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If you haven’t already seen or heard about it, Bill Simmons of Grantland and ESPN made some comments on his podcast tying the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the way fans of the Grizzlies react to adverse conditions during a game. Sound like a fairly ridiculous leap to make? Well, that’s because it is.

“I didn’t realize the effect [The MLK assassination] had on that city…I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.” – Uproxx

Several others have discussed this at length already, and I don’t want to pile on since I usually enjoy Simmons’ work. He reached a bit too far to make a cultural connection and came up empty.

However, that’s not to say that he didn’t touch on a subject that deserves discussion.

Even after the team went down 0-2 in San Antonio, I still believed that they would come back to Memphis and win both games here. I was full of confidence about that and sensed the same feelings in most of the fans around me walking through downtown and inside the FedExForum prior to the game. Everyone still believed.

After getting out to a good-sized lead in Game 3, the Grizzlies saw the Spurs slowly, but surely whittle away at their deficit until it was down to a single possession game once again. The sense of tension and inevitable dread was palpable in the Grindhouse while this was happening. That tense feeling that Simmons mentioned was very real.

Fast-forward to Game 4. Before the game even started, there was an uneasiness in the air that I hadn’t experienced at a Grizzlies game in quite some time. People wanted to hope for the best, but they were fully prepared for the worst. We had exchanged “Believe Memphis” for the tried and true expectation of the city, which is “Buckle up because it’s probably gonna get bad”.

We all know how it ended, so there’s no need to belabor the point. The season, as it does for every playoff team except one, ended with a loss. And to a great extent, it was an expected loss at that point.

So, why does Memphis anticipate failure? It doesn’t have anything to do with MLK’s assassination, Elvis’s death, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame being placed in Cleveland (seriously?), or the Titans residing in Nashville. No, it is solely related to basketball.

The history of Memphis basketball is one of coming up short. There’s no sense in sugar-coating it because that’s the fact, Jack. In recent history, the Grizzlies have lost in Game 7s in consecutive years. Prior to that, they experienced multiple 20-something win seasons. Even then, they couldn’t win, never securing the #1 overall pick in the draft lottery, despite consistently being in the bottom three in wins. During their first three playoff seasons, they failed to win a single playoff game. The Grizzlies’ history has been a tale of woe for the most part.

Press-Scimitar photo from files of The Commercial Appeal

It extends beyond the Grizzlies though. Long before the NBA came to town, this city was crazy about basketball in the form of the Memphis (State) Tigers. The following dates need no explanation to have significance for a Tigers’ fan: 1973, 1985, 1992, 2008. In every instance, the Tigers achieved a tremendous amount of success and came *thisclose* to something truly magical, only to fall just short. That set the tone for the expectations of sports fans in this region.

Did fans get tense in the Forum during Game 3 last Saturday night? Absolutely. Why? Because we’ve been there before — we’ve experienced that inevitable, inexorable slide towards a losing result. That is what is woven into the fabric of our existence as Memphis sports fans — and that is something that is likely to remain unchanged until one of their teams reaches the pinnacle of sports achievement and wins a championship. We’re waiting to make the leap from Cubs fans to Red Sox fans in that regard. Until then…just bear with us when we tighten up a bit in the waning moments of a close game.

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2 Responses to A Memphis History Lesson

  1. btrautscNo Gravatar says:

    Aside from Simmons’ comments (I am a huge Simmons/ Grantland fan).

    I think the collective tenseness has more to do with understanding reality. Memphis and Memphis fans knew that by losing that series poorly, namely getting swept, would discredit the best Memphis Grizzlies season in history. And of course it has. It is unarguable.

    If you poll ESPN writers today, I would wager that most would sit the Grizzlies at 4-7 for next years playoffs. And I think 4 is gracious. The questions for keeping Zach are growing (even though he played masterfully averaged 19ppg & 9 rbs pre Western Conference Finals). Hollins may not be back. Tony Allen may not be back.

    So, the fans sensed the reality that is Memphis looming on the horizon. After a great year, great basketball, a team that was exciting a new horde of fans – it could all disappear. Not because of city history – but because ESPN and the talking heads nationwide will be back to discussing the Clippers & Lakers, the return of OKC, the Mavs – and in general the NBAs big market teams who have huge fan bases or huge superstars.

    That is the reality that Memphians have always dealt with. Whether it is the Tigers or the Grizzlies.

  2. [...] “He reached a bit too far to make a cultural connection and came up empty,” Coleman wrote on Thursday. [...]

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