Last Friday night was a first in Memphis, Tennessee, a sportsman’s paradise unlike fans in these parts have experienced before. With proper teleporting equipment, you could have witnessed the first pitch of the Memphis Redbirds’ home schedule at AutoZone Park, checked out an hour of the Memphis Tigers’ first Blue-Gray game under the lights at the Liberty Bowl, then made it to FedExForum in time to see the Grizzlies finish off the hapless Philadelphia 76ers in the home team’s late, desperate quest for an NBA playoff berth.
Baseball, football, basketball, and revelry. It was enough to raise the oft-slumped shoulders of this city’s collective fan base to new levels of bravado.
Let’s review the events, in ascending order of importance, relative to season.
• The last time we saw the Tiger football team, it was shuffling off a New England gridiron in early December, 45-10 losers to mighty Connecticut. (Wait, this was football.) The last time they played in Memphis, the Temple Owls did a Top-20 impression, whipping the Tigers 41-21. So any signs of life for this program — 3-9 in 2013 after a 4-8 record in coach Justin Fuente’s first season — are welcome.
There will be lots of familiar faces back when the Tigers kick off against Austin Peay on August 30th: Paxton Lynch, Brandon Hayes, Martin Ifedi, Sam Craft. If you spent time at the Liberty Bowl last fall, these names are familiar. What remains unknown is if these are the names that return a long-beaten program to respectability.
• I’d miss Opening Night at AutoZone Park for one of my daughter’s weddings (a long time before that), but not much else, not even an NBA playoff race. The 2014 Redbirds took the field with two of minor-league baseball’s top 70 prospects in their outfield: Oscar Taveras (#3) and Stephen Piscotty (#70).
They sent Tyler Lyons to the mound, a lefty who made eight starts last season for the National League champs in St. Louis. But on this night, the hero was a hometown boy: catcher Ed Easley. The pride of Olive Branch High School drilled a two-run homer onto the leftfield bluff to give Memphis a 5-2 lead in the fourth inning on its way to an 8-5 victory. Taveras picked up three hits, displaying his much-talked-about ability to consistently put the thick part of the bat on a baseball.
Here’s hoping the Cardinals’ top farm hand is indeed injury free, in which case there will be much more talk about the baseball at Third and Union.
• Perspective will be difficult to retain if the Grizzlies fall short of their playoff drive this week. (Calm down ... they won’t.) The regular-season grind has been so long for this year’s team, compounded by injuries to key components, new players learning a new system from a new coach, and the new expectations established by last year’s run to the Western Conference finals.
Whether or not the Grizzlies qualify for the NBA’s second season, though, there has never been a better time to wear Beale Street Blue. There’s that “Best Sports Franchise” tag given last year by ESPN the Magazine. Dollar for dollar, no fan base in America gets more wins than this city’s NBA outfit. And consider this: The Grizzlies are one of only four NBA teams that will finish at least 10 games above .500 a fourth consecutive season. The others: Miami, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City.
The Memphis Grizzlies, friends, are among the NBA’s elite. Were it not for the absurdity of geographic conference alignment — the Grizzlies would have home-court advantage in the playoffs’ first round were they in the Eastern Conference — Memphis would have secured a postseason spot weeks ago. Instead we’re left to agonize right to the wire. But what a glorious form of agony.