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Memphis didn't just lose a coach when Hollins departed. The Bluff City lost a sports hero, a philanthropist and a father figure. Image courtesy of USA Today.

Memphis didn’t just lose a coach when Hollins departed.
The Bluff City lost a sports hero, a philanthropist and a father figure.
Image courtesy of USA Today.

As an African-American man and father, let me add my voice to the chorus of those saying that The Grizzlies choice to let Lionel Hollins go was NOT a decision based on race. Nobody was sitting in an office saying, “Let’s fire the black guy so we can hire a white guy.” It had everything to do with Jason Levien and his management team feeling comfortable that they could work with him, which they did not. To imply that the choice was based on race is incendiary and irresponsible.

Yet, I also find it naive for people to disregard why people would read race into Hollins’ dismissal — especially in a Southern city with its own troubled history between blacks and whites. As any Mid-Southerner should know, the issue of race is very seldom “black and white” – there are nuances and shades to it, and once we abandon polarization and the need to defend our stance, we can look at those nuances and . . . y’know . . . LEARN SOMETHING.

Sports Heroes and Race

As fans, it’s our job to have sports heroes and in some cases, project our hopes and dreams onto them. We see a TV interview, read an article, maybe meet them at a public event, and we feel like we know them. We welcome them into our homes via television and even though we spend only a fraction of time with them, they become part of our lives. The really great sports heroes inspire us, often without being aware of it. In a society that was segregated for most of its history, this is even more true for Black Americans.

Jackie Robinson wasn't just an inspiration on the baseball field.

Jackie Robinson wasn’t just an inspiration on the baseball field.

Sports is the great equalizer because it’s public and indisputable. If a guy or a team wins fair and square, he just wins, regardless of race. That’s why Black Americans cheered rabidly for Jack Johnson, the boxer at the turn of the last century, and similarly for Joe Louis. It’s how Muhammad Ali’s unapologetically cocky and brash style made him an idol in the black community.

Similarly, if there’s cheating based on race, it would almost always be obvious. For instance, some whites who didn’t like Jackie Robinson playing baseball in the majors instinctively backed off when they saw him being treated unfairly. If you saw the biopic “42” about Jackie Robinson, you’d best believe that his act of courage deeply inspired Dr. Martin Luther King.

If you’re an underdog, sports heroes have a way of making you believe. And in 2005 — for the first time — the underdog City of Memphis had a team it believed in.

Hubieball: Something’s Missing

Hubie and J-Will led the team to success in Memphis. But the team still didn’t quite fit the city yet.

The 50-win playoff team of 2005 energized the city. Like the hardworking city it represented, that team was known for being relentless, for hustling, for straight outworking the other guys. And yet, there was still a cultural disconnect between the team and Memphis’ majority black population. The faces of the franchise were Pau Gasol (a finesse player from Spain), Shane Battier (a clean cut biracial player) and Jason Williams (“White Chocolate”). One could argue that the “blackest” player on the team was the white guy with the streetball game. And heading it all, was the grandfatherly presence of Hubie Brown. Next to him on the bench? Lionel Hollins.

In fact, Lionel Hollins had been a part of the franchise before it even came to Memphis from Vancouver, and for many years afterwards. As recently as a few weeks ago, I’d heard him say that he was one of only a handful of people left from when the team first came to Memphis. The only interruption in his tenure came during the time when Marc Iavaroni was head coach. Other than that, Hollins had been here, raised children here, done charity work here. He became a Memphian. And when he became head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, Lionel Hollins became a local sports hero.

More Than A Coach

One thing I’ve observed since Coach Hollins was not resigned is that though there are many white fans bothered and upset by it, a different emotion is expressed by black fans. Quite simply, it hurt. And the reason why is that in Memphis, Lionel Hollins wasn’t just a coach. He was a dad.

On Father’s Day, as we celebrate the “Dad’s Who Do,” the fact remains is that for FAR too many black households, this Sunday is just another day. Because, for whatever reason, dad isn’t there — he wasn’t there and likely won’t be there. And before you demonize these absentee dads, find out if their fathers were there in their lives. And this is true of not just many black Memphians; it’s true of Lionel Hollins, who himself was raised by his grandmother.

Fact is, that even at the NBA level, a coach — particularly a black coach — often plays the father figure for his players, who often grow up in homes without a dad. All the better if that man acts and speak with integrity, will take a genuine interest in you, will actually say out loud that taboo phrase among black men: “I love you.” Someone who will go the next step and give you a hug — and not one of those half-handshake shoulder-bump sideways hugs either, but an ACTUAL HUG — one that doesn’t question your manhood, but AFFIRMS it.

On the other side of it, a black man who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear — whether you like it or not, whether it sounds pretty or not. And if you’re really lucky, you have someone who demands excellence, who preaches sacrifice for the greater good and teaches that excuses don’t replace results.

Of course, those principles are true regardless of your race, and of course a white coach can teach those as well as anyone. But for black players and the fatherless citizens of a predominately black city, those principles simply resonate more coming from a black man.

And that’s what Memphis lost when Lionel Hollins was set free to seek employment elsewhere. That’s why it stings.

Click here (and go to 2:05) to hear Lionel Hollins talk about taking his players to the National Civil Rights Museum in 2010.

Back To Basketball

Of course, The Memphis Grizzlies are in the business of profiting from basketball, not providing Memphis with black father figures. You could even say that Lionell Hollins’ departure was inevitable — simply because teams change coaches. If the Chicago Bulls & Los Angeles Lakers can let Phil Jackson walk, it was just a matter of time before Lionel Hollins would be shown the door.

The current management team for the Grizzlies are very smart, very thoughtful people. And for all his strengths, the truth his that Lionel Hollins scored not one basket for the Grizzlies. After all the players are the ones on the court, and many of the same players will be back this fall — quicker, stronger, better. Barring a massive roster overhaul, there’s an excellent chance that the team will come close to duplicating this season’s success regardless of who’s coaching.

lionel-hollinsMeanwhile, Lionel Hollins will coach somewhere, if not this season then eventually. And he’ll be the same old-school, no-nonsense, sometimes gruff coach he was here. He’ll take a group of young men — some of them young black men who grew up without fathers — and he’ll teach them how to succeed as a team. He will certainly plug in and contribute to those communities with Lionel Hollins’ Charities, because he feels that’s his responsibility to give back to whatever community he’s in. But there’s a special bond between this coach and this city, and there always will be.

Today is the perfect day to celebrate that.


eddie-lee-smith-jr croptWriter’s Note: This post turned out WAAY longer and deeper than I originally intended. But I guess I’m just missing my dad, the Late Mayor Eddie Lee Smith, Jr. of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Like Coach Hollins, many people looked at him and saw a father; I’m grateful that he was mine, and I dedicate this post to his memory. — Lee

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2 Responses to Sports Heroes, The Race Thing, Fatherhood and Lionel Hollins

  1. missgrizzfanNo Gravatar says:

    I thank you for a great article. Lionel will be missed and there is a deep sadness felt by all of us who understand how much he cares about Memphis and her people. By the way, I’m a white female, mother, and grandmother.

  2. Lee Eric SmithNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for your kind words, missgrizzfan . . . having spent many pregames and postgames talking with him, I gained a higher admiration and respect for him. What’s wacky is that one of the most plainspoken and unambiguous men I’ve ever met, may go down as being misunderstood.

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