Sports covers are dangerous in the world of monthly magazines. When the staff of Memphis magazine (the Flyer’s sister publication) decided late last fall to put the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay on the cover of our January issue, we did so with fingers crossed and wood properly knocked. The nature of magazine production requires stories to be written — and photographs taken — weeks before the finished product lands on newsstands and in subscribers’ mailboxes. With injuries and, worse, trades part of the ever-turning news cycle in professional sports, that smiling face on the cover of a magazine could well be grimacing in rehab or wearing a different uniform by the time a reader smiles back.
Our January issue was safely on newsstands when the Grizzlies — often behind Gay’s heroics — enjoyed the franchise’s finest month in six years. After losing in Utah on New Year’s Day, Memphis won five of its next six games, including upsets of the playoff-bound Lakers, Thunder, and Mavericks. Gay hit a buzzer-beating game-winner in Toronto on January 24th that became a YouTube sensation, and by month’s end the Grizzlies had put up a record of 11-6. (March 2004 and January 2005 are the only months the Grizzlies have won more games.) The cover choice had proved to be a perfect fit.
The Grizzlies won five of their first seven games in February, and playoff talk intensified, along with All-Star debate for both Gay and Zach Randolph. Then February 15th hit. Gay went down — grimacing — with a separated shoulder in another Memphis win at Philadelphia. The announcement, a few days later, that he would miss the rest of the season seemed to dampen any hopes of this squad reaching new heights.
You know the rest: Tony Allen’s continued emergence as the team’s spiritual and defensive force. Fan favorite Shane Battier’s return in a trade that also cleared the roster of Hasheem Thabeet. Randolph’s All-Star snub merely adding motivation to his drive for a big contract extension. Nine wins over 11 games in late March and early April that locked up the team’s first playoff berth in five years. All with Rudy Gay in a suit and sling.
Based on what we’ve seen over the last two weeks, the six-month regular season was merely prelude for this Grizzlies team. In winning two of their first three games against the mighty San Antonio Spurs, the Grizzlies enter Monday night’s Game 4 at FedExForum with hopes of seizing control of this first-round series. The worst-case scenario would have the Grizzlies back in Memphis for a Game 6 this Friday with a chance to force a winner-take-all battle to advance into the second round. Considering other worst-case scenarios in the franchise’s history, this one’s rather palatable. However the current series unfolds, however deep the Grizzlies reach in the franchise’s most successful postseason in 16 years, Memphis fans will be left to wonder what might have been had Gay remained healthy. The easy (and natural) thought bubble would have Memphis that much stronger with Gay’s late-game track record in its arsenal. Number crunchers have shown the team was better defensively with Gay on the floor. But what if Gay’s injury is more of a big-picture development for the Grizzlies, a painful bump on a road toward something even better than the current scrap with the Western Conference’s top seed?
Had Gay remained healthy, almost 40 minutes of playing time per game would never have happened for the likes of Battier, Sam Young, and O.J. Mayo, three players who have each played roles in pushing the Grizzlies beyond expectations. Would Battier have taken that epic three-pointer in the final minute of Game 1 at San Antonio? Would he have even been on the floor? What Memphis lost in star quality the moment Gay hurt his shoulder it has gained in depth ... in “grit and grind” as Allen would tell us.
Easter is behind us and the Memphis Grizzlies have basketball to play. That sentence hasn’t been written much over the last decade. I look at that cover of Memphis magazine now, almost three months of developing stories since it was taken off newsstands. While the cover boy may not be able to lift that 30-pound dumbbell with the ease he did for the photo shoot, one element is as current today as it was last winter. Rudy Gay is smiling.