I ’m a Dallas Mavericks fan. Have been for 32 years. (Long story short, the Mavs drafted my college hero, Dale Ellis, in 1983 and my fandom has long outlasted the Tennessee All-American’s stay in Dallas.) That said, I’ve never rooted against the Memphis Grizzlies, and never will. The two most uncomfortable nights of my sports year are when the Mavericks visit FedExForum. The massive cheers (when Memphis wins) squeeze me emotionally. And the silent exit of thousands (when Dallas wins) deadens the thrill I take when the Mavericks beat any of 28 other NBA teams.
I root for the Grizzlies as a civic enterprise more than I do as merely a team in the second-most famous professional sports league on the planet. (The National Basketball Association bows only to soccer’s English Premiership.) For 14 years now, the franchise has been celebrated for making Memphis “big league,” a tag that seems most significantly, these days, to apply to a city’s standing in the over-hyped world of sports. It’s all a bit silly, of course. Ask folks at St. Jude or FedEx about their definitions of “big league,” and they’ll quickly adjust your perspective.
No, the Grizzlies are more about human bonding to me, and the component of human bonding we treasure most: emotion. Most Memphians are devoted to the FedEx brand (hey, over 30,000 of us work there), and every Memphian champions the cause of St. Jude. But much as we love them both, when, exactly, can we tune in together for a collective, regional spasm of pure joy over their successes? The Grizzlies give us (potentially) 82 of these moments, one regular season after another.
Heartache is a component of the emotional bonding, of course. In the early Griz days, back-to-back seasons of 22-60 basketball made winter longer (and colder) than it should have been. Favorite players departed mid-career for greater glory elsewhere (Pau Gasol in Los Angeles, Shane Battier eventually in Miami). And more recently, there has been no worse hangover than the morning after a season-ending playoff defeat, a weight with which Grizzly fans have grown familiar over the years since the team’s remarkable run in the spring of 2011, when Memphis as an eighth-seed upset the mighty San Antonio Spurs (ranked #1) before falling to Oklahoma City.
But oh, the joy. Any fan fully invested in his or her team knows the endorphin kick of an unlikely win, or a victory that takes a team to a place it’s never been. In an age that now spins by the whims of technology, natural highs can, in fact, be achieved. The Memphis Grizzlies have been the strongest mind-expanding substance the Mid-South can claim as its own since Elvis Presley. Young Elvis.
The Grizzlies are of us every bit as much as we — as a community — are of them. For starters, Memphis is simply too small a place for Z-Bo and friends to hide for seven months. The morning after the Grizzlies eliminated the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2013 playoffs, I got to congratulate Tony Allen for his team’s dynamic comeback in a Germantown computer store, where he was doing the same thing I was (buying a laptop). The Grindfather himself smiled as we shook hands and offered but two words, “Appreciate you.”
It would be hard to identify a part of Memphis life appreciated more these days than the Memphis Grizzlies. We believe in them. We cherish their grit and relish their grind. We’ve come to recognize bright, yellow towels as community calling cards. Our very nickname — the Bluff City — has been somewhat redefined. It’s a culture easy to embrace. Even for the Maverick fans among us.