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I had been itching to make a return trip to Memphis since my 60/30 NBA trip back in 2010, during which my visit to FedEx Forum was easily the coldest and most desolate of the 30 stops made. The team that seemed like a league afterthought early in that season became a sensation with their first round upset of the San Antonio Spurs as the eighth seed that postseason, and has grown from a veritable laughing stock into something semi-resembling a model franchise in the years since. Moreover, FedEx — since (unofficially) re-christened the Grindhouse — has seemed to turn into one of the NBA’s most vibrant arenas, a stark contrast to the intimate unplugged concert of my earlier visit. I felt cheated to have so narrowly missed out on it.

I finally went back to Memphis and FedEx for Game 4 of Grizzlies-Thunder last night, and the contrast was even starker than I had imagined. It wasn’t just that the crowd was now so in to the game, or that it was there at all — but rather, that since I was last there, FedEx had morphed into one of the NBA’s strongest home cultures, one that while virtually non-existent just two-and-a-half seasons ago, has blossomed into a relationship between city, players and franchise that 25 other teams in the league would probably envy. If I didn’t know better from my own experience, I’d have guessed that it had been this way for generations, or at least as close to “generations” as you can get from the 12 seasons the team has been stationed in Memphis. It’s a stunning transformation.

The first and most noticeable evidence of the growth of pro basketball culture in Memphis (to me, at least), was the preponderance of home team merchandise being worn by fans throughout the stadium. Now, most respectable hoops fan bases show out in impressive spreads of home jerseys and the like, but the Grizz crowd was distinctive for the diversity of merch on display. Zach Randolph jerseys probably made up the biggest individual percentage, but there was plenty of love for Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, even some for Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter if you squinted hard enough. The dearly departed were repped for as well — surprising amounts of OJ Mayo and Rudy Gay, as well as less impactful team discards like Josh Selby, Hamed Haddadi, Jeremy Pargo and (my personal favorite) Allen Iverson. Pretty good, considering last time I went there weren’t enough total jerseys worn to even attempt a consensus.

But it wasn’t just the jerseys. I’ve never seen such a wide spread of fan shirts for the same team. There were plenty of puns off the “grit, grind” and “We don’t bluff” quotes the team has been milking for some time now — more on those in a minute — but there were also shirts advertising the nGo (New Grizzlies Order), making “Hard in the Paint” boasts, playing on the 901 Memphis area code, displaying both “Keep Calm, Grind On” AND “Screw Calm, Grind On” maxims, listing the team’s five starters, Experimental Jet Set style (Marc & Tony & Z-Bo…), Photoshopping Marc Gasol into the “F— You, Thunder” scene from “Ted,” boldly declaring “I just Grizzed in my pants,” and so much more. Where did all this come from in barely over two seasons?

The answer appears to be traceable back to Chris Vernon, Memphis radio host and makeshift merchandiser, who was responsible for the first capitalization on both the Grizzlies’ newfound popularity, and their players’ remarkable quotability. After playing the bite endlessly on his show, Chris took Tony Allen’s now legendary “All heart … grit, grind” quote from a regular season postgame and put it on a t-shirt, wondering at first if ordering 50 copies of the shirt for sale was too overzealous. “When it came out, Bill Simmons re-tweeted it to 1.4 million followers,” Vernon explained to me at the game. “Then, it just took off. Started selling it at more games, online … once the wave got going, it just got going.”

A second t-shirt based around Zach Randolph’s “Blue collar player, blue collar town” shirt from that postseason proved similarly popular, and soon the team took notice of their players’ newfound marketability. By the time Z-Bo accidentally spawned another catchphrase this season with his “We don’t bluff” postgame interview following an emotional win over the Thunder, the team was ready to seize the opportunity, giving out rally towels with the message inscribed on them for this year’s playoffs. The constant phrase-coining with the Grizzlies threatens to stretch into cheesiness, especially given how hard the team seems to push some of them — the “grind”ification of everything at FedEx, down to mascot Grizz unveiling a late-game banner that declares “WE GRIND HERE,” can get particularly tiresome — but the quotes seem to originate so organically from the players and resonate so authentically with the fanbase that it’s hard to be too cynical about them.

The music has a large part to do with it, too. I wrote about Jason, Nate and Justin once before, and how their steady stream of way-out-of-the-box musical cues and timeout jams helps make Memphis home games League Pass must-watches, but they also help reinforce the identity of the team and their connection to the city. The local flavor of the music extends to a series of specially created (and often specially commissioned) Memphis and/or Grizzly-themed jams that played throughout the night, like a remix of Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” featuring local hip-hop group FreeSol, or a remix from Tennessee DJ Wick-It the Instigator of the otherwise clich├ęd victory anthem “All I Do Is Win,” or even a brand-new Grizzlies-themed song from Memphis rap royalty DJ Paul and Drumma Boy entitled, of course, “We Don’t Bluff.” The Grizzlies seem to have captured the imagination of much of the city’s music scene, though oddly, not of celebrity minority owner and Memphis native Justin Timberlake, who doesn’t even appear at the games. (“He came one time,” Nate said. “And he was hidden somewhere away from the cameras.”)

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The Memphisness of the in-game music reaches a whole new level during the playing of rapper Al Kapone’s “Hustle & Flow”-popularized anthem “Whoop That Trick.” Justin told me he saves the song for the end of the third quarter, but really, it’s the audience that gives the cue now — towards the end of last night’s third, the crowd started chanting the phrase unprompted, as is starting to become tradition at the Grindhouse, and Kapone even personally endorsed it last game — and Justin obliged by playing the song’s lurching juggernaut of a beat shortly thereafter, further sending the crowd into a frenzy. When the Grizz emerged triumphant in OT at evening’s end, it was “Whoop,” not “All I Do Is Win,” that played as the sound of victory. It’s hard to imagine another stadium where this adaptable (but decidedly un-PG) three-word chant becoming a battle cry (or this exhilarating but abrasive song becoming a crowd-pleasing jam) would be even remotely possible.

Of course, all this team culture-building wouldn’t mean much if the team wasn’t good or the players weren’t beloved by the fans. The evidence of both was clearly on display last night, as the Grizzlies fought back from a 17-point first half deficit to win in overtime and take a commanding 3-1 series lead. It’s impressive the way the players’ tendencies have come to be so known by the team’s fans that the crowd now starts to get excited in anticipation of their signature plays. When Mike Conley creeps behind an opponent to go for a chasedown steal, or Marc Gasol gets the ball in the post before getting off a short fadeaway jumper, you can hear the roar start to build in the crowd, excited by the knowledge of what comes next.

The greatest adoration, though, is reserved for Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Tony in particular has come to be much more the mascot of this team than poor ol’ Grizz. When Allen’s not in the game now, he stomps on the sideline, trying to hype his team and fans up (or maybe just unsure what to do with his own excess of hypedness), and even when he’s in the game, he still directs the audience when and when to cheer, egging them on before timeouts and hushing them for teammates’ free throws, doing everything but actually holding up the “MAKE SOME NOISE!!” signs. He even gets his own theme song now, as Memphis Flyer writer Chris Herrington pointed out to me when the boys in the booth started playing Future’s “Go Harder” in his honor, and also gets to dictate halftime show choices, as when his tweet about appreciating the Olate dog show led to them being booked as last night’s mid-game entertainment. Don’t be surprised if he parachutes down from the roof during the starting lineups of the team’s next home game.

By the way, it’s worth noting that those dogs weren’t nearly the craziest non-game entertainment provided at FedEx last night. There were also the following contests:

  1. A fan named RJ tossed two gigantic dice, trying to roll a five or better. The catch: Instead of dots, the sides of the dice had pictures of current Grizzlies (worth three points), former presidents (worth two points), and Nicolas Cage (worth one point). The guy rolled a Nic Cage and was instantly disqualified from winning. “You’re a disgrace to your family,” the MC matter-of-factly informed RJ.
  2. Two contestants tried to score five points’ worth of baskets (counting by ones and twos) in a minute. The catch: They were being defended by guys in long foam spare-rib suits, part of a promotion for a local BBQ restaurant or some such. The contestants did not fare well against the ribs’ stifling, physical defense, which is apparently par for the course. “Nobody ever scores on them,” Chris Herrington explained to me sympathetically, as if describing the ’96 Bulls of anthropomorphic messy foods.
  3. A funny-looking guy disappeared into a gigantic balloon. No catch needed here.

I don’t know what it says about the character of the team or city that all this non-game craziness happened last night, but it certainly adds to the uniqueness of the overall experience.

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Anyway, the question that was on my mind amidst all the Grindhouse revelry, and the question I posed to the two Chrises, was this: What happens when the team’s not good anymore? Unless they become the next San Antonio — not impossible, but never likely — they’ll experience a downturn of some sort at some point in the not-incredibly-distant future. Will the fans stick through it, and will the team’s hard-earned culture survive, without regressing back to absentee nights like my first visit to FedEx? Herrington hesitated to guarantee it, though he allowed that they’d probably never see a turnout quite that bleak again, but Vernon was pretty all-around confident. “You look around this crowd, it’s young,” he theorized. “Now, they’re hooked. It’s on now. They got ‘em … Once they fell in love with that team two years ago, now they’re good.”

Observing the crowd after the game — a mix of genders, races and ages (mostly young perhaps, but plenty old as well) yelling excitedly to each other, exclaiming “WHOOP THAT TRICK!” and “WE DON’T BLUFF!,” waving their Grizzlies towels out of their car windows — it’s hard to contradict Vernon’s claim that the city of Memphis is in it for the long haul now. It seems like it’s really part of the community now, an inextricable part of Memphis culture. And in any event, I’m very glad that I didn’t miss it this time.