photograph by Brandon Dill
E verything changed in the 2011 playoffs. That’s when people realized, en masse, that the “Believe Memphis” towels they’d been waving around as they screamed for Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess’ blood could actually be something else: They could be signs for the national television audience, for the Spurs players, for the world.
Believe Memphis. It was a slogan as defiant as it was unifying, a team that wasn’t supposed to be there, playing a style of basketball that wasn’t supposed to work with players, with guys like Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, who weren’t supposed to be able to carry a team.
That was the magical season when it all changed, when we, Memphis, all of us, realized that this team wasn’t just ours; it was us. To this day, nothing comes easy for them. Every basket scored involves maximum effort, maximum violence, minimum verticality. Every defensive stop requires a swarm from the perimeter, the ability to stand in the paint and absorb body blows without being deterred.
For almost five years now, every game has been a struggle to score enough points to win with grinding, punishing defense. Every season has been a struggle to hold the whole thing together at maximum intensity for 82 games — something that hasn’t always been possible with injuries, attitudes, and the sheer amount of effort it takes to play basketball in this fashion night in and night out.
If you had actually wanted to create a basketball team that was a metaphor for the city in which it played, and the team you were creating was for Memphis, Tennessee, you couldn’t possibly have turned up this particular team all on your own. In recognition of that fact, we watch these men like we’re watching ourselves. We embrace them like they’re members of our immediate family. We talk about individual players as if they’re that uncle who’s the baddest man in the whole wide world — but are careful not to ask too many questions about what he was up to when he was younger.
In this sense, every Grizzlies home playoff game is a referendum on our own sense of self-worth. It’s always Us vs. Them, Face vs. Heel, Memphis vs. Errrbody, as the Warriors Game 3 towels so delicately phrased it. I’m not so sure that the Grizzlies have changed us as much as they have made us more aware of who we are. And more willing to celebrate ourselves, too, all of us.
The Grizzlies have provided a whole new answer to the question of what exactly Memphis is.
Answer? Memphis is a city that’s been down on itself for a long time now, that’s now being represented by a group of outcasts who take prettier teams from prettier places and beat them up on television in front of a national audience, while the local crowd roars and hollers and generally loses its entire collective mind.
That’s not a bad definition of who we are. And that’s why our towels became signs. Believe Memphis . You may not like us, but you have to deal with us now. You may not want to watch us, but we are here anyway.
In a city in which so many struggle just to hang on to a place to live and to make ends meet and provide for themselves — the Grizzlies, after all, have not changed the fact that Memphis is one of the poorest metro areas in the country, a city in which a larger percentage of the population than anybody wants to talk about can’t afford tickets to these games in the first place — the fact that a group of men with our name across their chests goes out and disrupts and frustrates and usually pummels the rest of the NBA is a point of pride that means way more than the team’s won-lost record.
You see it most — and in the pages of this magazine — in the Grizzlies murals that proliferate like weeds in empty lots in the spring, flowers that aren’t supposed to be there but are too pretty to pull up. An entire industry of unlicensed t-shirts has sprung up around town, further proof that everyone in Memphis has a side hustle. You see it in the way we carry ourselves walking down the street the morning after a big win, heads jangling from a lack of sleep, voices shot, ears ringing. But with a real attitude.
The Grizzlies are us, and we are they. For better or for worse. Believe that.