Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. And so, evidently, is the concept of civic self-esteem.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the political and business leaders of America’s major metropolitan areas seriously competed for the privilege of being considered by their peers and the general public as real cities. Of course, the status of places like New York or Los Angeles was never in doubt. But if you were a major community figure in a medium-sized city like Jacksonville or Charlotte or, yes, Memphis, you put a lot of time, civic energy, and hard cash into proving to the rest of America that your particular city “belonged in the big leagues.”
Many criteria were involved in determining which cities were America’s most important. Economic prosperity certainly helped, as did having a rich cultural heritage. But by the mid-twentieth century, nothing better defined the big-league status of your town than having a major professional sports franchise. There was just one problem; there were scores of cities wanting big-league teams, but only so many teams to go around. (In 1959 major-league baseball had but 16 franchises, the NFL 12, the NBA 8, and the NHL just 6.) So few teams and so many suitors!
Shrewd sports entrepreneurs could read the tea leaves. The 1960s saw not just a wave of franchise musical chairs, as pro teams flipped cities like dance-away lovers, but the creation of a rival football league, the AFL, which would merge officially with the NFL (and double overnight the number of “major-league football” towns) in 1970. New teams in new towns were welcomed as conquering heroes, and billions of public dollars were spent building stadiums and making newcomers feel right at home.
Over the next three decades, expansion, league mergers, and the growth of soccer more than tripled the number of big-league pro teams, from 42 in 1959 to a remarkable total of 134 in 2001. The year 2001, of course, was our year, the year the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to warmer climes on the banks of the Mississippi. We too built our new team a brand-new stadium, and we too welcomed Michael Heisley, the Grizzlies owner, with open arms.
And why wouldn’t we? After all, Memphis, in its quest for major-league football glory, had suffered more knockdowns than a punch-drunk boxer. We’d been left at the expansion altar at least three times. Back in 1983 we had a golden opportunity to woo Donald Irsay’s Baltimore Colts, when he announced that he was taking his team to either Memphis or Indianapolis. That sparked an intriguing competition between two city magazines, this one and Indianapolis Monthly (see inset). Both monthlies ran the same story, in which we made the case for Memphis and they made the case for Indianapolis. Both edit staffs agreed that Memphis made the more convincing case. Mr. Irsay didn’t. He moved the Colts to Indianapolis.
During the 1980s we had a seriously good team, Billy Dunavant’s Memphis Showboats in the United States Football League (USFL). The latter was considered the premier franchise in the fledgling league in terms of talent, management, and attendance. All well and good, but when the USFL folded in 1985, so did the Showboats.
So were we ready for the Grizzlies’ move here in 2001? Do fish swim?
Our timing may well have been perfect, since Memphis the city was becoming ever more cosmopolitan just as its first real big-league team arrived. After 14 seasons, I’m still amazed at what I see when I walk around FedExForum during games: thousands of black and white Memphians mingling in near-equal numbers, all united in their zeal for their team. “Why can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King once famously said, but when we’re all together at the Forum, we certainly do. If the Griz never win another game, they will have done their part in making Memphis a much better place.