I love college sports. I love teams of young athletes a community comes to know as “our kids” for a few years before they (hopefully) graduate and move on to the world of jobs, utility bills, and mortgage payments. The world of grown-ups.
But I’m also drawn to professional sports, and for something college teams — by the very structure of the enterprise — cannot provide: familiarity. My favorite pro athlete of all time, Ozzie Smith, first wore a St. Louis Cardinal uniform when I was in 7th grade, living in Southern California. By the time the Wizard retired in 1996, I had spent high school in Vermont, college in Boston, moved to Memphis, and married the girl of my dreams. Most of those 15 years, through all my transition and growth, there was a poster of Ozzie Smith where I lived. He and the Cardinals were heroes, sure. But they were also extended family. They were familiar.
When the Memphis Grizzlies open the 2013-14 season Wednesday night in San Antonio, Mike Conley will play in his 439th regular-season game for the home team. Marc Gasol will suit up for his 378th. Even better, neither player has appeared in the uniform of another NBA team. Conley and Gasol have become as Memphis as dry rub and rhinestone jumpsuits. (Even Zach Randolph — who played for three other franchises — feels like family, having played in 260 games as a Grizzly.) Contrast this with the great Larry Finch — an institution whose statue remains overdue — who played in just 84 games as a Memphis State Tiger (freshmen were not eligible to play in Finch’s day). Penny Hardaway played in only 66 games for his hometown program. Antonio Anderson holds the Tiger record for games played with 150, less than the equivalent of two full NBA seasons.
Successful pro franchises — and the Memphis Grizzlies have entered this category — lean on the familiar. Pick an NBA dynasty, and you’ll have a face or two that appear without prompting: Russell and Havlicek’s Celtics, Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls, Duncan’s Spurs. Even with free agency, impatient owners, and fickle fan bases, NBA teams that allow their stars to cohere into a unit — one cause, one goal, one message — are the teams that play into June and end their seasons under a shower of confetti.
The 2013-14 Grizzlies have their share of new faces, starting with rookie head coach Dave Joerger. Fans will need a program for the details of Jamaal Franklin’s college career, or how exactly Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes came to don Beale Street Blue. Such is the nature of sports: along with the familiar must be a few fresh ingredients for growth. And with the 32-year-old Randolph earning eight figures, there’s some question about whether his familiar face will be around for the Grizzlies’ next playoff run.
Tony Allen will be here though. Having signed a four-year contract extension, the Grindfather — more than any other, the face of the team’s three-year climb to relevancy — will stand alongside Conley and Gasol in a few more team pictures, further cementing his attachment to Memphis (209 games and counting). Barring injury, Conley will become the first player in franchise history to wear a Memphis jersey for 500 games. And Gasol will do what he’s now been recognized for doing: grinding his way to stardom, whether on the block or in the high post.
It will be a fun NBA season in Memphis. New challenges ahead (Dwight Howard in Houston!), and new moments to give the Grindhouse its glow. But we’ll also have some familiar men playing leading roles along the journey. Mike, Marc, Tony, and Z-Bo — our NBA franchise’s Familiar Four — make the Grizzlies more Memphis every time they take the floor.