Among the hundreds of Memphis sporting events I’ve attended, one of the most memorable took place on January 19, 2009, at FedExForum. The Grizzlies hosted the Detroit Pistons in the franchise’s seventh-annual Martin Luther King Day game. Julius Erving was honored before the tip-off, so there was basketball majesty in the building. But the day lives on in my memory more for its place in time than for anything that happened on the hardwood.
The event took place the day before Barack Obama was inaugurated as America’s 44th president. Erving got some big cheers, as did second-year point guard Mike Conley. But the loudest applause that afternoon came during a video tribute, not to Dr. King, but to the man who would become this country’s first black president. It was extraordinary to absorb. A basketball game scheduled to honor this country’s patron saint of civil rights — a few short blocks from where he died — merely hours before a black man would take the highest office in the land.
There was togetherness that day at FedExForum, and not the typical, cheer-the-home-team synchronicity. As at every Grizzlies game, the crowd was majority white. And that crowd seemed to recognize a larger togetherness, one that stretched, well, from sea to shining sea. We all cheered the moment in time, the moment in American history.
I thought of that day Sunday night when the Grizzlies hosted Chicago in this year’s MLK Day game. ESPN had moved the game up a day, into a prime-time slot, a move that backfired when an NFL playoff game was pushed back into the same broadcast window. Eight years have been good to the Grizzlies, though, with six straight playoff appearances and players who now feel as much like family as numbers on a roster: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen. And Conley, owner of the fattest player contract in NBA history.
But what will Inauguration Day this year bring? There was no video presence for Donald Trump during Sunday’s game. And any sense of togetherness — “from sea to shining sea” — seems as distant as Vince Carter’s prime. The Grizzlies lost a close one to the Bulls, just as they fell to the Pistons eight years ago. But the result didn’t matter on January 19, 2009. None of us cared as we left the building. There was larger inspiration to be found.
Today? Every Grizzlies win serves a purpose needed more than ever, that of distraction. Of joy, if for just that night. If we can’t find togetherness as a country — perhaps that’s too ambitious — let’s at least find it with a team we cheer. And hope for better days ahead.
• Wednesday should be a good day for Memphis baseball fans with long memories. In his tenth year of eligibility, Tim Raines is all but certain to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The offensive catalyst for some fine Montreal Expos teams in the 1980s, Raines is fifth in baseball history with 808 stolen bases. He also starred in 1979 for the Memphis Chicks (Montreal’s Double-A affiliate at the time), batting .290 and stealing 59 bases for a team that made the Southern League playoffs. Raines would become the first former Memphis player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since Gary Carter in 2003.
• Two years ago in this space, I made the case that Tom Brady is the first one-man dynasty in the history of American team sports (January 26, 2015). This Sunday, Brady and his New England Patriots will play in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship. It will be the 11th AFC title game for Brady in his 16 seasons as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. (His 11th in 15 seasons if we exclude the 2008 campaign, most of which Brady missed with a knee injury.)
This level and length of contention for NFL championships can be matched by only one other franchise. Over the course of 17 seasons (1966-82), the Dallas Cowboys played for the NFL or NFC Championship 12 times. During that period, four quarterbacks started those games: Don Meredith, Craig Morton, Roger Staubach, and Danny White. That lengthy era of success led to the Cowboys being tagged “America’s Team” by NFL Films. What does that make Tom Brady today?