Major-league sports remain a novelty in Tennessee. Not until the NFL's Tennessee Oilers kicked off at the Liberty Bowl here in Memphis on August 31, 1997, could the Volunteer state call a big-league team its own. (Historians will recall the Oilers beating the Oakland Raiders in overtime to welcome this new era.) On October 10, 1998, the expansion Nashville Predators dropped the puck for the first regular-season National Hockey League game in a state where, for generations, ice had been the exclusive partner of tea. Then, of course, on November 1, 2001, the Memphis Grizzlies hosted the Detroit Pistons at The Pyramid. The NFL, the NHL, and the NBA ... oh my.
Cut to the present and we find what can rightly be called the greatest month in Tennessee's professional sports history. For the first time in the franchise's 16-year history (the last 10 in Memphis), the Grizzlies are playing in the second round of the NBA playoffs. And for the first time in the Predators' 13 years of skating in the state capital, Nashville has landed in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Before Griz fans scoff at the notion of three hours spent watching men slap a rubber disk around an ice rink, they should consider the drama unfolding in the Predators' series with the Vancouver Canucks (the Western Conference's top seed ... sound familiar?). Saturday night in Vancouver, Nashville scored with 67 seconds left to force overtime, then won, 2-1, on a Matt Halischuk goal almost 15 minutes into the second overtime. The victory tied the series at a game apiece and seized home-ice advantage for the Preds.
Need stars? The Predators' Pekka Rinne and the Canucks' Roberto Luongo are two of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, given each year to the NHL's top goaltender. And here's a quick intro to the Canucks' Sedin twins for the uninitiated: Henrik led the NHL in scoring for the 2009-10 season and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. This season, his brother Daniel led the league in scoring and is a finalist for the Hart. Someone please calculate for me the odds of two men who shared a womb taking turns as scoring champ in a major professional sport.
Barring a Predator (or Canuck) sweep of the next three games, next Monday -- May 9th -- will be the day the Volunteer State can officially wave a new flag for sports fans in North America. On that night, Nashville would host Game 6 in its series with Vancouver. On the same night, here in Memphis, the Grizzlies will host Game 4 of their series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Two major-league sports, two playoff series, 200 miles apart in a state where, just 15 years ago, college sports was king. Knoxville can merely gaze west with wonder.
* Sometimes wisdom can be found in speaking -- or hearing -- the obvious. After the Grizzlies' win over San Antonio in Game 4 of their series on April 25th, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins was asked by Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated if the Grizzlies had entered the series thinking they were the better team. Hollins replied, "They won 61 games and we won 46. But it doesn't matter who was the better team in the regular season. In the playoffs, you have to be the better team in a series." Does the regular season matter when a team that fights for a top seed can be dismissed from the playoffs by a team that finished eighth in its conference? It matters as much as the money spent to attend those games matter. It matters as much as the myriad numbers and statistics tell us it matters. But when it comes to which team will prevail over a best-of-seven battle, no. The regular season means nothing. Hats off to Hollins for making sure his young team knew that.