Memphis is famous for barbeque, Beale Street and Blue Suede Shoes. Each of those has helped produce some of the finer institutions in the city including brisket, bourbon and, when the King was around, Burnin’ Love.
If there is one area where Memphis has failed to captivate the masses, however, it is basketball – at least the professional variety.
Yes, it’s true that a fanatical group of perhaps 150 natives – give or take a few (very few) – remember those glorious days of the Memphis Sounds, Memphis Tams and Memphis Pros. Those forgettable teams set what has to be a pro sports record with three nicknames in five seasons.
But the American Basketball Association departed meekly in 1975, and the pro game did not return until 2001 when a poorly run Vancouver team that lasted only six years in Canada relocated to the River City.
On the surface, Memphis pro ball is a pretty ragged story. But on the court, something special could be happening.
A major step occurred last year when the Grizzlies won the first playoff series in the 16-year history of the franchise. It was a victory of grand proportions – seeded eighth in the West, they eliminated top seed San Antonio.
It is true the Spurs were handicapped by an elbow injury that limited the effectiveness of Manu Ginobili. But the Grizzlies played without Rudy Gay, their second-leading scorer who had averaged 19.8 points in the regular season. Gay was sidelined by a shoulder injury.
Initial success in the playoffs can often be a forerunner to a team advancing from a playoff participant to a legitimate contender for a championship, but that didn’t happen immediately. After 28 games this season, Memphis was 14-14.
But the coaches and players had a wider view. Memphis had to play 37 games without Zach Randolph, its leading scorer last season. Randolph had had an injury to his right knee and did not return until March 20 when the Grizzlies were beginning a stretch of eight games with seven on the road.
The team had begun playing well when Randolph returned, but head coach Lionel Hollins had to integrate the burly forward and newcomer Gilbert Arenas, signed as a free agent, into the lineup.
After three starts when Randolph averaged only 13 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 41 percent from the field, Hollins decided to bring Randolph off the bench and start 24-year-old Marreese Speights, who was acquired from the 76ers in January.
The Grizzlies responded by winning nine of their next 11 games that included victories in Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles against the Lakers.
Suddenly, the Grizzlies took that step forward they hoped to take at the beginning of the season.
“We’re just playing well, peaking or whatever it’s called,” Hollins said. “We’re just playing well. We’ve got Zach back and I think once we changed the lineup and started bringing Zach off the bench . . . it just fits. He’s gotten in better shape and is playing better and it gives us a lot of depth on our bench with Gilbert Arenas and O.J. Mayo.
“We’re able to sustain a lot of runs when we go to the bench because they can score. We’ve been off to better starts offensively and it gives Mo Speights a chance to get into the game early and he’s played really well. He’s rebounded very well for us and it’s just the right time to be playing well.”
The Grizzlies have the components to make – as strange as this may sound even to Memphians – a deep playoff run.
Gay has returned healthy and demonstrated his considerable skills as a player, scorer and athlete. He leads Memphis in scoring at 18.6 a game.
The Grizzlies have outstanding talent at the two key positions – first-time All-Star center Marc Gasol (9.4 rebounds and fourth in the NBA in blocks at 1.9) and point guard Mike Conley (11th in assists at 6.7) . Speights has filled a complimentary role in the starting lineup and has provided offense at times. He had a season-high 25 points against the Lakers on March 13.
Tony Allen is an elite defender and leads the Grizzlies in toughness. And the bench with Randolph, Mayo and Arenas provides ample firepower.
The Grizzlies also were not satisfied with the success they had last year, even though it was unprecedented in franchise history. The win over the Spurs was sweet. Taking Oklahoma City to a seventh game before losing in the conference semifinals was educational.
“Every time you go through any kind of journey that’s difficult and you achieve a lot, you always benefit,” Hollins said. “You know you can do it.”
The Grizzlies know, however, that last year is obviously not pertinent right now. And experience means nothing without a significant performance this season.
“No matter what we do and no matter how much success we have, we’re still going to have to prove ourselves,” Gay said. “And I like being in that position. I think everybody on this team likes being in that position, not expected to do anything. And every year we keep getting better and better.”
In the West, a list of contenders begins with the Spurs, Lakers and Thunder and may even include the defending champion Mavericks as a courtesy. The Grizzlies are sometimes mentioned as an afterthought, but nothing more.
They may not be quite strong enough to win three series and get to the NBA Finals. But if they play their best, they are good enough to make one or more of the championship contenders end the season all shook up.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.