On November 8, 2014, two events occurred that demonstrated with rare clarity that miracles are possible, that dreams can come true, that the planets are in their orbit, that … well, choose your own metaphor, your own article of faith.
I t was on that Friday night that the University of Memphis Tigers won their sixth game of the 2014 football season and became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008. On the very same night, the Memphis Grizzlies beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to begin the 2014-15 season of the National Basketball Association 6-0, thereby kindling hopes that the Grizz, a playoff team for each of the past four seasons, could move beyond their previous plateau, a place in the 2013 finals in the NBA’s talent-stocked Western Conference, and actually make a serious challenge for the league championship.
We’re talking about a shot at a bona fide World Championship, folks. We’re talking about a chance, at the very least, to match the accomplishment of our sister city down the road (Nashville who?), whose Tennessee Titans reached the Super Bowl in 2000 and came — literally — a foot short of winning the whole thing. We’re talking — at minimum — about being Big League. Unmistakably, and at last.
The backstory: There are some among us — admittedly long of tooth — who were at E.H. Crump Stadium on a September night in 1960 when a defensive back named John Griffin, playing for the unsung Memphis State Tigers, snagged an errant pass from Ole Miss quarterback Jake Gibbs and ran it straight back toward us for the game’s first touchdown.
Talk about hubris! The Ole Miss Rebels, a reliable national power in those days, were then ranked Number One in the nation and, after an undefeated season, would end up that way. The Tigers would lead that game for three quarters, but — how to say it? — the better team ultimately prevailed. Ole Miss won 31 to 20. Still, Memphis fans had been to the mountaintop and looked over into the Promised Land.
That same year of 1960 had seen the third installment of something then called The Memphis Open, played at the old Colonial Country Club site at Perkins and Park. Ben Hogan, who had been the Jack Nicklaus/Tiger Woods/Rory McIlroy of his day, sank a pressure putt for the lead after 72 holes in a field that included such future icons as Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Alas, Hogan would lose the playoff to the lesser-known Tommy Bolt, but his very presence at our city’s Open would keep Palmer and Player and Nicklaus (a later winner) and various other luminaries coming to the event year after year, during a flurry of name changes for the tournament that is now the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Similarly, stars of the tennis world were intermittently drawn to the Racquet Club for annual indoor championship events. Baseball? There have been some good years with the old Chicks and the current Redbirds, but these have been farm teams from the word go, minor-league by definition, whose excellences are of the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t variety destined for the majors in somebody else’s town. Ditto for the erstwhile Rogues and RiverKings in soccer and ice hockey, respectively.
And let us not even mention the NFL, which for so many years would drop the handkerchief our way with casual indifference but never quite sign the date card. That quashed romance ended in the ignominy of our being asked to warm up the erstwhile Houston Oilers for a season on their way to becoming the Tennessee Titans of Nashville. Kissing your sister? That’s the G-rated way to put it. At the time it felt more like a sex crime. Oh, there had been false starts in abortive short-term leagues — the Larry Csonka-Jim Kiick-Paul Warfield-Danny White Memphis Southmen of the World Football League, the Memphis Showboats of the USFL (with future Hall of Famer Reggie White), the barely remembered XFL Maniax, even a year in the — wait for it — Canadian Football League. Mad Dogs, indeed!
Local fans’ hopes came to be vested almost entirely in those other would-be wild beasts, the U of M Tigers, who had soared high under coach John Calipari, master of the one-and-done roster, but fell just short of an NCAA title. (And the NCAA’s rules, for that matter.) Meanwhile, the University’s football team grew progressively more toothless in failed season after failed season.
But that was then, this is now, when Justin Fuente’s Tigers seem likely to be regular challengers for the American Conference title, while Josh Pastner’s U of M hoopsters are annual NCAA invitees. And, best of all, our city’s NBA team, coincidentally attached to what happens to have been an alternate nickname for the erstwhile WFL Southmen, are big-league fodder for now and the future.
The Grizzlies! Robert Pera — lucky he — owns the club, and this Dave Joerger-coached team of stars — Mark Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph — owns the city. Lucky us!