Tonight, it begins. Or, really, it returns.
Memphis has a love affair going with these Grizzlies, a heart-and-soul connection to these basketball players. It’s everywhere, all over town. It’s in the media coverage of the team, which can’t help but mention the connection between the city and the team. Which can’t go a day without seeing the words “grit” and “grind” somewhere. Who think, “Marc Gasol isn’t going anywhere because he’s one of us.”
It’s an extraordinary, fragile thing, this love. And for 41 nights together now we can all sit together inside the arena and play basketball by proxy, because those guys down there on the floor, they’re Memphis. That’s how it feels.
The first thing you figure out when you transition from “I am a fan” to “I am a basketball writer” is that the home team is not we, it’s they. When that happens, when that shift takes place inside your head, everything is different. You transition from screaming, yelling maniac at a triple-overtime home game to the guy who sits there and takes notes while 18,000 people collectively lose it, Gap Band or not. Part of this is good—it’s impossible to do good work writing about the team if you don’t have any distance from it—and part of this makes you feel dead inside, like you lost something along the way.
But, fan or no, something about this season feels vital. Marc Gasol is in the last year of his current contract and looks like he’s out for blood. Mike Conley has gotten better every year, was almost an All-Star last year, and has grown into a leadership role despite his quiet demeanor. Zach Randolph, staring down the inexorable slide towards the end of his career, locked in to a deal that will keep him here three more years, trying to duplicate what he did last season, if not improve on it. Tony Allen, shaman/spirit animal/avatar of the Grit & Grind Era, potential epicenter of instability, but also the crazed defender who makes this team so exciting, so unpredictable even as its style is best defined as “workmanlike.” This may be the best chance this Grizzlies group—this Grizzlies group, the building of which is a direct result of the Pau Gasol trade, let us not forget—has to win an NBA Championship. If the stars align correctly, this could be The Year that Memphis, our city, ourselves, does something no one thinks is possible.
It starts tonight, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, with an unbroken streak of Game 1 losses since the franchise moved to Memphis. And as a lover of basketball, a lover of the city of Memphis, a lover of its people, its flawed, giving, exuberant, chip-on-our-shoulder, rough hewn people, I want this season to be The Year. As someone who gets paid to be objective about it, I just hope the stories I have to tell are stories that don’t hurt my heart too much, really all anyone in my position can ask for.
It’s basketball season, the season in which our city is Hoop City, the season in which we are the best, brightest, Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee-est version of ourselves.
Tonight, it begins.