Remember when Memphis Tiger basketball seemed to have lost its way? (Go back 14 months on the calendar and you're there.) Remember when discussion around Tiger football turned toward whether or not the university should field a team? (Larry Porter was in charge merely eight years ago.) Today, this city's flagship college programs — in particular, those programs' stability — are the absolute envy of our lone big-league operation. After last week's shenanigans surrounding the dismissal of Memphis Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff, we're left to wonder not just who's calling the shots for our NBA franchise, but are those shots being called with an ounce of wisdom? With foresight?
Courtesy Memphis Grizzlies
I spend my winters wearing blue-and-gray blinders, my focus primarily the fortunes of the basketball Tigers, the Grizzlies' pay-by-night tenant at FedExForum. I'm not going to pretend to know the front-office mechanics most recently led by Chris Wallace (assigned last week to scouting duty, it would appear). But with one franchise icon (Marc Gasol) recently traded and another (Mike Conley) exasperated — and that was before last week's front-office bloodshed — the Tigers' landlord seems to be a bit light in the tool belt.
What an odd year it's been in Memphis sports, and we aren't even approaching Memorial Day yet. Penny Hardaway's first season as Tiger coach raised the community's collective happy-joy metric to almost unreasonable heights ... and the Tigers played in the NIT
. The most passionate fan base in town, though, pound for pound, may prove to be the Bluff City Mafia, recently seen in a cloud of blue smoke at an AutoZone Park soccer game
. Who gives a kick-in-the-grass if 901 FC scores a goal?
The Memphis Redbirds — two-time defending champions of the Pacific Coast League — are back for their 22nd season, lending some brand stability to the sports landscape. But they have a new manager (Ben Johnson) in the dugout and the usual collection of new faces that comes with every minor-league season. The Redbirds have won so much over the last two years, any losing in 2019 will feel like not so much a disappointment as an inconvenience.
We even have pro football! Well, scratch that.
All of this brings us back to the Grizzlies, the one Memphis franchise that appears in standings printed in the New York Times
or Chicago Tribune
. It's the one Memphis franchise that should be this community's rudder in the stormy, emotional sea of sports fandom. Win or lose, we'll wear Grizzlies gear to remind us we're big-league.
The Grizzlies will open the 2019-20 season with their fourth coach in five years. (Remember how a broken Tiger program had to survive three coaches in four years?) This is the "stability" model of the Phoenix Suns or New York Knicks, not a club anywhere close to contending for an NBA title. The new hire, of course, will be a primary component of Griz owner Robert Pera's solution for the recent descent of a franchise only two seasons removed from a seven-year playoff run. If Jason Wexler and/or Zach Kleiman prove more savvy with roster building than Wallace (the man who brought Conley and Marc Gasol to Memphis), stability will once again don Beale Street Blue. But for the time being, Pera might need a breathalyzer before his next move.
Sports are distraction. Heart-squeezing, at times soul-draining distractions, to be sure. Even with last week's head-scratching news, I happen to believe the overall Memphis sports landscape has never been healthier. (Yes, my Penny-endorsed blinders are a factor here.) We prefer our tackle football in the fall. We've embraced 901 FC like we really are a part of planet futbol
. We have good baseball for summer nights and an NBA team when winter comes. Stability wins championships and will be achieved by the Grizzlies before a banner is raised at FedExForum. As for the current state of affairs, embrace the madness and call it a Memphis thing.