Photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley won the NBA’s 2014 Sportsmanship Award.
The more things change with the Memphis Grizzlies . . . well, things are always changing with the Memphis Grizzlies. Coming off the most successful campaign in franchise history — 56 wins and a trip to the Western Conference finals — the 2013-14 Grizzlies opened their season with a longtime assistant coach (Dave Joerger) elevated to the top job and a familiar-though-long-departed player (Mike Miller) again wearing Beale Street Blue. Year Two under a front office directed by managing partner Jason Levien was expected to be a stabilizing continuation of the previous season. There was very little stable about the 2013-14 Griz season. After a 3-5 start, the Grizzlies swept all four California teams on the road, seemingly righting the ship for the winter months ahead. But in their next game at FedExForum — November 22, 2013 — center Marc Gasol (the NBA’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year) injured his left knee, an ailment that would sideline the team’s figurative backbone for 23 games. The team’s record bottomed out in mid-December at 10-15 and didn’t again reach .500 until January 15th (19-19), the day after Gasol returned. But when the calendar turned to 2014, so did the Griz fortunes. Starting with a win at Houston on January 24th, the Grizzlies played some of the best basketball in the NBA, thanks largely to a supporting cast — James Johnson, Nick Calathes, Courtney Lee — that had nothing to do with the 2013 playoff run. Despite other significant injuries — Tony Allen missed 27 games and Mike Conley nine — the Grizzlies went 30-12 over the season’s second half, winning their last 14 games at FedExForum and last five overall to sneak into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s seventh seed. (They needed two overtime free throws from Conley in the closing seconds of their final regular-season game to beat Dallas for their 50th win and escape a first-round series with the championship-bound San Antonio Spurs.) For the third time in four seasons, Memphis met the Oklahoma City Thunder — led by 2014 MVP Kevin Durant — in the playoffs. Having split the previous two series, the two relocated franchises further built on what’s becoming one of the NBA’s finest rivalries. How tight was their seven-game series? For the first time in NBA history, four consecutive playoff games were decided in overtime. After falling in Game 1 at Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies responded by taking the first OT Thriller, 111-105, behind 25 points from Zach Randolph and 19 points (along with 12 assists) from Mike Conley. With the Thunder down five points and only 14 seconds on the clock, Durant somehow drained a shot as he was falling into the first row, adding a free throw after a foul was charged to Gasol. Conley missed a free throw and the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins converted a layup as time expired to force the extra session. But Randolph took command in overtime, scoring eight of the Grizzlies’ 12 points to fuel the win. Back in FedExForum for Game 3, the Grizzlies survived another last-minute four-point play, this time by OKC’s All-Star guard Russell Westbrook. Conley drilled a three-pointer to seize the lead for good in OT. Durant scored 30 points for the Thunder, but missed 17 of his 27 shots and misfired in the extra session. In Game 3, reserve guard Reggie Jackson scored 32 points (more than Durant and Westbrook combined), just enough for Oklahoma City to win by three after the Grizzlies erased a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Led by five treys from Miller, Memphis took Game 5 at Oklahoma City, the final overtime game of the series (and third won by the Grizzlies). Westbrook converted a layup with four seconds left in regulation to tie the game, but Miller hit two from long distance in the first two minutes of overtime to bring the Griz within a game of the playoffs’ second round. Then Game 6 happened. Back in Memphis, OKC played like the home team (with everything to gain), throttling the Grizzlies, 104-84, behind 36 points from Durant and 25 from Westbrook. Even worse for the actual home team, Randolph earned a suspension for Game 7 after throwing a punch at Thunder reserve Steven Adams as the players ran upcourt, the game already well in the Thunder’s hands. Minus Z-Bo, the Grizzlies took an early lead in the decisive game (36-27 after a quarter), only to hit a wall. Durant and Westbrook combined for 60 points in the Thunder’s 120-109 clincher. The Grizzlies managed to make national news after the playoffs when CEO Jason Levien was dismissed after just two seasons on the job. Principal owner Robert Pera seemed to have made the decision unilaterally, as there was virtually no speculation on Levien’s status after a pair of 50-win seasons. Chris Wallace, having not officially left the organization when Levien was originally hired, returned to his role as vice president of basketball operations and was among the decision-makers when Memphis chose Jordan Adams (a shooting guard from UCLA) in June’s draft. The Griz also acquired Memphis native Jarnell Stokes — a power forward who averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds as a junior at Tennessee — in a deal that sent the Grizzlies’ 2016 second-round pick to Utah. The 2013-14 Memphis Tiger basketball season saw a collision of familiar and new, an amalgam that made for some of the most electric nights in recent U of M history . . . and some of the most dreadful. The Tigers took the floor for their first season as members of the American Athletic Conference, a league that featured traditional heavyweights Louisville (for one season), Connecticut, and Cincinnati, along with programs like Temple and SMU (under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown). It made for a winter gauntlet unlike any the Tigers faced in 18 years under the Conference USA banner. Four senior guards — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Missouri transfer Michael Dixon Jr. — composed the backbone of coach Josh Pastner’s team, for good or ill. Three highly acclaimed freshmen (Austin Nichols, Nick King, and Kuran Iverson) filled the balance of the rotation along with sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin, who was familiar more in name than body (he entered the season having lost 30 pounds since his freshman campaign). A 21-point loss at 7th-ranked Oklahoma State (the game wasn’t that close) stirred panic citywide just two games into the season. But less than two weeks later, playing in the championship of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, the Tigers beat that same Cowboy team behind 17 points and eight rebounds from Goodwin. The stumble-then-rise plot line would continue throughout the season. Stumble: A 16-point beat-down at the hands of Cincinnati — at FedExForum, no less — on January 4th. Rise: An upset of archrival (and defending national-champion) Louisville — on the road, no less — on January 9th. Stumble: A 15-point loss at SMU on February 1st that ended a four-game winning streak and what appeared to be midseason momentum. Rise: A second-half comeback to beat Gonzaga on February 8th with ESPN’s “Game Day” crew on hand at FedExForum. Stumble: A 9-point loss at Houston, with a Louisville rematch looming two days later. Rise: Another epic comeback, this time against the Cardinals at FedExForum, for the first Memphis sweep of Louisville in 17 years. The Tigers never lost consecutive games, but the mercurial nature of the team’s performance did them no favors in the postseason. Seeded fifth in the first AAC tournament — held at FedExForum — the Tigers were listless in their quarterfinal tilt with UConn (the eventual national champion), losing 72-53. “I did not see this one coming,” said Pastner after the game, as mystified, it seemed, as any fan in attendance. “Guys were ready to play; fired up. In the first half, and really the majority of the game, we played not to lose. We played timid.” Their 23-9 record landed the Tigers the 8th seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region. They handled George Washington in their opening game behind 15 points and six assists from Jackson and 19 points off the bench from Dixon. But then the final stumble: an 18-point loss to second-seed Virginia in which the Cavaliers had their way (56-percent shooting), while the Tigers’ shooters — those four seniors in particular — misfired (41 percent). Two of the new faces earned postseason hardware, Nichols as the AAC’s Rookie of the Year and Dixon as winner of the league’s Sixth Man Award. The most familiar of the Tiger faces — Joe Jackson — was named second-team all-conference and finished his career ranked seventh on the Memphis career scoring chart (1,687 points). Alas, Jackson and his fellow seniors will leave memories of teasing a fan base with what might be, while falling short on the sport’s biggest stage come March.
When the Redbirds opened the 15th season of professional baseball at AutoZone Park, they were more distinctly Memphis than ever. Over a busy winter, the Triple-A franchise was purchased (for $15 million) by its parent club, the 2013 National League champion St. Louis Cardinals. That deal cleared the way for the City of Memphis to purchase the stadium — built at a cost of more than $70 million before the 2000 season — for $19.5 million. The twin deals closed a relationship between the Redbirds and New York’s Fundamental Advisors, the company that purchased the ballpark’s considerable debt obligations in 2009. As part of the transaction, the Cardinals agreed to a 17-year lease that pays the city $300,000 a year in rent (with penalties if they choose to leave the ballpark, still considered among the best in all of minor-league baseball). From Cardinal owner Bill DeWitt to new Redbirds general manager Craig Unger, the city’s new partners emphasized building upon an already strong connection between two river cities that, in recent years, have helped each other to considerable success on the diamond. Memphis fans will see a renovated AutoZone Park in 2015. Expect fewer seats and a less “empty” feeling for weeknight games that may draw no more than 3,000 fans. During a visit last November, DeWitt suggested the Cardinals’ family of Hall of Famers and other former stars will have a larger presence in Memphis. On the field, the 2014 Redbirds opened the season with the best outfield in the minor leagues: Oscar Taveras (the third-ranked prospect in all of baseball), Stephen Piscotty (a 2012 draft pick out of Stanford), and Randal Grichuck (a 2013 minor-league Gold Glove recipient who came to the Cardinals in the trade that sent World Series hero David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels). Despite the offensive punch from this trio, the club struggled to reach .500 over the first three months of the season, never mounting so much as a four-game winning streak. Grichuk made his big-league debut with the Cardinals in late April, and Taveras followed on May 31st (homering in his second at-bat at Busch Stadium). The Redbirds lost their last five games of June (falling to 38-44), but remained within five games of first place in their division of the Pacific Coast League.
Memphis Tiger football seemed to take significant strides in 2012, the first season under new coach Justin Fuente. Having won a total of five games the three previous seasons, the Tigers went 4-8 and won their last three games. But moving to the American Athletic Conference in 2013 brought some growing pains for the long-suffering program. The Tigers avoided blowouts over the season’s first ten games, narrowly losing (by identical scores of 24-17) to their league’s two best teams, UCF and Louisville. But they seemed to hit a wall after Thanksgiving, getting steamrolled by Temple (41-21) and UConn (45-10) to finish the season 3-9. Fuente committed his offense to redshirt-freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch, who started every game and passed for 2,056 yards (9 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Lynch will bring a veteran’s presence this fall to the most important position on the field, as will Brandon Hayes at tailback (860 rushing yards in ’13), and a collection of receivers that includes Sam Craft, Joe Craig, and Keiwone Malone. On the defensive side of the ball, more veterans return, including preseason all-conference selection Martin Ifedi at defensive end, Bobby McCain (cornerback), Terry Redden (nose tackle), and Charles Harris (linebacker). Sophomore placekicker Jake Elliott hit 16 of 18 field-goal attempts in 2013 and is also a preseason all-AAC pick. There’s one departed Tiger worthy of significant note. Having accumulated a staggering 12,815 punting yards over his four-year career, Tom Hornsey was honored with the 2013 Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter. Take it as you will, but no other Memphis punter has reached even 10,000 career yards. The Tigers’ 2014 home schedule: Austin Peay (Aug. 30), Middle Tennessee (Sept. 20), Houston (Oct. 11), Tulsa (Oct. 31), USF (Nov. 22), UConn (Nov. 29).
Japan’s Kei Nishikori became just the fourth tennis player to win consecutive championships at The Racquet Club of Memphis. The top seed at the U.S. National Indoor, Nishikori lost but a single set in his four matches and beat Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic in the final for his fourth win on the ATP World Tour. In May, The Racquet Club was purchased by a local group (led by Steve Valentine), giving hope that the annual event — played in Memphis since 1977 — is here to stay.
Ben Crane opened the 2014 FedEx St. Jude Classic with a blistering 63 (seven under par), and never looked back, taking the rain-soaked tournament by a single stroke over Troy Merritt. The 38-year-old Crane was forced to play 30 holes on Sunday and held on for the victory despite not shooting a birdie in his final round. For his fifth win on the PGA Tour, Crane took home a winner’s check in the amount of $1.044 million.