F ifteen years ago, Frank Deford, the curmudgeonly dean of American sportswriters, wondered why in the world anyone would pay more than $200 million for an NBA team.
It seemed like a good question, and I was among many others who seconded it.
Michael Jordan had just retired for the first time. LeBron James had not arrived. A lockout during the 1998-1999 season shortened the schedule to 50 games and attendance plunged below 2,000 for some games in Atlanta. The Vancouver Grizzlies, coached by Sidney Lowe and on the hook to big bust Bryant “Big Country” Reeves for $60 million, went 23-59 in their last season in Canada.
While Memphis did not exactly pay $200 million to own the Grizzlies — Michael Heisley retained ownership — a condition of the move was that Memphis would build a new $250 million arena while The Pyramid served as a stand-in.
Now it looks like Deford and the rest of us were wrong. Why pay more than $200 million? Because it made sense, especially for a mid-tier city without big-league professional sports and a history of settling for upstarts, one-year wonders, love-’em-and-leave-’ems, minor-league outfits, and Memphis Tigers basketball, which was also at a low point in the Tic Price years before Coach Cal came to town.
“I think the Grizzlies definitely changed the culture of Memphis,” says FedEx founder Fred Smith, who was involved in several efforts to land an NFL team. “The Grizzlies were our first no-excuses big-league team. It has been something that the guy who cleans the streets, the car dealer, and the banker can all get behind. And FedExForum is probably the finest NBA basketball facility in the country.”
Changing the culture of Memphis or any other city is a hard thing to define. The Grizzlies were definitely the talk of the town as they advanced through the NBA Playoffs. They arguably saved daily print journalism, which would otherwise be stuck with telling readers about public debt, far-off elections, murder and mayhem, and the upcoming pro golf tournament.
Good luck tweeting that.
But the conversation is not necessarily the culture. Detroit, remember, has four big-league teams. A culture changer must have depth as well as breadth. It must transcend gender, generation, economic class, national boundaries, and race.
Smith, 70, knows something about that. He was born when Memphian E.H. “Boss” Crump was still enough of a force to make the cover of Time magazine, grew up with Elvis and the roughneck brawlers of the Fifties, and well remembers the impact of the King assassination, busing and white flight, downtown decline, suburban sprawl, and the transition of Memphis from a majority-white city to a majority-black city, and the hopeful but hollow sound of Memphis as Aerotropolis.
Getting a big-league team was one thing, but success was something else. Imagine the Grizzlies winning fewer than 30 games and failing to make the playoffs year after year, as seemed possible if not likely just five years ago. Frank Deford, you old sage, you were right again!
But for once fate, and shrewd management, dealt Memphis a winning hand. The NBA revived, even as the dollars in the contracts spun out of control. The gritty underdog team was made for the gritty underdog city. The other Gasol turned out to be the right Gasol. The problem player from Portland became Z-Bo, the most popular player in Memphis. Tony Allen’s defense and Mike Conley’s mask, the dreaded doubters proven wrong, and all the rest.
It’s only a game, except it isn’t. In twenty-first-century America it’s the show, 24/7, and Memphis is finally part of it.
photograph by amie vanderford