During the Grit and Grind Era - the run where Zach Randolph told people bullies got bullied where he was from and Tony Allen kicked people like Chris Paul in the face - teams didn’t really enjoy playing the Memphis Grizzlies. It was a physical brand of basketball (even without the face kicks) and the team took pride in being “in the mud” both offensively and defensively. It helped the Grizzlies build the most successful run in franchise history (so far) and take a major step in establishing the type of generational fandom in Memphis that results in long-term viability for an organization in a city.
The Ja Morant Era (AKA #GrzNxtGen) has all the potential in the world to surpass what Grit and Grind was - for better or worse.
This truth was on full display Friday night in Los Angeles, when television personality Shannon Sharpe was involved in an altercation with Grizzlies players Dillon Brooks, Morant, Steven Adams, and even Morant’s father Tee. Things apparently were squashed - between Tee Morant and Sharpe, at least - but the fact remains that Sharpe (a noted fan of LeBron James of the Lakers) was not impressed with the way Memphis has handled themselves.
Shannon Sharpe spent halftime in the tunnel with security before returning to his seat for the third quarter. He granted ESPN a brief interview explaining what happened with the Grizzlies on his way to his seat: pic.twitter.com/XZNw6sQhEG— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 21, 2023
And Dillon Brooks was not a fan of Sharpe...and tried to act as if he didn’t know who the “Undisputed” host was.
Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks on Shannon Sharpe: “I ain’t talking about that. You can ask him. He’s the blogger or whatever he is. I don’t really care about all that. Next question.” pic.twitter.com/xaMEOA9pEU— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) January 21, 2023
The “up the chimney” mentality that Memphis has adopted as part of the audacity that Ja Morant brings to the team on the floor means that smoke will certainly come your way. And after one of the best season’s in franchise history in 2021-2022, plus the strong start to this campaign, teams are no longer surprised by what the young Memphis team can do on the basketball court. They are well aware of the scoring acumen of Desmond Bane, of the defensive prowess of Jaren Jackson Jr.
And as their game against the Lakers showed Friday night, more and more people are aware of their “trash talking” ways.
Some of this is overblown - the proverbial old man yelling at the cloud. Memphis is the exception to the rule in terms of being one of the NBA’s youngest squads (their rotation, the injured Danny Green excluded, got YOUNGER in the offseason) while also still being one of the Association’s best. They act their age at times...they love to dance. They also love to make it clear they are more than comfortable in their own skin. It is part of the reason they are one of the NBA’s best home teams with a record of 20-3 - the fewest amount of home defeats in the entire league.
But when they take the show on the road, the success is less present. They are 11-12 after they fell-short of a historic comeback in a loss against the Suns, starting off a 5-game road trip with two consecutive losses. This comes after a franchise record-tying 11-game winning streak.
This isn’t as bad as, say, the Golden State Warriors (6-18) who have an issue with the Grizzlies - or even the two teams Memphis lost to over the weekend (Lakers are 9-14 on the road, Suns are 7-17). But when Memphis loses, the meaning is seemingly amplified these days. There’s a growing sentiment among fans - especially online - similar to that of Shannon Sharpe. That the Memphis Grizzlies, actually, are not “about it”.
Ja and Dillon Brooks practicing their dancing at halftime to get them ready for a comeback pic.twitter.com/YsjNGPpafr— andrew leezus (@AndrewLeezus) January 23, 2023
Ja Morant is a generational talent, a player about to have a shoe debut nationally for the largest athletics outfitter on the planet in Nike. The rest of the team is having far more success than they should be having, from a historical standpoint - outside of the Boston Celtics (who feature Al Horford as a veteran presence) no team has won as much with key players being so young since the Oklahoma City Thunder of a decade ago. That squad had guys like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden - surely you’ve heard of them.
That level of productivity and overall impact on the league is on the table for the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s possible. But it hasn’t happened YET - no Finals appearances, no extended stays in the postseason past the 2nd round. So despite being one of the winningest teams in the calendar year of 2022 in the NBA, and all the youthful exuberance that the Grizzlies possess, there’s a growing section of NBA fandom that loves to hate this Memphis team.
It’s perhaps more of a sign of arrival to contender status than any other.
Chris Paul - who had a large hand even in his 18th NBA season in cooking the Memphis Grizzlies in the first half on Sunday - is one of the very best point guards to ever play basketball. He also is disliked by many basketball fans. Remember the Tony Allen kick? That was almost APPRECIATED by a majority of people at the time. LeBron James is perhaps the greatest basketball player of all-time, but saying that among a large section of NBA fans will lead to a visceral reaction. Even a player as currently great as Nikola Jokic is not immune to “hate” that isn’t actually hate, whether it is about how “worthy” he is as a rising all-time great or his comments about dressing professionally for games.
And of course, outside of the sizable Warriors fanbase, a wide group of NBA fans would be OK if Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and company didn’t get back to the NBA Finals again. That group would undoubtedly include Grizzlies supporters.
Part of “arriving” is people not liking how you did it. Memphis is built almost exclusively from within and devoid of traditional “veterans”. No one that has played a minute for the Grizzlies this season is over the age of 29. Morant, Bane, Jackson Jr., Brooks...80% of the Grizzlies starting five was drafted by the Memphis franchise. Brandon Clarke and Ziaire Williams are key rotation pieces that were also selected by the Grizzlies in the NBA Draft. They’ve established a “standard” on the floor that is fun, that prioritizes transition offense, strong defense, and their personalities reflect their youth. It’s why more and more kids rock Ja Morant jerseys. Why Nike is interested in Morant as a part of the next generation of the NBA beyond Paul and James.
And it’s why, as the Grizzlies further cement their status as contenders in the months and years to come, the “hate” will continue to grow.
A common refrain among those speaking against Memphis is how they have yet to win “anything”. This is of course untrue - the first division title in franchise history, while less important in the NBA than in other pro leagues, isn’t “nothing”. Nor is 56 regular season wins, or the ability to say your franchise has legitimately gotten better year to year for three consecutive seasons with a roster younger than most of the others in the NBA. Usually teams whose three best players are under the age of 25 are NBA Draft Lottery bound. Memphis has Western Conference Finals expectations...and they’ll continue their journey toward that goal in a way that is uniquely them.
And the slow but sure roar of disdain over that reality will be just another reminder that these Grizzlies have arrived.
Like it or not.