There was a time, not long ago, when naming a Memphis “Athlete of the Decade” was a one-stop shop. Pick the best Memphis State basketball player, and you had your man. In the 1970s it was Larry Finch. The 1980s had Keith Lee. Penny Hardaway dominated the 1990s, first as a Tiger All-American then later as an NBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist.
It’s not so easy anymore. The Memphis sports landscape has gained new “scenery” since the turn of the century — including our own NBA franchise, and not just an AAA baseball team, but a soccer team, too, calling AutoZone Park home. The Memphis “AOD” for the century’s first decade was indeed a Memphis Tiger, but he wore a football helmet and shoulder pads — DeAngelo Williams setting rushing (and scoring) records on the gridiron that may never be broken.
In choosing this decade’s finest Memphis athlete, though, we find ourselves in a barstool debate involving four beloved stars who — together — made the Grizzlies indeed our NBA team. First, the runners-up:
• The Griz revolution began when Mike Conley
was drafted by Memphis with the fourth pick in the 2007 NBA draft. Considered undersized by some at the time, Conley played a gigantic role in 12 years as a point guard with more heart than his frame would seem to contain. He helped the Grizzlies beat the mighty Golden State Warriors twice in the 2015 playoffs after breaking his face
in the previous round. It’ll be a while before his franchise records for games (788) and points (11,733) are broken.
• Zach Randolph
arrived in 2009 with a checkered past, a reputation for causing as many problems off the court as he might solve on it. In eight seasons with the Grizzlies, “Z-Bo” became pure Memphis. A two-time All-Star, Randolph was the first Grizzly to earn All-NBA recognition (third-team in 2011).
• Was there “Grit-and-Grind” before Tony Allen
? It may have existed in some metaphysical form, but Mr. “First-Team All-Defense” spelled it out for Memphis and the NBA community at large. He played seven seasons with the Grizzlies and it’s no coincidence the team reached the playoffs all seven.
is the Memphis Athlete of the Decade. Acquired in a 2008 trade that sent his older brother, Pau, to the Los Angeles Lakers, Gasol transformed himself from a pudgy “little brother” stretching a uniform during his high school days at Lausanne to the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. (When Gasol jumped for the opening tip at the 2015 All-Star Game — he’s the only Grizzly to start in the event — he did so against Pau.) More than any of his “Fab Four” mates, Gasol embodied the city he represented for almost 11 full seasons, a player who found greatness more with effort and resolve than natural-born gifts.
In 2015, Gasol became the first Grizzly to earn first-team All-NBA honors and also graced the cover of Memphis
magazine in December as Memphian of the Year. He described for writer Kevin Lipe a distinctive synergy he felt with the city: “If you give all you have, Memphis will take care of you. The fans will appreciate that. They don’t get blinded by the flashes and the drama and what not. They appreciate hard work, and dedication, and that’s what they want. They want you to be fighting. That’s what they like. So I respect that.”
A fractured right foot cost Gasol much of the 2015-16 regular season and the entire postseason, all but eliminating any chances the Grizzlies had of closing the gap on Golden State in the Western Conference. But he returned the following season, averaged a career-high 19.5 points and played in his third All-Star Game. And by that most workmanlike of basketball statistics — rebounds — Gasol is tops in Grizzlies history (5,942).
Ironically, the Memphis Athlete of the Decade finishes the 2010s in the uniform of the Toronto Raptors. The Grizzlies dealt the 34-year-old center north of the border last February in a move that signaled transition for one franchise while completing what would become a championship roster for another. Gasol’s greatest professional dream may have been realized in Canada, but the man remains forever Memphian, right down to his championship hardware. Engraved on the lavish ring he now owns as an NBA champion: “GRIT&GRIND.”