Bill Simmons Mangles Memphis History, Internet Erupts in Faux Outrage



Bill Simmons
  • Bill Simmons
Yesterday,, the ESPN-affiliated online magazine presided over by sports media star Bill Simmons, put up a two-part podcast featuring Simmons, ESPN NBA broadcast partner Jalen Rose, and their Grantland colleague Dave Jacoby.

It was a typically rambling, entertaining gabfest, and with Rose and Simmons having just spent a few days in Memphis where they were part of the broadcast crew for Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, their take on the city was a big topic.

Simmons and Rose seemed to have a terrific time in Memphis. They raved about Gus' Fried Chicken and Central Barbecue. About the scene on Beale Street. About the rickety downtown trolley. About the friendliness and spirit of the people. About the colorfulness of the Grizzlies' players. And about the authenticity of the relationship between the team and city. In a burst of irrational exuberance, Rose even suggested Memphis would top his impromptu “Black Guy City Power Rankings.”

It was great.

But they also paid respects to what they both called the “Lorraine Hotel” (it's “motel”) and what Rose referred to as “the MLK museum” (it's the National Civil Rights Museum). And that's where it got dicey for a few seconds, with Simmons straining for a linkage between the history and the sporting event he'd witnessed:

“I didn’t realize the effect [the MLK assassination] had on that city…I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”

Yikes, right?

Sure. But I listened to the podcast last night and didn't think much of it. I live in Memphis. I know the history well. Obviously, no-one in FedExForum that night was thinking about the King assassination in the context of the game. But I can imagine what Simmons was probably told by someone in Memphis last week: That the King assassination had a profound impact on Memphis. That it left a stench that infected the whole city. That it all but destroyed downtown for a couple of decades. That it informed a fatalism that permeated other aspects of Memphis civic life. That, finally, the city decided to confront this history and turn it into something instructive rather than hide from it. That downtown was (mostly) back and the spirit in the city was renewed and that the enthusiasm for the Grizzlies is partly an expression of that. But that the old fatalism still nags at times.

Something like that. It's all true and all much more complicated than I could express in a hastily written paragraph much less what Simmons could express in off-the-cuff podcast remarks about a city he barely knows.

On the surface, Simmons' specific comments linking this history and that game are ridiculous. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I've said ridiculous things before. (As a writer who does sports-talk radio, I'm inclined to give even more of a pass for things said than things written. I know how often I hear things coming out of my mouth on air that I wish I could hone a little better or pull back entirely.)

And I don't think Simmons' wayward attempt to turn a really complex idea into something pithy on a podcast deserves the internet outrage I discovered this morning. I certainly think it would be unfortunate if people fixated on that at the expense of all the great, cool things Simmons and Rose said about our city.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Add a comment