1. I want this to have a happy ending. I want you to know that from the start, that if you go on Beale Street before a Grizzlies game, you want a happy ending for Memphis, and their basketball team, and for the random selections of humanity poured into blasting afternoon sun. I want that for the 40-year-old golf bros in Callaway dancing with drunk blonde ladies in sundresses in the park and for the homeless man whose shoe backs collapsed entirely years ago, dancing a few steps away and making incoherent requests from the band.
I wanted a happy ending for the country dudes with braids and yard-long beers and neon-piped fitteds in Tony Allen jerseys. I wanted it for the women tatted up with stars, lacy signatures of children's names or boyfriends or husbands, and in one instance a whole headshot of a dead loved one staring out from an exposed shoulder blade. I was behind her in the crowd. Someone's long-dead relative stared slightly lopsided holes in your soul from just over the single strap of a one-shouldered club dress, which is what this woman decided to wear to the Western Conference Finals, the tattoo bobbing along on her skin, taken into the Grindhouse whether they wanted to go or not for the beginning of the unhappy end.
2. Everyone knows someone from Memphis: the college friend who has driven with an open 40 in the drink holder like it's nothing, the cousin who talks about the "crime" in Memphis from a distance of 30 miles out in the suburbs, the classmate who's tending bar and slowly accumulating tattoos and delinquent student loan payment notices. Did you go out with them and slowly realize that this person was raised in an entirely different universe? Did it take you longer than five minutes? It shouldn't have, because you have cousins in Memphis. Everyone has cousins in Memphis, and they know stranger people with stranger cousins living sideways somewhere in Arkansas, Mississippi, or in the wilds of western Tennessee.
Memphis is the informal capital of the dirtiest part of the Dirty South. It's not going to be normal. It's not going to be easy. It's going to have a bar with a beer-drinking goat. It will have occasionally titanic crime, an artery-destroying diet and jaw-dropping dysfunction. It will have signs to I-55 painted on the pavement pointing in two directions, both labeled incorrectly. It will, from time to time, stun you with its warmth in the literal and figurative senses.
Dude with drink and pitbull, Memphis. (All photos by Spencer Hall)
3. It also has the Grizzlies, and Rick Trotter could start a cult. He may have, or at least has coasted to some kind of talismanic power in service of it. He is the Grizzlies' public address announcer. You know his voice because you hear Rick Trotter's growling basso even through dampened broadcast mikes, seeping into the broadcast despite the best efforts of the producers.
Trotter is screaming MIKE CONLEEEYYYYYYYYYYYY because it is the first quarter, Mike Conley is hitting shots, and everyone is hitting shots and stealing balls out of the Spurs' hands effortlessly. Marc Gasol lifts a ball out of Tony Parker's hands by sheer adhesion. Parker pivots and raises the ball past Gasol, and it simply sticks to Gasol's giant clamp of a mano so quickly Gasol, for one wide-eyed nanosecond, has no clue what to do.
4. That was Game 3. If you watched Game 3, you know that for one quarter, Memphis looked like the same team that figuratively choked out the Oklahoma City Thunder. Before the Thunder, the Grizzlies had literally choked out the L.A. Clippers, or at least Blake Griffin, writhing on the ground in a scrum with Zach Randolph, and Zach Randolph's hand on his throat. Yes, that was the team I so badly want you to admire here: the one with the player who, in a moment of passion, may have checked the structural integrity of Blake Griffin's larynx with his very large, very strong hand. In most other places, that's an act of villainy. In Memphis, Zach Randolph is the hero and Blake Griffin's neck merely got in the way of important business.
5. That explosion of steals and brief flurry of success was one quarter in one game against the San Antonio Spurs. The remaining three went as planned, and that is an important word here: plans. If the Grizzlies were about the moment, effort and obstruction, and if they were as much about the brutality of simply holding up beneath Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol's pounding presence and Tony Allen's pesky defense, then the Spurs were simply about plans. Plans included open shooters burying threes on the perimeter and swamping Randolph inside with a rotating cast of attackers: Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan, and an invisible 300 pound Chinese woman named Pang Mei* who spent the entire series hanging around Zach Randolph's neck.
*Pang Mei is not real, but she is as good an explanation as any for the endless chain of tip-ins and layups Randolph missed through the series.
6. Plans for the Spurs also included Tony Parker running mad through the Memphis defense, covered more effectively by the rain of boos from the Grindhouse crowd than by any Grizzlies defender. Leads wavered but never crumbled. A run might put the Grizzlies within a tantalizing five, but then ... plans happened. Plans led to more open threes, or brilliantly-spaced sets for Parker to press off the dribble before falling back into empty space, and more open jumpers.
In Game 3, the kind of plans the Spurs have been making for over 15 years led to Tim Duncan collecting one of the subtlest 24-10-5 stat lines ever. The Spurs remain the Value Added Tax of basketball teams: built into the price of playing the game and tallied almost painlessly. They bankrupted the Grizzlies with efficiency and a kind of cold elegance. Offering a receipt at the postgame handshake would not have felt inappropriate in the least, since the Spurs played out the series like landlords overseeing an eviction and seemed just as relieved to get it over with after they closed out the series in four tidy games.
7. The Grizzlies ultimately lost, but this is about Memphis, and the Grizzlies, and the combination of the two. It is the oldest canonical sports cliche in the world to say that a pro sports team represents a place. More often than not, they coincidentally match up with a city's best and most flattering aspirations. (For example: The Celtics' mythology depends in large part on an acceptance of a blue-collar Boston, one that conveniently ignores the old money, high standard of living and actual existence of infrastructure in the city.) When a team says it represents a city, it usually represents a pamphlet you receive describing what that city, in someone's happiest imagination, might some day be.
8. If there were a reason to love -- and genuinely love, as in want to create a wildlife habitat and ensure the survival of their kind forever -- the Memphis Grizzlies, it was because they actually did represent the city where you can get a 40-ounce draft beer in a plastic cup for $5 on the street and watch the cops nervously eye the freshly-reopened Club 152. (Closed for noise ordinance violations, of course.)
The Grizzlies' "grit and grind" did not resonate solely because they were winning, though that certainly helps. Memphis is a city where the second job -- your side hustle -- is a given. Local rap icon Al Kapone will drag you out of bed on Surrrrrday to move furniture. He might have done just that after performing "Whoop That Trick" with the Memphis Symphony before a Grizzlies game last season. I spent a lot of pregame with Chris Vernon, a local talk radio fixture. He was selling t-shirts on a Saturday, because hustle never sleeps and instead stands in the blasting sun on Beale Street pressing the flesh and selling the Z-Bo t-shirts for a few dollars more, because you pay a premium for extra color and Zach Randolph.
That's not an act, or a cliche, or a point of mythical local pride. It's real, and it explains how you can get half of the city's cultural luminaries' phone numbers while standing outside a t-shirt shop before a basketball game. It's an unlicensed t-shirt kind of city, less blue collar than no collar, and possibly with a logo of a grizzly's paw holding a gun reading "Mama tried" on it.
9. That's why the Grizzlies were so specifically lovable this season. For once, this really was a team indistinguishable from their city in the best and worst possible senses. They won games without having a defined, go-to premium scorer, scrapping out wins with a mix of violence, frantic hustle and, yes, at times outright theft. Their arena has the loudest subwoofers I've ever heard indoors. Their ring announcer -- and that is the right term here -- has a side hustle at a church, and yet really does sound like he could be introducing Britney on the main stage. Tony Allen eats by himself at a Cracker Barrel all the time, where the staff jokingly calls him "LeBron." After a checkered career elsewhere, Zach Randolph found a home in Memphis and played arguably the best basketball of his career. The franchise itself is a retread, bought off the sale rack at the NBA's thrift store from Vancouver, a place that might be the polar opposite of everything Memphis is. This is the bootleg t-shirt franchise. It landed in a very bootleg t-shirt city, and the rest is the weird, happy history leading to this point.
10. I don't know if that -- making it to the Western Conference Finals and having the best season in the history of the franchise -- is inspiration or a rallying cry for a city with fearsome problems. I never know how much that means to a city, particularly one I don't call home. I don't know if the Saints really did help New Orleans accomplish anything by winning the Super Bowl, or if New York felt any better after 9/11 because of baseball, or if any storyline about a city and the very real business of professional sport helping it cope with life actually exists for the purposes of anything but well-edited inspirational ESPN montages. I'm skeptical about it because it's so easy to say, and easy things and Memphis don't really match up a lot.
I also know that Zach Randolph says he'll live in Memphis whether he gets traded or not after this season. I know that on Beale Street this weekend, people moved cheek-to-jowl happily, even while standing in line for Club 152, freshly reopened after clearing up some business with the city. I know that
two people were one person was allegedly stabbed there on Saturday night just a day after that reopening, because it is Memphis on a Saturday night, and even after what was arguably the best professional sports weekend in the history of the city, things go pear-shaped fast inside and outside the walls of the FedEx Forum.
Gus's Fried Chicken, Front Street, Memphis.
11. But I also know that the woman next to me, a local writer for a gospel-based lifestyle magazine*, knew the rules: that there was no cheering by media. "But I can't help it," she said. "We're gonna lose to this team but I can't help it. So just shake your shoulders a little. That's what we do. We just shake our shoulders a little." When Marc Gasol dunked -- he actually dunked, albeit politely! -- the crowd blew up, Rick Trotter went apeshit and the lady tapped me on the shoulder. She was shaking her shoulders, albeit just a little. I shook mine, too.
I'm not supposed to, but to hell with that. In a city nearly destroyed by floods, yellow fever, racism and at times its own worst habits, there had to be room for a little shoulder shake and an awestruck nod at the tiny suburban white girl on the mezzanine level of the Grindhouse, waving a giant cardboard cutout of Zach Randolph's mean mug like the face of a feared but beloved dictator, beaming like a miniature sun some 80-feet over street level in Memphis, Tennessee.