My early NBA memories from FedExForum are hazy. I remember a late-season game in 2005 against the Spurs, who were supposed to be "resting." The Grizzlies ultimately won despite the persistence of Manu Ginobili, back when he had hair. Since then I've groaned "Ugggh, this friggin' guy" every time our teams meet — which is too frequently, if you ask me.
I saw Yao Ming vomit on the baseline once, and I'm pretty sure he stayed in the game. Among vague recollections of J-Will passes and Mike Miller threes are visions of Pau Gasol checking his nose for blood. Thanks to a holiday ticket promotion during the lowest point of the Iavaroni era, I sat courtside when Chris Paul's Hornets came to town. The thing I remember most about that game was my husband's ruthless heckling of Peja Stojaković's shoes, which were still prettier than the home team's defense.
Either I picked the worst games to attend, or the Forum was a different place before it became the Grindhouse. (Pretty sure it's the latter.) The memories start to crystallize around the time Zach Randolph arrived: The first home game of the 2009 season felt more like the beginning of a crazy experiment than a basketball game. I felt dizzy in the top row, growl towel aloft, that April afternoon in 2011 when the Grizzlies shocked the Spurs and everyone else who assumed they were just happy to be there. I can tell you where I was sitting and what I was wearing that Friday night in 2013 as we jingled our keys at that former Hornets star who had become a pesky, detested Los Angeles Flopper. At the risk of revising history, it wasn't always sunshine. But every season, at least, felt like a chapter in a story.
Zach Randolph, the basketball player, made the Grizzlies relevant. Then Tony Allen, the basketball player, made them fun. Together, as people, they made them relatable. We knew in our minds a day would come when Memphis, the community, would need them as people more than the Grizzlies needed them as players on the court. We knew one day they'd decide their bodies had given enough to the grind of training camps and ice baths, media avails, and six months on the road. We hoped in our hearts the dates would align. It's more than basketball, until it's only basketball, and you realize you've invested too much emotional capital in some dudes who chase a ball around. They tried to prepare us, but some data is just too painful to take. Such is life in a one-sport town.
- Tony Allen and Zach Randolph
Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are beloved by Memphians for a lot of reasons — their "blue collar player" and "all heart, grit, grind" philosophies are engraved in the team's mythology. But more than anything, to me they embody the fundamental contradictions the city represents. Tough but generous. Proud but flawed and extremely misunderstood. Stubborn and a little anachronistic. They "get it" because they lived it.
Like most of my friends who move away, Z-Bo just got a better job offer out of town. He still loves Memphis so deeply that a rumor he'd covered the city's outstanding utility bills on his way out of town was completely believable. Sometimes business is business, though. That's another one of the city's contradictions, sadly — we love you, but we just can't, y'know, pay you. Loyalty is priceless but damn, $24 million for two years' work is impossible to turn down.
For at least three years, national sportswriters have warned the end of "grit and grind" was approaching. Slowly suffocating opposing teams with defense was no longer a sustainable strategy in "today's NBA," they said. The eulogies began as soon as Tony Allen cryptically deleted "currently grinding for the Memphis Grizzlies" from his Twitter profile. Maybe "#GnG" is over, if the term is shorthand for an era, like the Bad Boy Pistons or Showtime Lakers. But just because the most beloved player is wearing a different jersey and the Grindfather is more like a forefather doesn't mean the Memphis Grizzlies' best days are behind them. Mike Conley's annual All-Star snubs will continue. The games won't be nationally televised, and when they are, everyone's names will be mispronounced. As long as they can continue to weaponize underdogism, small-market disrespect, and our paradoxical need to prove outsiders wrong despite claiming not to care, the culture lives on.
Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and a digital marketing specialist.