The Grizzlies’ — and Memphis’ — grit and grind
Basketball binds Memphians together, and connects them to the rest of the world
“Memphis,” says point guard Mike Conley, “is a small town.”
Born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and raised in Indianapolis, the Grizzlies franchise player and floor general says Memphis suits him. “You can float under the radar when things aren’t going well — and when things are going good, you still float under the radar.” The fourth pick in the 2007 NBA draft, Conley has spent his entire NBA career with the team. “It’s more intimate … more, me,” Conley says. “I’m low-key, low maintenance. You don’t have as many people you reach … as opposed to when you go to New York or something, [where] anything you do is blown up, whether it’s good or bad. So it’s cool,” he says of his adopted hometown. “It fits me.”
Conley likes the relative quiet, but ask any Memphian what they love about their hometown and you’ll also hear a lot about hot spots like Gus’ Fried Chicken. You’ll hear about the chargrilled oysters at Pearl’s Oyster House, Huey’s for burgers, the scallops and grits at Itta Bena, and the blackened fish with cabbage at Soul Fish Cafe. Black-owned restaurants thrive during lunch rushes as folks pile into Southern Hands, Stein’s Restaurant and The Crockpot for chop steak, boiled okra, chitlins, neck bones—traditional home cooking. The turnip greens at Blues City Cafe are a favorite with athletes, and with visitors to the Bluff City.
Beale Street isn’t the first choice on a night of hanging out for most locals — though the soul music series SugaShackMemphis at the New Daisy Theater, and the nostalgic Paula Raiford’s Disco in downtown Memphis are fun — but its musical history seeps into the souls of those who visit and those who were born here.
“Beale Street” is really three blocks of shops, clubs, restaurants, galleries and theaters. Neon signs entice passersby. The street birthed blues legends such as Ruby Wilson and B.B. King. Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie and Albert King have performed there. The district is a national landmark — a melting pot of blues, jazz, rock, R&B and gospel. From the skilled and soulful strumming of the guitar, to the cupping of the harmonica by the man on the corner, to the street artist ready to sketch a tourist’s profile.
On the surface, Memphis’ small downtown is not always appealing to the eye, but it’s a diamond in the rough. And every May, the Beale Street Music Festival brings thousands to the banks of the Mississippi River to see acts such as Katy Perry, Snoop Dogg, John Legend, Wiz Khalifa, Hall & Oates, the Dave Matthews Band and more.
All through downtown, you can catch the aroma of hickory smoke and sweet spices that leave a dent in your soul. And just to the east, there’s more live music at club LOVE Memphis, where a church choir’s lead singer is likely belting out an Aretha Franklin tune like she was summoned by the Queen of Soul herself. Privé Memphis, a restaurant and lounge opened by Memphis hip-hop hero Yo Gotti, takes up a corner of a well-known East Memphis community.
Memphis’ dialect is unique. A lot of Memphis’ vocabulary is compressed into one four-letter word. It’s spoken by males, females, young, old, black or white: MANE. It denotes a pause between sentences. It’s a verb or a noun, and was used profusely by actor and Empire star Terrence Howard in the 2005 Craig Brewer film Hustle & Flow about a pimp with hip-hop dreams. Legendary Memphis rap collective Three 6 Mafia wrote It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp, which won the 2006 Academy Award for best original song. Memphis.
The culture is not for everyone. Memphis is a city with a dark past that includes a deep history of racism and prejudice. In 1968, Memphis infamously brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town due to a long strike against unfair wages for sanitation workers. It’s a place known for continuing to hold on to a local corporate “good ol’ boy” mentality. A place where black leaders have fought and fight in the struggle for equality. Memphis is, of course, the place known for the assassination of King. Many — locals, black and white — would love to forget, or disassociate themselves from that fact, but can’t escape it.
At the end of the day, Memphis sports functions as a small town. “People in the organization know people in the fan base, and everybody kind of knows each other,” says Jason Wexler, the Grizzlies president of business operations. “That’s kind of how Memphis works. You know you can’t be disingenuous. We’re a part of them. We’re one of them. We build on each other. We’re … all growing together in this.”
The Grizzlies are 20-14 under new head coach and Los Angeles native David Fizdale. The team finished seventh in the NBA’s Western Conference in a tumultuous 2015-16 NBA season under former head coach Dave Joerger, who took over after Lionel Hollins was out in June 2013.
Hollins was the team’s first black head coach since Sidney Lowe (2000-2002) and his contract was not renewed even after the great 2012-2013 NBA season. Before his departure, there was a full-on fan rally to keep Hollins. Hollins finished his time with the Grizzlies as the best and most successful Grizz coach since Hall of Famer Hubie Brown (this is not up for debate). Brown, now an analyst for ABC and ESPN, improved the team’s record and led the Grizz to three-straight playoff appearances. Hollins went on to coach for the Brooklyn Nets, who let him go after two seasons.
“When I came to Memphis, in the beginning, I only had a one-year deal … and God put it on my heart to uproot and come here. [He] says, ‘Go to Memphis.’ I sold my home, bought a house here, not knowing … and while I’m here, Lowe is fired and they bring in Hubie Brown, so it was quite a risk to take, but Memphis always felt like home.”
On any given night during an NBA season, fans show their love for the Memphis Grizzlies by filing into the FedExForum. Postseason games, as well as games against the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, are likely to draw a sellout crowd, pulling a capacity of 18,111. In order to make the fan experience affordable to all, the front office approves promotions throughout the year such as StubHub tickets for $5.
“When you look around,” Wexler says, “and you look at the geography, we have a real opportunity to become a regional franchise. That’s a way we can be in our market. Which is a small market. Maybe we look a little bit like a larger market than otherwise.”
FedExForum on game night starts with the aroma of Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous barbecue that meets attendees at the door. The scent of gourmet popcorn — buffalo ranch, dill pickle, candy-coated rainbow — from the building’s lone black-owned food vendor iPop fills the air.
As fans file in with Grizz gear, painted faces and signs, the trash-talk begins. Enthusiasts have no mercy on the opposing team’s players, coaches — or even the refs. They shout chants from “Whoop Dat Trick” to “You Suck.” The diverse crowd has one goal in mind – winning. They are all in.
“The people in Memphis love their team, love the individual players, and make them a part of their family,” Hollins says. “In New York, the fans were loud, rambunctious, and a lot of people came to games for different reasons, and as soon as the team would lose then there wouldn’t be any fan base, so it was different in that they weren’t loyal.”
Loyal for real: Fans not in the arena are watching at bars nearby, or having game-night house parties. The Rec Room, a new location in Midtown Memphis, has become a popular spot for viewing with its 20-foot screens, six rented “living rooms,” arcade and hip patio. The living rooms recreate a home setting, with chairs and sofas, and accommodate about 12 people. The spaces are available in one-hour increments and come complete with remote controls. There’s more, though.
“The most unique place to watch a Grizzlies game is at the BarBQue Fest during the annual Memphis in May festivities,” says Sports 56 radio host Kevin Cerrito. “Tents are set up on the river and decorated in Grizzlies paraphernalia, you smell barbecue in the air. It’s playoff season, and if you’re lucky that’s one or two games per year. It’s something unique to Memphis.”
“The way we’ve completely integrated ourselves into the market, it’s unique,” Wexler says. Among his responsibilities — ticket sales, arena and general operations, partnerships, marketing and broadcast — is community investment. “There’s only a couple of teams in pro sports that have done the same thing — where the fan base, the team and the city all share an identity … They work together and build on each other to make a bigger whole than some of its parts.” Wexler says the team is in a good place with the city and its fans.
“The city’s positive self-esteem and the franchise’s positive self-esteem are interwoven,” he says. “When you amplify that with the great grind culture that captures both the team and the city, there’s really not a lot different you’d want to do.” He notes that a lot of franchises are sitting on a lot of history. “We’re just starting our 16th season. We’re seeing those first groups of generational fans — those kids who were 10 years old when the Grizzlies arrived, they’re now 26 and they bleed Grizzlies blue.”
Wexler also says that the main ingredient to a successful culture in the Grizzlies franchise is honesty. “Anybody new who comes in just knows that they’ve gotta follow that lead. Right? This is how we do it in Memphis. Are they going to be a part of that? … With our focus on mentoring and so much of what we do to engage in the community. [There’s] a really good dialogue between the players, the organization and the community that I think lifts everybody up a little bit.”
Strickland notes that the Grizzlies continue to be active in the community through the Grizzlies Foundation. “They’re kind of the umbrella organization for mentoring, [and] mentoring is a huge benefit for Memphis,” he says. The foundation acknowledges that 80,000 children [of all races] live below the poverty line. “We need to give young people something productive to do when they’re not in school. Mentoring is the perfect thing to provide. That’s not all the Grizzlies Foundation does, but that’s one of the things. They’re engaged in the community, which you would expect them to be, but they are living up to that commitment.” There is also a big connection between the players and the city of Memphis.
“What we call the Big Four, which is Tony [Allen] and Mike [Conley] and Marc [Gasol] and Zach [Randolph], have been kind of the heart of the team for the last few years,” Strickland says. “They have a real connection with the Memphians. As a sign of that connection … the Grizzlies in their motto have captured the essence of Memphis. We are a grit and grind city. I think that perfectly encapsulates both the Grizzlies and our city. They are not super flashy. They have to hustle every single game, and that’s what Memphis is. We have to grit and grind to success.”
Wexler agrees that the team has a strong player culture. “From Mike, Mark, Zack and Tony, the core four guys … [fans] know we care about our town. They see the energy, effort and commitment that we put into our community engagement. Our foundation. Which is really second to none in professional sports. How we impact our city. We understand where the opportunities and limitations are. It’s a good open dialogue.”
Grizzlies coach Fizdale made his way from Miami to Memphis and says the main difference is the non-celebrity mentality of the market. “Whatever went wrong in Miami, whether it was LeBron [James] bumping shoulders or DWade [Dwyane Wade] having a fit or anything like that, it turned into something more than it would here,” Fizdale says. “Our guys here are a little more low-key, a lower radar, when it comes to just the lights, the notoriety. But in both places, there’s a high level of talent. We have high level talent here. The fans that are here are more college-like. College basketball. It’s fun. Here is like basketball junkies. Both places have great qualities.”
But Memphis has barbecue. An ongoing debate that Memphians have is where to find the best. By far, it’s someone’s smoke-filled backyard on a summer day, or even a cold December morning. The weather won’t ever stop pits from being fired up. This is where Elvis’ neighborhood, Whitehaven, is mostly black, and being redeveloped. This is where MANE, and phrases such as “Memphis vs. Errrbody” are printed on popular T-shirts — a testament to a city of people that has a chip on its shoulder.
Zach Randolph has been with the team since 2009, and quickly he became a fan favorite. He has often declared Memphis as a team that gave him another chance in the league. “It’s a great thing,” Randolph says of the basketball culture in the city. “The fans are into it. It’s not as big as other big cities, but it’s the same love and heart. Everything,” he says, “goes into it.”