As you’re mourning the end of the greatest season in Memphis Grizzlies history, let’s play "Hot Tub Time Machine" and go back seven months, to October 2010. The opening of the NBA season is days away and — dried off and fully clothed — we walk into a watering hole on Beale Street and approach a table with a not-so-typical sight: two people wearing Grizzlies hats. We approach the table and propose a wager.
"We can’t tell you who will win the NBA title, but we’re here to tell you the Memphis Grizzlies will win more playoff games next spring than the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs. Furthermore, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will make more national headlines in May than Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony. Would you bet those Grizzly hats on our scenario?"
The strangers look at us, wondering just how many beverages we’ve enjoyed to that point. (And why our hair is soaking wet.) “If what you say happens,” one of them finally responds, “you can have these hats, our season tickets, and we’ll buy you a tent at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. It would be the happiest lost bet of our lives.”
Stifling the urge to illuminate the fate of the 2011 Barbecue Fest, we shake hands, smile at one another, and leave our new friends blissfully unaware of the thrills that await them a few short months ahead.
A fan base’s expectations, of course, are as stable as a high school romance and run to the same extremes. Memphians this week will be stirring pleasant memories of the longest playoff run the Grizzlies have enjoyed with a dose or two of disappointment, the Western Conference finals seemingly within grasp only a week ago. Going back to the time-machine scenario, any Grizzlies fan last October would have accepted a second-round Game 7 with no qualifications or conditions. Kevin Durant on his home court simply proved too challenging a condition, even for this most resilient of Grizzly teams.
Any conversation on the Greatest Memphis Sports Moment has been forever altered. In part because an NBA playoff run requires so many moments as it takes shape. Will you remember Shane Battier’s three-pointer to upset the Spurs on the afternoon his daughter was born? How about the back-to-back victories over San Antonio to finish one series and Oklahoma City to open another? Or Zach Randolph’s 30-point, 13-rebound effort at FedExForum to force that decisive — and ultimately heartbreaking — Game 7? The moments stack upon each other like buttery, syrup-drenched flapjacks.
It’s those stacked moments that make the Grizzlies’ run unlike any other event in that Greatest Moments conversation. Those, and the fact that these moments happened in the big leagues, the NBA, every one of them on the national stage. Larry Finch and the 1973 Memphis State Tigers remain as important for when they reached the Final Four as they do for the accomplishment itself. The Tiger football team’s upset of Tennessee in 1996 was epic, but only because Memphis had a vastly inferior program. The Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight in 2002 was as much spectacle as it was sporting event. And the fighters were merely visitors borrowing a Memphis stage for one night.
I’ve seen more Grizzlies hats — and jerseys, and jackets, and towels ... oh, the towels — than ever before, including the team’s three playoff appearances in the previous decade. I’ve heard Grizzly conversations among people who wouldn’t know a 24-second shot clock from a 24-hour drive-thru. I couldn’t make a bank deposit last week without being asked about the Grizzlies’ chances against the Thunder. These are all part of the Greatest Sports Moment in Memphis history.
That Hot Tub Time Machine won’t take us into the future, so we’re left to wonder on our own how the 2011-12 Grizzlies will take shape, and what kind of expectations will follow them into a season with an entirely new standard to meet. Will labor strife delay the most-anticipated follow-up in franchise history? Will Rudy Gay’s return from injury force the ever-popular Battier to leave via free agency? Where will prognosticators put the Grizzlies in the Southwest Division, where the aging Spurs and Mavericks may be declining just as Memphis is leaping forward?
Questions to ponder, scenarios to consider. Here’s hoping commissioner David Stern finds a way to end the collective-bargaining stalemate. Memphis fans should be able to enjoy their team’s parting gift: the shortest offseason in Grizzlies history.