"Only in the movies and in Memphis." That call from the late Memphis Grizzlies broadcaster Don Poier dates to the first preseason game the franchise played after moving to Memphis, back in 2001. But the moment that most fits the call happened on May 7, 2011.
It was the first home game since the Grizzlies had upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the NBA playoffs — becoming only the second eighth-seed to ever beat a number-one seed in a best-of-seven series. The home team was behind by double digits in the fourth quarter to the higher-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.
Fans had been given "growl towels" at the game, a conventional promo item meant to be waved, which presents an aggressive, boisterous image in a full arena. Fans had waved growl towels at the first Grizzlies playoff game in 2004, raining white lint while Hubie Brown received his Coach of the Year award. And they had waved them as the Grizzlies swept all three home games in the first round against the Spurs. Given gold towels instead of white ones for the second round at FedExForum, they had waived them for three quarters against the Thunder. The towels were emblazoned with the team's official playoff slogan: "BELIEVE MEMPHIS."
Then, suddenly, late in the game, their team behind but beginning to claw back, fans — lots of them, all across the arena — stopped waiving the towels. Instead they held them stretched out above their heads, displaying the slogan "BELIEVE MEMPHIS" like some kind of unintentional homage to the famous scene in the 1979 film Norma Rae, in which Sally Field's heroine stands on a workbench and holds a "UNION" sign up to her textile-mill co-workers. The fan display in FedExForum that night had a similarly defiant feel. It was maybe a little corny. Certainly a little loopy. But for anyone in the building — except maybe some visitors from Oklahoma City — the display was undeniably inspiring.
"It spread like a virus," remembers Grizzlies director of promotions and event presentation Jason Potter, who, alongside public address announcer Rick Trotter, manages the game presentation from courtside. "It wasn't like one person started doing it, then another. It felt instantaneous. I turned to Rick and said, 'Do you believe this?' And he turned to me slack-jawed. We had tears in our eyes. It was humbling. It was such a genuine expression."
By that time, a team-created marketing slogan had morphed into something more, soon commingling with rising waters and a presidential visit to capture a civic mood that started with but extended beyond basketball. And it reverberated around an assemblage whose racial diversity, youth, and sense of optimism felt a lot like a "new" Memphis.
Oh, and the Grizzlies completed the comeback, winning the game in overtime.
29 Days of Grit and Grind
Prior to last month, the Grizzlies franchise had appeared in 12 playoff games in 15 seasons. This postseason: They played 13.
And those 13 games — the first truly competitive postseason major-league sports contests in the city's history — seem to have been a revelatory experience for local sports fans not already attuned to the Grizzlies. For the first time, a lot of Memphians got a sense of how good NBA games are at their best: the quality of players and play, the dramatic heft of the games, the back-and-forth arc of a long series. And fans who had previously shrugged off the once-forlorn franchise realized that, unlike with a college program, when your NBA team goes on a run, a lot of the postseason games happen at home, which forges a new level of fun and excitement.
Before last month, Memphis had hosted six home NBA playoff games. It got six more this season. And those two six-packs of games couldn't be more different. The first set? The home team was 0-6, with only two games competitive late and a couple more glum affairs played out in front of plenty of empty seats. These six? 5-1. Each a sellout. Thrillers all.
Every home playoff game in this surprising run was memorable, each distinguishable by one word or phrase: The First Home Win, The Blowout, The Series Clincher, The Comeback, Triple Overtime, Avoiding Elimination.
This was as good as sports gets without winning a championship. And the final home game — Game 6 against the Thunder — was a full-on civic celebration/carnival: Al Green on the anthem, flood images and man-on-the-street testimonials on the JumboTron, Jerry Lawler turning Friday night at FedExForum into Monday night at the Mid-South Coliseum by delivering a (staged) third-quarter "chair shot" to the back of a "fan" in a Thunder T-shirt.
Along the way, the franchise probably created more positive lore in a month than in the previous 10 years. And it wasn't just the success that seemed to capture the public imagination. It was the personalities of the players: a bruising, bumping redemption story of a star in Zach Randolph, who delivered a nationally televised postgame interview after vanquishing the Spurs that might have been penned by "Soul Man" songwriter David Porter, testifying to how both he and his adopted city got what they got the hard way.
The most beloved player in franchise history — pre-Randolph, anyway — in Shane Battier, who returned for the playoff run, hitting a go-ahead shot in Game 1 in San Antonio hours before welcoming a second child into the world, and who reacted to the ensuing postseason success with the kind of joy and bewilderment that mirrored those in the stands more than his teammates in the locker room. Battier always gave good quotes, but on his final night in Memphis — at least for now — he gave away vintage Battier bobbleheads in a downtown scavenger hunt, sending clues out via Twitter.
A Memphis-schooled center (Marc Gasol) as admired for his toughness as his ex-Griz older brother had been resisted for his perceived timidity. A point guard (Mike Conley) who suffered all manner of doubt and criticism to emerge as a steady floor leader. A shooter (O.J. Mayo) who soldiered through a nightmarish regular season without complaint and played his best ball of the season when the lights got brighter. Two fiery bench players from unlikely places (Venezuela's Greivis Vasquez and Iran's Hamed Haddadi) who turned up the volume with their energy and personality. An injured star (Rudy Gay) whose clutch shooting kept the team afloat early on and who was there at every postgame huddle during the playoffs. A sometimes prickly, determined coach (Lionel Hollins) passed over too many times who rose to the occasion when opportunity finally came and crafted a team as tough and focused as he is.
And then there was Tony Allen, the eccentric free agent who rode the bench for the first month of the season, changed the culture of the team with his intense defense and oddball exuberance when given the chance, and spontaneously coined an unintentional rallying cry during an epic postgame interview on February 8th: "All heart. Grit. Grind."
"It really was like a sports comedy in a lot of ways," Battier marveled on Monday, looking back. "You could take a little Bad News Bears, a little Major League, a little Caddyshack and call it the Memphis Grizzlies playoff run."
The way the city reacted to all of this couldn't have been predicted even in the final weeks of the regular season, in the thick of a playoff race. Attendance ticked up late in the year, but the Grizzlies sold out more home games in the postseason (six for six) than in the regular season (four for 41). Winning that first game in San Antonio seemed to open everything up, letting fans know that it really was going to be different this time.
"The on-sales during the playoffs were crazy," Potter says. "For a noon sale time, I'd come in for work at 8 a.m., and there would already be 100 people lined up. Then, leaving for lunch about the time tickets were going on sale, the line would be down to Beale Street."
But it wasn't just the quick sellouts. It was the in-game atmosphere. An ESPN broadcast crew remarked in one game that FedExForum was the loudest arena they'd been in all postseason. The signs were creative (a fave: the giant head of Eva Longoria, which taunted Spurs point guard and Longoria ex Tony Parker in Game 3 of that series), the parties started early and continued late (location, location, location). Even the players were taken aback.
"I never imagined it would get that crazy and the atmosphere would be like that," says Mike Conley, who, as the second-longest-tenured member of the team, has seen the worst of the franchise's history in Memphis. "To be honest, I think it was better [in the Forum] than I've seen in any gym."
And the mood in the arena seemed to fill the city, "Griz Fever" spreading from the barbecue festival to downtown restaurants and bars to house parties and other gatherings.
"The most gratifying thing was the response from the city of Memphis to this team," says Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who, after Game 6 against the Spurs, grabbed a growl towel and walked out of the arena and onto Beale Street to celebrate with fans. "I couldn't go anywhere — from church to the grocery store to places to eat — without people wanting to talk about the Grizzlies, asking about tickets."
Battier, in his second tour with the team, is the only player to remember the previous good years. But this was different.
"It was pretty emotional," Battier says. "[What happened during this postseason run] doesn't happen very often. The love we felt from the city was unbelievable. Everywhere we'd go, people were slapping us on the backs, telling us how proud they were of us. I've been in the league 10 years and I'm a pretty big sports fan and I know enough to know that doesn't happen everywhere. When I was younger, I probably wouldn't have appreciated it. I appreciate it now."
And the energy sustained.
"With Game 6 against the Thunder, I was worried there would be a little wind out of the sails," Potter says. Tickets for that game — which would end up being the final home playoff game — went on sale shortly after the team lost at home in triple-overtime. "But that game had the longest lines and quickest sales. Police cars drove by using their loudspeakers, yelling, 'Go Grizzlies' to fans in line."
The perhaps surprising civic outpouring culminated at Wilson Air on Sunday night when, after being eliminated in Game 7 in Oklahoma City, the team returned home to the unexpected sight of roughly 1,000 fans greeting them.
"We had heard it was happening," says radio play-by-play man Eric Hasseltine. "But flying in we saw cars parked along [the road leading to the airport], and when we stepped off the plane, we were floored."
Local attorney Jonathan May, a season-ticket holder, was in the crowd, having made his way from the team's official watch party at FedExForum, the first team-sponsored watch party he had attended. He sat with hundreds of other fans watching his team be eliminated from the playoffs in what was essentially a blowout.
"We left the Forum and all agreed that it wouldn't have felt right to walk away and hang up our game shirts without letting the guys know how much we appreciated what they did for themselves, the franchise, the city, and the fans," May says. "One last ovation was absolutely necessary."
According to May, Battier and Allen were the first players to approach the fans — separated by a fence — after getting off the plane, walking down opposite ends of the fence, high-fiving well-wishers. Soon all the players were following suit, some taking pictures of fans with their cell-phone cameras.
"ZBo had tears when he walked the fence," May says of Randolph, the team's rugged star power forward. "That was easily the best moment of the whole experience."
"It was heartwarming for the players and for me in particular," Wallace says. "Because this is a great city and a fantastic basketball city as well, and after 10 years, it deserved this run, to finally have some playoff success."
But how much can the mix of diehards, returnees, and newbies who filled FedExForum over the past month carry over into next season?
The Grizzlies' average home attendance has gone up roughly a thousand in each of the past two seasons from 12,745 to 13,485 to 14,650 this season but still remains near the bottom of the league.
The team is hoping — no, expecting — a more significant increase next season. According to Greg Campbell, the team's president of business operations, season ticket renewals are at the highest rate since the opening of FedExForum, and the team expects to have more than 2,000 new season tickets sold by the end of this month.
"The added excitement and sellouts that happened during the playoffs generates new sales and brings people back," says Campbell, "so we're hoping to have a bigger attendance increase for next season, two or three or even four thousand more. There will always be the Monday or Tuesday night game that's slower, but it's looking good."
If those expecations hold, the Grizzlies should top their home attendance average from the last playoff run — 15,793 in '05-'06. But it won't just be an increase in announced attendance that will be meaningful. It will be that more of the announced attendance next season will likely be made up of more sold tickets and fewer comps.
"We've gotten a good shot in the arm this year," Campbell says. "But this is more about building up [the fan base] and securing them for beyond next season."
If that happens, the ultimate meaning of the Grizzlies' 2011 playoff run will be in stabilizing the franchise. The "Memphis in the meantime" attitude — locally and nationally — in which speculation about relocation or contraction has been persistent even without a factual basis for concern? Follow up on this little boom and that will all be set aside for the foreseeable future.
The big question this summer for all NBA teams is the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement between players and teams — how a new agreement will reshape the league's rules and the possibility of a lockout and missed games as an outgrowth of testy negotiations. But that's too big a topic for here.
Whatever happens, the Grizzlies will have a few big questions to answer this off-season. But, regardless of what you might see and hear in the national press, the presence of injured forward Rudy Gay will not be one of them. ("What is this, eminent domain?" one team decision-maker said with a chuckle when informed of an ESPN report about the Lakers possibly targeting Gay this summer.)
The notion that the Grizzlies became better without Gay got some traction as the team made the playoffs and went on its run, but this mostly came from commentators who had not watched the team closely all year. The Grizzlies' best stretch of play during the regular season did not occur after Gay's injury but in the couple of months before. And when the team shot below 40 percent in four of the last five games of the series with the Thunder, struggling to space the floor around Randolph and Gasol, the desperate need for a dynamic perimeter scorer like Gay became apparent.
Gay's not going anywhere. But re-integrating him into a team that learned to play — and win — without him will be an issue, one that's already being addressed.
"This was a great learning experience [for Rudy] even though it was an unfortunate incident," Hollins says. "I talked to Rudy [Monday] morning and told him he could be more valuable for us and more highly thought of as a player through his playmaking and ability to rebound and defend the best players and maybe not score as much. He has that ability and he has to get better. He has so far and I expect that to continue."
The bigger question will be center Gasol, who will enter the summer as a highly sought after restricted free agent. Barring unforeseen rule changes in the CBA negotiation, the Grizzlies will have the right to match any offers for Gasol and are expected to. Both Gasol and owner Michael Heisley have shied away from guarantees, but teammates such as Conley, Randolph, and Vasquez insist Gasol wants to return, and other team decision-makers also seem confident.
"It's at the top of the [to-do] list," Wallace says. "We've been three-for-three on [contract extensions] so far [with Gay, Conley, and Randolph]. I'm confident we'll go four-for-four. It's a high priority."
The other questions for next season will be the status of wings Mayo and Battier — the first nearly traded earlier this season, the latter an unrestricted free agent. The assumption going into the playoffs was that Mayo was certain to be dealt this summer, but that thought is beginning to change. Mayo is under contract at a reasonable level next season, and, to a man, everyone says the Grizzlies need more outside shooting, Mayo's strength. Additionally, the Grizzlies are no longer in long-term mode. This is a team that wants and needs to take its best shot next season, and keeping Mayo on the last year of his rookie contract — even if it means losing him next summer — might be the smart call. If Mayo is dealt, it might be done to free up more cash and cap space to re-sign Gasol.
As for Battier, his return seems a little less likely — but certainly not out of the question. The Grizzlies would like to have him back, but with Gay returning at the small forward position and the team's payroll likely to swell with a new deal for Gasol, Battier could be a luxury item.
As for Battier, he'll have plenty of options.
"If it were up to fan support and familiarity and comfort with a city, Memphis would be the frontrunner," says Battier, who struggled with his return to Memphis in the weeks after the trade but who was clearly having a blast by the end.
If fans want a reason for optimism, Battier has made it clear that playing behind Gay is not an issue.
"I don't need to be a starter or play 40 minutes a night any more," he says. "I just want to be one of the guys and someone that a coach can lean on."
Before Grizzlies fans start making second-round playoff plans for next spring, they might want to take a look at a couple of cautionary tales: The only other 8th seed to upset a number one in a best-of-seven series, the '06-'07 Golden State Warriors, were coming off a 12-year playoff drought when they made that run. They haven't been back since.
Similarly, the '05-'06 Los Angeles Clippers ended an eight-year drought with a run to the second round and haven't sniffed the playoffs since.
The possibility of a similar regression can't be dismissed, but assuming Gasol returns, the Grizzlies, with a solid youngish core in place — Randolph (29), Gay (24), Conley (23), Gasol (26), Allen (29), perhaps Mayo (23) — are well set up to be a contender in a suddenly transitional Western Conference, where traditional powers — San Antonio, Dallas, the Los Angeles Lakers — are aging.
As a result, the Memphis Grizzlies are poised for the most highly anticipated season in franchise history. Next season, everyone believes, will be something new for this franchise.
"Next year there won't be a lot of Celtics jerseys or Laker jerseys or Heat jerseys when we play those teams," Hollins says, perhaps hopefully. "When we play those teams, everybody will be rooting for the Grizzlies."
"I think it is," Battier says when asked if the past month has been a franchise turning point for the Grizzlies, "because now people believe. Until you have success, there's always doubt. You think maybe we're not supposed to have success. But that's not the case anymore."