O n the unusual occasions when Memphis’ NBA team is way ahead and everything is breaking its way in a game, one can lose sight of just how hard things always seem to be for the Grizzlies. Far more often, every single field goal is the basketball equivalent of oil shale, scraped out of the ground and processed within an inch of its life just to extract something useful from it, anything of value at all.
The way things are during the regular season is also the way things are here in a macro sense. The Grizzlies play in the poorest market in the NBA and one of the poorest metro areas in the country. Players give away tickets by the hundreds just so people can see that one NBA game that they can’t otherwise afford to see. And at playoff time, people stand in line for hours just to try to get one of those 500 precious, last-minute tickets, unable to see the front of the line, just praying they’re not number 501.
Most of the time it doesn’t feel like these two levels of reality are related, until the playoffs. When everything gets harder, the truth shines through: like so many Memphians, the Grizzlies themselves wouldn’t know what to do at playoff time if everything weren’t a life-or-death struggle. We — those of us who watch them — wouldn’t know what to do if they were so good they never had any struggles.
Remember last November and December, when the Grizzlies were actually the best team in the NBA? Remember how strange that felt, like you (a) didn’t believe it was actually happening and (b) were just waiting for the other shoe to drop and bring with it some precipitous decline?
That’s the way we are as a city, too. Somehow we’ve created a basketball team that mirrors our own civic strengths and weaknesses. The shining moments of transcendent brilliance. The self-sabotage. The sense that if things don’t go our way, we’ll just fight somebody. The refusal to perform at the highest level without facing dire odds, impossible circumstances. The possibility that it’s not just something that happens during competition, but that we’re actually insane.
Then there’s the moment when all this comes into perfect focus: 18,119 black and white people together chanting “Whoop That Trick” at the Portland Trail Blazers, while television audiences across America shudder in non-recognition. Who are these people? How is it possible that they are like us?
We are not. Somehow, the Grizzlies are everything we are, for better or for worse.
photograph by brandon dill