CITY BEAT

CITY BEAT

| April 02, 2004
A MARRIAGE MADE IN HELL The haggling between the Grizzlies and the University of Memphis Tigers sounds suspiciously like a mismatched couple negotiating a prenuptial agreement, knowing good and well that this thing isn't going to work. The terms of their move to the FedExForum isn't a sports story, it's a marriage story Ñ a subject many of us know a lot about without benefit of the sports page. Therefore, the person whose insight I offer is not Stan Meadows or Michael Heisley or Mike Rose or R.C. Johnson. It's novelist Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of America's greatest writers. For all I know, she's never seen a pro basketball game, but, boy, does she understand dysfunctional relationships. Near the end of her new bestseller, The Amateur Marriage, the husband looks back on his 60-year relationship with his ex-wife and attempts to explain it all to their bitter and estranged daughter: "We did the best we could. We did our darnedest. We were just ... unskilled; we never quite got the hang of things. It wasn't for lack of trying." Sorry, sports fans, but a marriage of Grizzlies and Tigers looks to have all the staying power of a matchup between Larry King and Britney Spears. The Grizzlies, like other pro teams, routinely pay multimillion-dollar contracts to benchwarmers and even ex-players like Bryant Reeves and Michael Dickerson who aren't even in the league any more. But they're reportedly balking at paying an annual six-figure subsidy to the U of M that is, relatively speaking, small change. Is that any way to treat the hometown partner you propose to love and cherish for the next 20 years? Rule Number 1: Beware of the flashy stranger who sweeps you off your feet and tells you to forget your old love from the neighborhood. The Tigers and their die-hard fans are hung up on the memory of the way they were. Wasn't it great when sharp-shooting Larry Finch took them to the NCAA finals in 1973 and when local guys Keith, Baskerville, Doom, Vincent, and the Little General stuck around four years and went to the Final Four in 1985? Trouble is, young fans weren't even born then, and four-year star players are rare today. Now, in desperation, the U of M has hitched a million-dollar coach to a vagabond team in a bargain-basement league. Rule Number 2: There is nothing like the golden memory of an old flame to screw up a not-so-golden marriage. College hoops in Memphis once filled 11,000 seats at the Mid-South Coliseum, so the Tigers got talked into buying into The Pyramid with 20,000 seats. In 1989, the fear Ñ can you believe it? Ñ was that they might only draw 12,000 or so. Attendance these days is far below the 1989 projection. Seats sold at Tiger games has averaged 6,780, excluding Wednesday night's game against Louisville. Today, the Grizzlies and the Tigers understand that unless the Tiger talent and schedule improve dramatically, things could get much worse than that. Conference rival Houston, which knocked off the Tigers in the 1983 and 1984 NCAA tournament, averaged 3,808 fans last year and 2,848 this year. Rule Number 3: A bigger mansion can't save a bad marriage. At the FedExForum, the Grizzlies will call the shots, tell the Tigers when they can play, control the revenue streams, and, of course, upstage their product. Rule Number 4: Father knows best is a lousy recipe for a long-term relationship. The Grizzlies would like you to believe that the NBA family is strong and healthy, if not exactly wholesome. The team is playing hard, winning more than losing, and general manager Jerry West and head coach Hubie Brown are getting great reviews. But there's definitely something dysfunctional about the NBA, even by the standards of pro sports. Seventeen head coaches Ñ the people who know the players and owners best Ñ have quit or been fired since last season. And the NBA's star attraction, Kobe Bryant, is going on trial for rape. Rule Number 5: Beware of the in-laws. The FedExForum has bills. The Grizzlies have bills. Fans are going to have to help pay them. Hauling the wife and kids to the game will be a tad more expensive than an evening at, say, AutoZone Park. Like $100 more expensive. Let's hope the economy and stock market are strong for the next 20 years. Rule Number 6: Couples fight about money The entertainment alternatives aren't standing still. Reality television, the Tennessee lottery, movies, and casinos are endlessly inventive, easy to get to, and relatively cheap. Rule Number 7: Affairs happen. Do you see now why these love birds are already fighting about the pre-nup? They're doing the best they can. They're doing their darnedest. If it doesn't work, it won't be for lack of trying.

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