I grew up devoted to some special Dallas Maverick basketball teams. New to the NBA (the franchise began play in 1980), the Mavs drafted my college hero (Tennessee's Dale Ellis) in 1983 and I adopted the team from afar (I was living in New England at the time). I quickly fell in love with a trio of players — Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, and Derek Harper — that steered a run of five straight playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference finals in 1988. (Does this sound familiar yet?)
The problem for my Mavericks was that they peaked at the same time a dominant team from California commanded the Western Conference. (Surely this rings familiar now.) After losing to the mighty Lakers one game shy of the 1988 NBA Finals, the team cracked. Aguirre was traded to Detroit the next season (where he'd win a pair of championships with the Pistons). Blackman was traded to New York in 1992 after a 22-win season. Harper was traded (also to the Knicks) in 1994 and helped New York win the Eastern Conference title. The "cracking" left a considerable emotional gap for at least one basketball fan for several winters to come.
The Grizzlies' dynamic duo.
It appears less and less likely that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will complete their NBA careers in Grizzly uniforms. With his team spiraling toward the bottom of the Western Conference — don't get too close to the Suns
— team owner Robert Pera hinted earlier this month that the two franchise icons could be included in trade discussions. When asked about his name being used as trade bait, Conley was quoted as saying, "Memphis is all I know." Gasol suggested that his relationship with the Grizzlies franchise might change, but not his connection to Memphis, Tennessee. By that of course, Gasol means his connection to us, Memphians. It's a deeper sentiment than most modern professional athletes are capable of uttering. And it makes the thought of Gasol (and/or Conley) in another uniform even harder to stomach.
But the Grizzlies, as the roster is currently shaped, are moving further from contention for an NBA title and not closer. It's not a trajectory conducive to retaining highly paid stars, never mind the duo's decade of tenure in Beale Street Blue or the seven playoff trips they made possible. And this has been the hardest part of the reality math for me: Conley and Gasol will leave Memphis (the franchise) with a whimper, and not the celebratory flourish more reflective of their impact on Memphis (the city).
For me, Mike Conley will always be "the masked man," a point guard who played the majority of his minutes in the 2015 playoffs (and against the mighty Warriors no less) with a broken face.
For me, the image of Marc Gasol I carry is Big Spain taking the opening tip at the 2015 All-Star Game. A Memphis player starting the All-Star Game.
Save for a championship or perhaps an MVP, I'm not sure a moment could more legitimize Memphis as an NBA city than that tip-off in New York's Madison Square Garden.
Both players have been slowed in recent years by significant injuries. Both have nights now when they appear to have lost a step (as athletes do in their 30s). But neither Conley nor Gasol has ever griped, at least not about their plight as players. Their steady comportment, in good seasons and bad, has made them, well, Memphis AF. It's among the reasons no other Grizzly will ever wear number 11 or number 33. Conley and Gasol are destined, you have to believe, for the bronze treatment someday. Only if there's enough room in the FedExForum plaza next to the Zach Randolph and Tony Allen statues.
Our favorite teams hurt us as much as they help us. Only one group of players finishes a season with a parade. And the players we cheer — at least as long as they remain human — move on to new life stages. But joy, while never bottled, has no expiration date, not really. And those who deliver a certain brand of joy (a sweep of the San Antonio Spurs comes to mind) outlast physical presence. Here's hoping Conley and Gasol — no, Mike and Marc — find their paths to happier life stages than the Grizzlies' current record suggests. They'll remember Memphis, perhaps with the same profound appreciation we'll remember them.