This week has been a lesson in relationships for Memphians, at least for those of us who pay attention to basketball. (And there are a few in the Mid-South who do.) On Monday, All-NBA center Marc Gasol — an unrestricted free agent — officially announced he would stay with the Memphis Grizzlies, signing a five-year contract extension that will pay him around $110 million. The sound of angels singing could be heard from the Mississippi River halfway to Jackson, Tennessee.
The next day, though, all-conference forward Austin Nichols announced that he would be leaving the University of Memphis, forsaking at least one, probably two seasons of All-America candidacy in blue and gray. You could feel the tremors emanating from the Finch Center several miles away, at least to the Nichols family home in Collierville.
Gasol’s return is a special, human tribute to the Grizzlies franchise and also the larger Memphis community, one the native Spaniard has come to know well since he wore a Lausanne Collegiate School uniform while his big brother, Pau, starred with the Griz. Let’s be a bit clinical and acknowledge the 110 million reasons Marc has to stay in Memphis . . . but the fact is, he appears to love Memphis, particularly the likes of Mike Conley and the teammates he feels have helped create an annual title contender. Gasol is good enough to play for other contenders. And there are other contenders who can pay the former Defensive Player of the Year more millions than he or his children will ever be able to spend. But Marc Gasol, let it be said, has become a Memphian. He met with one (and only one) franchise during his brief free agency. Where else would a Memphian play?
Then we have the saga of Austin Nichols, the Briarcrest product around whom Tiger coach Josh Pastner built a roster, the shot-blocking face and leader — captain! — of a team hoping to prove last season was an 18-14 anomaly, a single down year in what has been one of college basketball’s most successful institutions this century. Despite swirling rumors since late March, Nichols appeared to be all-in as a Tiger, even after the spring departures of teammates Pookie Powell and Nick King. But something clearly changed the 20-year-old’s mind over the last three months. A player who would make preseason All-America lists is willing to stay on the sidelines a year to get away from the Memphis program he joined two years ago, a match he considered — 24 months ago — a dream come true.
The Memphis-Nichols divorce is simply the other end of the relationship spectrum from the Memphis-Gasol marriage. And these relationships, remember, are intensely personal. No matter how close we media types like to think (or say) we are to a team of athletes and their coaching staff, few relationships outside actual family are as interwoven — and complicated — as those on a basketball team. The rosters are small, the coaching staff smaller (certainly relative to football). If there is the slightest animosity between two personalities, a locker room can divide. When one of those personalities is the head coach? The fracture can be quick, emotional, and permanent. That appears to be the case with Josh Pastner and Austin Nichols.
Can Pastner — and in the larger picture, the U of M basketball program — recover from this mess? Not in time for the 2015-16 season. If you’re going to hold anything against Nichols, it should be the timing of his decision more than the choice to leave itself. Whatever scraps may be left among college basketball transfers (the NCAA has free agents, too), they won’t replace 13 points, six rebounds, and three blocks per game. Worse, they won’t mollify a fan base that has come to consider Pastner a fine recruiter who cannot retain the talent he brings to Memphis. Tarik Black leaving after three seasons (having earned his degree) was one thing. Nick King leaving after two injury-riddled, disappointing seasons was another. Austin Nichols is precisely equivalent to Marc Gasol choosing to leave the Grizzlies. With one parting handshake (or other hand signal), a team is diminished.
There is no winner in the Tiger divorce. Nichols appears to be indecisive, minus the leadership skills Pastner trusted him to display next winter. And the coach, as noted earlier, appears to get in his own way when it comes to building a strong, steady program, let alone a Final Four contender.
For now, Memphis basketball fans should open their arms and return the embrace Marc Gasol offered so openly on Monday. Some relationships come and go. Others come to define a franchise and the community it represents.