the next step, and taking the Bulls or Thunder along with them? The Heat stepping up to prove that all the preseason hype was justified? The Knicks coming together just in time to prove a post-season force? The Celtics and Spurs making one last run at a title before their teams succumbed to the ravages of age? It could have been any one of them.
And yet here we are, a round-and-a-half in to the playoffs, and who’s earned the front page so far? The Memphis freakin’ Grizzlies, a team that before three weeks ago most casual fans probably hadn’t seen play more than once or twice a year, a team that before three weeks ago had never won a single playoff game, and a team that a couple people may have pegged to pull off the upset, but that absolutely no one thought would manage to upstage all these headlining acts. And I absolutely love it.
I’ve been infatuated with the Grizzlies since they started playing well after jettisoning Allen Iverson (yeah, remember him?) early in the ’09-’10 season, and I always knew they were capable of this — although my vision of the team’s playoff breakthrough certainly didn’t include Rudy Gay in street clothes on the sideline with his arm in a sling, or OJ Mayo playing just 23 minutes a game off the bench. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of their first-round upset of the Spurs, especially as it became obvious about half way through how much of a misnomer the term “upset” was to describe the eventual series result. Now after heading back to Memphis with a split in OKC in their second-round series against the Thunder, some think they actually have a chance to make the finals—and I agree. It’s absolutely incredible for an eighth-seeded team, much less one that nobody seemed to realize existed before April.
But the thing that really struck me as I watched the Grizz pound San Antonio into submission — especially the three games at FedEx Forum — was just how wildly different it all was from what I saw when I traveled to Memphis to see the Grizzlies play five months ago. For those of you who don’t know, don’t remember or don’t care, I did a series of articles for this blog in the last two months of 2010 where I road-tripped to see home games at all 30 (grr, 29) NBA stadiums, soaking up the team, the building, the fans, and the overall experience. The game I saw at FedEx in Memphis was a weeknight game against the Blazers on one of the coldest nights of the year, when the Grizzlies were only 10-14 on the season, on the outside of the playoff picture. A combination of team, opponent, time and weather resulted in the weakest crowd not only of my trip, but of any live pro sporting event I’ve ever attended. “More like a promotional event than a regular-season contest,” was how I described it in the article. It was a fun game, and one the Grizz ended up winning, but the atmosphere was so sleepy and dreary that it made the Bobcats game I saw against the Pistons in Charlotte a few weeks later seem like Beatlemania.
Had I the time and the budget, I’d head back down to Memphis for one of their two upcoming home games against the Thunder, and write a first-hand account of just how much things had changed since then. Alas, I have an actual job now, and it’s not as easy to shrug off the 1,000-plus mile drive between New York and Memphis as it was half-a-year ago. But I still figured it would be worth taking an extended look back at my original article, picking out some really telling quotes, and reveling in the gleefully ironic light that they’ve been cast in by Memphis’s incredible, incredulous start to the 2011 post-season. Original quotes are in italics, and “Chris” is Chris Herrington, the writer for the Memphis Flyer who showed me around the stadium that night and who deserves this franchise turnaround as much as anyone.
“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.
I’m not sure exactly how many people were in the audience that night against the Blazers — the official announced attendance that night was 10,467, but I’d eat my then-recently-acquired Utah Jazz hat if the actual number was even half that, and I strongly suspect that if you discounted players, coaches and training personnel, it might have been less than a quarter. The announced attendance for the last two home games against San Antonio were a far more impressive 18,119 and 18,581 respectively, and just looking in the crowd — the parts shown on television, anyway — you could see about as many fans in any given section than you could have in a whole level of seats at the game I went to.
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.
I made a point throughout my trip of noting which were the most popular jerseys worn by home fans, to try to judge who was most being viewed these days as the franchise player, but the combination of poor attendance and subpar franchise history resulted in a distressing lack of data for Memphis. This would certainly not be a problem for me if I went now, what with the sea of Zach Randolph jerseys you’ve seen in the stands so far this series, flanked by tributes to supporting players like Tony Allen, OJ Mayo, and even a couple of Mike Conleys.
And then there’s the fan shirts, like the growing-in-popularity “Grit, Grind” Tony Allen tributes, and those fantastic “Go Flop Yourself Ginobili” shirts worn by fans standing baseline at Game 6. With Randolph locked-up long term and so many rotation players coming up big in key moments this post-season, this is not a team who should be lacking in fan-player representation again anytime soon.
To be fair — the crowd in attendance wasn’t bad. 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.
Even as bad as things were figure-wise at FedEx that night, I could tell that the DNA for a real basketball fanbase was there in Memphis. The fans in attendance were definitely scrappers, and now that they have the numbers to back them up, the fan response in Memphis is maybe one of the five best of any city involved in this postseason, going nuts at the appropriate moments, chanting for players who go above and beyond the call of duty (but only deeming one of them an MVP at FT time), harassing players on opposing teams — just doing what good fanbases are supposed to do. You could call some of them bandwagon jumpers, or call them out for not being there for the regular season, but they’re there now, and they’re probably not going away anytime soon.
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.
I hate to do this to Rudy Gay, because it’s not really fair to him — he played well all year, and the Grizz were well on their way to turning things around before he went down for the season, going 11-3 in the last 14 games he played in before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Philadelphia. But there’s no doubt that the team’s defensive identity — not to mention their offensive hierarchy — just makes more sense with Tony Allen and Shane Battier at small forward for this team than with Rudy. The primary thing you’d think the team would miss without Gay is the perimeter scoring, particularly in crunch time, but it turns out that posting up Randolph on the block or giving him space on the wing is just as deadly a late-game weapon as getting Rudy an iso at the top of the key. If you told someone before the 2009 season that within two years, the Grizzlies would win a playoff series without Gay and with OJ Mayo merely a role player … but, here we are.
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.”)
I bring up Chris’s quote about Pau for two reasons. One, it serves to demonstrate just how much better a fit Z-Bo is as this team’s franchise player — the proverbial blue collar player for a blue collar town, as Randolph has mentioned in so many interviews since things started getting really good for him in Memphis. Two, it gives me an excuse to bring up probably the most underrated aspect of this entire post-season run — the fact that it not only forever saves Chris Wallace’s trade of Pau Gasol to the Lakers from being the biggest GM blunder of the 21st century, as so many suggested it was at the time, but it makes the thing damn near justifiable, and perhaps even … well, good.
Most obviously, there’s the fact that Marc Gasol has turned into one of the league’s best two-way centers, shutting down Tim Duncan in the Spurs series and being named the MVP of the first round of the postseason by David Thorpe. But let’s not forget that bench players Darrell Arthur, whose jumper helped the Grizz pull away from the Spurs in the second half of Game 4, and Greivis Vasquez, whose double-digit scoring in relief of Mike Conley helped the Grizz stay afloat in the first half of Game 6, were also taken with draft picks acquired from LA in the Gasol deal (though the Arthur pick came subsequently laundered through Houston, Portland and New Orleans).
Look at it this way. Let’s say your average Grizz fan was presented halfway through the ’07-’08 season with the scenario of the team trading Pau — whose exit was basically imminent at that point anyway — and was promised that the team’s record would improve each of the next three seasons, and that at the end of those three seasons, they would be viewed as a legitimate threat in the Western Conference, with three of the players eventually acquired in the deal being important rotation guys on that threatening team. Wouldn’t the fan take that deal instantly and absolutely, without considering the names or backgrounds of the players involved, or however much it ended up helping the team on the other end? Maybe a lot of it was by accident, maybe a lot of it was just good luck, maybe Chris Wallace really is as stupid as everyone thinks — but when you look at a team like the Kings or Timberwolves, who have been rebuilding for as long as the Grizzlies have and still don’t look to be much closer to contending than they were when they started, you have to admit that the trade wasn’t nearly as much of a travesty as previously believed.
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.”
Ah, poor Hasheem — a No. 2 overall pick who couldn’t even stay marginally playable for long enough to see the team that drafted him make an epic playoff run just two seasons later. At least Lafayette — a very friendly and devoted fan sitting in the upper deck of the FedEx Center that night against Portland — should be happy to see that the team did in fact get something out of that pick: Namely, the game-winning three in Game 1, hit by all-time Grizz great Shane Battier after being brought over for his second tour of duty in Memphis as part of the deal that sent Thabeet to Houston at the trade deadline. Battier may not play another game for Memphis once the postseason wraps, but helping the team ensure their first-ever playoff victory — and who knows what happens in the series on the whole if hey drop that opening game — redeems that No. 2 pick as not being a complete waste. Just 75-80% of one.
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.
This was the part of my FedEx visit that most stuck with me throughout the Grizzlies’ first-round vanquishing of the Spurs, and the thing that really separates their victory from other nominal playoff upsets of recent years. It is rare — one of the rarest, most precious occurrences in pro sports, really — to get to witness the true birth of a franchise. The Grizzlies had been around for 16 years, and in Memphis for 10, but in all that time, they’d yet to find any kind of permanence, any kind of secure footing to prove that all record of their ever having existed would not be washed away if, God forbid, the team were ever folded. Up until three weeks ago, the only legacy the Grizzlies had in the NBA was one of repeated lottery trips, of big-time players going on to find greater success on other teams, of supremely poorly attended regular-season games against the Blazers in freezing-cold temperatures.
But not anymore. Now the franchise has something to hang its hat on, something the fans can point to with pride and say “Yes, that was US. That happened and we were there and it was fucking awesome.” They have a history now. Even when the Warriors shocked the Mavericks and the world in 2007, after having been bad for so, so long — that was a team that still had a title or two somewhere in its past, some sort of legacy to draw from. All Memphis had was Mike Miller hitting a regular-season buzzer-beater over the Spurs, a moment easily outclassed by a solid dozen or so moments in the Grizzlies’ first-round win alone. And no matter what happens the rest of this postseason, there’s not going to be anything else that compares to the feeling of getting to see a franchise get its very first taste of that kind of glory, to officially put their stamp on this National Basketball Association.
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.”
Right on. Can’t wait to see it again in round two this weekend.
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