Something that you may often hear during water cooler talk, sports radio calls, message board chatter, or social network conversation is the belief that if the Grizz don’t make the playoffs this season that our fans will stop supporting our team.
“Well, you know Memphis. We won’t support a loser.”
“If they don’t make the playoffs they will lose the fans.”
“They must want an empty gym again?”
I’ve personally heard every one of these and more when fans are sounding off about the possible outcomes of the team this year. The Grizz are currently 20-20 and 3 games out of eighth place in the playoffs. With 42 games left in the season, it is truly a toss-up for whether or not we will play games this postseason. There is a realistic chance that, instead of having our chance to return back to the Western Conference Finals, we will be watching the draft lottery and seeing where our next draft pick will land.
Will this be catastrophic to our fan base? Will people just flat out not support the team anymore or simply not care if the Grizz don’t make the playoffs? Of course not. Why? Simple — the climate and demographic of our fanbase has totally changed since our team arrived here in 2001.
When the Grizz first arrived in Memphis, the “fans” consisted of those who just wanted to see NBA basketball in Memphis, avid supporters of anything that would add to the progression of the city and people that naturally loved rooting for the underdog and were open to seeing a bad team grow and hopefully become something more than the laughingstock of the NBA.
I was 21 at the time, and I remember working at the local Footlocker and seeing the teal/red/black Grizzlies gear overflowing on our racks and ultimately going on sale for pennies on the dollar before being shipped back to the warehouse. I remember the marketing campaign that promoted the opposing team every night. I remember saving money and buying my first power pack and coming to see the team in the Pyramid where the road team was cheered like the home team. I remember the BBQ nachos, the Elvis music, the older people with a look of uncertainty on their faces. I remember the bobbleheads, Pepsi family packs, and $5 sonic saver seats. I remember seeing male members on our dance squad (yes, I know that you were trying to forget that).
But something else that I remember was kids. Tons of kids. The Grizz made a conscious effort to provide an affordable professional basketball experience for those young and old, and often by affordable I mean free. Which is the case from the youth in the city that get tickets donated to them throught the Tickets For Kids Program. You would be amazed if you knew what happened to those kids who back then had to ask mom and dad which team were they supposed to be cheering for. They grew up. They are adults now. They have jobs and families of their own and now they are Grizz fans for life. They have Grown Up Grizz.
“I went to my first game when I was 11. My sister had been going to games since the Pyramid days and decided to start bringing me” said Taylor Brantley a now 19-year-old Memphis native. “My first game was in early 2006 against the Sonics. Ray Allen hit the game-winner that night and that was my first heartbreak.” His first heartbreak. Unlike us from the cute girl in middle school but from a Ray Allen jump shot. But this would only be the first of many other moments like this that shaped his fanhood as well and made him a committed and unshaken fan. “The moment that got me hooked was Game 3 of the 2006 playoffs. Dirk Nowitzki hit that three to tie the game, and my heart sank. That was the first moment I really cared about the team and felt like a part of it.” These events made Taylor more than just a fair weather fan. These unforgettable moments, even though they were both on a losing end are the types of things that make a team stick with you and like Taylor said, they make you feel like you are a part of something bigger than you. “No matter what else was going on I always had the Grizzlies games to look forward to. I didn’t see my first win until St. Patricks Day of ’07 against the Bulls, almost a year later. As a result I never expected them to win so I just went to see them play hard and compete. That made me a better fan and hooked me for life.” When I asked Taylor what long-term effects the Grizz had on him as a kid he said. “They’ve made me appreciate the city more. The team has given Memphis an identity and a culture that you can be proud of.” Most young fans honestly were probably more concerned with the big brown grizzly bear that came out to interact with the fans before he had a blue makeover, but stories like Taylor’s make you feel like the future of Grizz Nation is sound.
Cameron Symlar can also relate to Taylor Brantley’s lifelong commitment to the Grizz that had its root in early childhood fandom. Cameron, a 21-year-old student at the University of Memphis, from Columbia, TN says that he was 12 years old when he watched his first Grizzlies game at home on television. “My first game I saw in person was on my spring break against the Nuggets. I think the game went into OT and we lost. During my junior high and high school years, I would still come to Memphis during Spring break to come see a Grizzlies game.” Said Cameron. “I wouldn’t miss a game. Back when VHS were still popular, I would record every game and rewatch them over and over.” Even though its amazing that Cameron would want to come to Memphis every opportunity that he could, that still was not what stood out most to me when I interviewed him. Cameron based some serious life decisions on his beloved Grizz as well. “When it came to selecting colleges, I only applied to 2 schools. Austin Peay and the U of M.” Of course, Cameron chose Memphis so that he could attend more Grizzlies games and officially call them his home team. “3 years later, I’ve been at almost all of the Grizzlies playoff games and have become a season ticket holder,” said Cameron who more than likely will live his adult life here in Memphis, his new home because of the Grizzlies.
So, how does all of this happen? It takes intentional efforts from our organization to involve young people in what they do. It takes a family friendly environment and oppurtunities for kids to connect to team on and off of the court. One of the people who is responsible for making life long Grizz fans and connecting the team to the community is Mason Massey, the Community Investment Specialist in his 2nd season with the team. “I think we are very effective as an organization in reaching young people.” Said Mason. “We have several programs that allow us to get involved with the youth in the Greater Memphis area. We have several educational initiatives including Read To Achieve, Stay In School, Mentoring through the Grizz Foundation and our Poetry Slam.” Another major program that directly benefits youth and makes life long fans is the Tickets For Kids Program. Mason had this to say concerning Tickets For Kids. “This program allows youth who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend a game, an opportunity to come to the FedExForum and be part of GrizzNation. We also have owners and sponsors who participate in the program. Our team has some of the highest participation in the league in the player ticketing program and it something we pride ourselves on. Being over this program, the organizations that receive tickets like to thank me, but they should really be thanking our generous players, owners, and sponsors for purchasing these tickets for them.”
One of the people who is definitely thankful for programs like Tickets For Kids is Deon Byers, a 20-year-old local youth worker and employee of Repairing The Breach Outreach Ministry, a local inner city youth ministry that provides in-school and after-school programming and discipleship. Deon remembers going to Grizz games when he himself was a student with RTB and now as employee he still takes kids to games with the tickets that are donated to his ministry. “My kids love coming to Grizz games.” Said Byers, “ It’s a great opportunity to connect with my kids and let them spend time with me outside of school and our center and makes for great life on life opportunities.” Deon says that he has had to “convert many of my kids who liked other teams or players when they first started coming but now they are true blue Grizz fans!” Deon also said that “going to the games back then were my first live connection to the NBA and the main reason why I’m a Grizz fan now. The program is truly a blessing.”
Do stories like this mean that we are going to the playoffs this season? No of course not. But they do show that there are fans out there who are not just part time Grizz fans who are waiting on the “other shoe to drop”. We have dedicated fans who grew up with the team and are sure to stay with them for the long haul. So, when you take your children or your youth group to the games, don’t be surprised if years later you see another example of a lifelong fan who is Growing Up Grizz.
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