Let me get this straight. We’ve got Charles Barkley telling the TNT audience that Memphis is going to be in the finals, the Grizzlies are becoming a fixture on ESPN.com, and I ran into a customer at a Modell’s Sporting Goods in Centereach, New York, looking for a pair of Air Force Ones to go with his new Zach Randolph jersey. Suddenly the basketball world is paying attention – a lot of attention – to our Beale St bears. As bipartisan an exercise as NBA coverage aims to be, you have got love coming in the team’s direction from every which angle, and almost get the sense that the NBA world has hopped on the wagon and joined us in getting behind the Grizzlies during this playoff run.
So why now is the rest of the basketball world tuning in and finding out about what we already knew about our Grizzlies? How is it that in today’s highlight-driven NBA that a team devoid of high flyers (although Tayshaun Prince’s anomalous Game 5 fast-break throw-down offers a resounding rebuttal) and three point gunners has managed to captivate the national audience? Of course the winning helps catch their attention, but the fact that they have latched on proves to us that there’s so much more to it with this team.
This team has an X-factor. It is not the fact that they win; it is the way they win. It is that chaos that they impose on the game, but it is also the beauty of their execution. “As they say, Grit-and-Grind… I don’t even know what the heck that means,” says Coach Lionel Hollins. But don’t let facetious ol’ Hollins fool you; he knows exactly what it means. It is the very same character that he brought to the court as a player and an NBA champion. It is the personality that his team has taken on. It is the personality of this team that has brought the NBA audience to the edge of its seat on a nightly basis.
Anyone remember the “Dunkyland” campaign from about a half a decade back? Grizzlies Vice President of Marketing, John Pugliese was quoted at the time that they were “trying to create a new atmosphere,” and that the plan was “kind of the bridge to help drive people into the building.” I’m not trying to hone in on how we may or may not feel about the “Dunkyland” aspect here, but rather that the marketing team was charged with the task of “creating an atmosphere.” Standing so far away some five years from then, those days are long behind us, as no longer does the marketing team have to sit down and fabricate an atmosphere around the Grizzlies. The organization and the “Grindhouse” have become defined by the interaction between this team and its city. “Grit and Grind,” “We don’t bluff,” – and heck, while we’re at it, let’s include “Whoop that trick,” – have at this point become icons of not only the team, but the fan-base as a whole. The script writes itself, and the marketers are left to embrace the image that has organically arisen out of the passion surrounding this team.
Watching this team is watching the embodiment of hard work, perseverance, preparation, and execution come to fruition. Now in real-talk I’m speaking in a generality that can be applied to about 90% of teams in the NBA, but it’s different with these guys. We know that to be the truth for the grand majority of the league, but we feel it with this team. The Grizzlies are akin a miscast collection fit for a feature film; with each individual’s narrative a story of redemption.
Take the catalyst of the offense, Mike Conley, for example. Conley came into the league, arguably a bit too early, but understandably so with his draft stock likely at an all-time high. Questions arose as to whether he was really worth the 4th overall pick, and after a few tough years of losing, there was a vociferous portion of the fan base calling number 11 a bust. Borderline rage ensued as Kyle Lowry was shipped off to Houston, and jokes of a “Mike Conley no compete clause” to protect him from competition for the starting job pervaded the conversation. Then when he was awarded a 5-year, $40 million dollar contract extension, the national media lambasted the organization.
But what was Mike doing all that time? He was in the lab working on his craft. Each summer he’d come back a little bit better – each flaw a bit more developed. He came into the league “too gun-shy,” “too timid,” “too weak,” and “couldn’t shoot a lick.” And where is he now? Coming off of a Clipper series in which he went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul – the consensus best point guard in the NBA – not bad for a timid guy. He put up a near triple-double against the Thunder in Game 2 – guess he’s not so “gun-shy,” either. He sank 4 threes in Game 4 – looks like he’s an outside threat now. That leaves the strength question – which I think his highlight spin for the and-one layup from Game 5 helps put to bed. Oh yeah, and he was second team All-Defense. Now the conversation about Mike has shifted to whether he’s top 10, or even top 5 in the league at the point guard position despite playing in an era that is regarded as somewhat of a golden age at the spot. So about those detractors… “forgive them,” Mike, “for they know not what they do.”
Then there’s the other guy who sat at that infamous dinner with brand new owner Robert Pera: Marc Gasol. The Spanish juggernaut center has gone from “Pau’s pudgy little brother,” to the Defensive Player of the Year. After doing high school in the States while Pau played for the Grizzlies, Marc received little love from the collegiate ranks, and went back home to Spain to get into shape and work on his game. When he entered the NBA draft, he ended up the 48th selection, by the Los Angeles Lakers. When he was traded to Memphis for his brother, Gregg Popovich exclaimed that “What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension. There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that don’t make sense.”
It seems fitting then, that Marc’s shining arrival on the NBA’s radar came in the form of an emphatic series against Coach Pop, as the eighth-seeded Grizzlies knocked his heavily favored Spurs out of contention in six. The combination of Marc’s ability to read the opposition and communicate with his teammates has made him a leader on the court, as he has evolved not only as a defensive master, but as the centerpiece of the Grizzlies’ offensive attack. Is it “beyond comprehension” that we could see Marc and his team punching a ticket to the NBA finals four to seven games from now?
I don’t know how I’ve made it this far into a piece about the team’s identity without mentioning the one and only Tony Allen. Allen takes a lot of knocks for his game, or rather what it lacks, but you learn to take the bad with the good when it comes to him. I mentioned chaos earlier, and that is just what he brings to the table. But to quote Lord Baelish from “Game of Thrones,” “Chaos is a ladder.” For every botched layup or unheralded jump shot, he pays you back two fold on the other end of the floor by laying out for a loose ball, denying a passing lane, crashing the glass, or as we like to call it, “turning the water off” on a featured opponent.
He’s earned the nickname, “the Grindfather” for the reckless abandon with which he plays the game, but it is the infusion of his personality and approach to the game that seems to be the launching point from which this incarnation of the Grizzlies has taken off. The permanent inclusion of Allen into the starting lineup around the time that Rudy Gay went down with his shoulder injury spearheaded a complete culture shift for the Memphis Grizzlies, as his sheer enthusiasm is nothing short of contagious. Allen is most certainly the heart of this team, from his antics signaling “Grizzlies’ ball,” to rile up the crowd, to his being the first to congratulate a teammate after a big play, to his always-on-his-feet presence as the lead towel-waver on the sidelines. Even when the latter seems to get in the way in the form of an unanticipated t-shirt toss, – as is the case with most of the things that Tony does – you take the bad with the good, and love every minute of it.
Last but not least, there’s Zachary Randolph – a man that has made a lifetime out of proving doubters wrong. Back in Houston at the NBA All-Star weekend, when asked by a reporter if he could define the honor as his “Mama-I-made=it moment,” Randolph swiftly replied, “Where I’m from I defined that when I got drafted… it was a great feeling, coming from where I came from.” But even in the draft, doubts about his athleticism and lack of playing time at Michigan State dropped him to the 19th pick in the draft. He ended up proving himself in a big way in Portland, taking home the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2004. That being said, he was an annual All-Star snub, and found himself bouncing around from Portland-to-New-York-to-Los-Angeles. Then when they found out they were getting Blake Griffin, the Clippers were so “desperate” to get rid of him and his contract that they shipped him off to Memphis for the ghost of Quentin Richardson – a move that was questioned by many at the time.
Again, Randolph was out to prove himself… but it did not take long for the city to fall in love with the man we call Z-bo. He put the team on his back in 2011, as the Grizzlies, with Gay sidelined mounted what was regarded as the most incredible and improbable run in franchise history (until now). But then just four games into the lockout-shortened season, Randolph suffered a tough injury to his knee. It was at this point where Coach Hollins delivered the memorable quote that “Everybody has a story. People that succeed always tell the story about what they overcame. And the people that fail always tell the story of what was in their way.” The team held up, winning 62% of its games on the season; a mark only surpassed by this year’s 68%. Randolph returned in mid-March last season at far less than his peak level of play, and again the doubters began to weave their way out of the woodwork, as Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin effectively sapped his effectiveness in the playoffs, as the Clippers took the Grizzlies out in a heartbreaking seven games.
Yet again, Randolph embarked on a mission to prove that he still has plenty of game left in him. How did it work out? Well, at 31 years old on a recently recovered knee, Z-bo earned his second career All-Star nod. After questions about declining performance again arose during a cold spell heading into the playoffs, he again answered back with some “beast mode” activation here in the playoffs, as an unequivocal team hero on a number of nights. With his continuous story of redemption, Zach has almost inarguably endeared himself to the fan base as the most beloved Grizzly of all time. He’s just “a blue collar player in a blue collar town,” as he likes to put it. If he ever has to buy his own drink again in Memphis, it will be too soon.
While the core four guys embody “grind” and redemption the loudest, these are not conceptually exclusive to the top dogs on this team. Take Prince, for example, who came over from the Pistons as a storied veteran fading from the NBA scene, in an awful situation. When you think about it, though, who better to fill in his role on this Grizzlies team, than the guy who filled out the last non-superstar-driven team to seize the NBA title? Or take Jerryd Bayless, who on his fourth team in just five years of NBA service, has carved himself a vital role on this team vying for a title run, and has hit some major shots along the way. Going down the line of the Grizzlies’ roster, we can find bits of grind in everyone.
It is that very personality that the collective has taken on, that has made this team so lovable; so beautifully chaotic; and so darn intriguing to those on the outside. That Hollins quote about everyone having a story rings especially true here and now, as we’re witnessing it unfold before our eyes. And regardless of where we end up when it is all said and done, boy oh boy there will be a story to be told. But for now, it’s time that we kick back, buckle up, and enjoy the “grind.”