Posted Oct 25 2009 3:54PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The Memphis Grizzlies are in town, bringing a point guard who might have the largest cult following in the game, and as you might imagine, the natives are buzzing.
Over at Moe's Barbeque in the Lakeview district (do try the smoked turkey before they run out, usually by noon), around Linn Park in downtown and other pockets in this surprisingly upbeat town, folks just wanna know:
"Can 'Bama reach the national championship game?"
"When will the polls show Auburn some love?"
Anxious to escape distractions in Memphis, the Grizzlies came here for training camp, and they are indeed being left alone, for the most part. They were encouraged to shift their camp site by Gene Bartow, a team executive most famous for being the Godfather of basketball in Birmingham. Bartow was the long-time coach at Alabama-Birmingham who turned a rather obscure school into a hoops destination. The trip from Memphis was manageable and convenient. It made sense.
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The folks here certainly have been hospitable to the Grizzlies and Allen Iverson, though at the same time they're letting the visitors know this is a college football town, first and foremost. Make that second and third foremost, too. It's the only game that really matters. There's a reason why every pro football team born in Birmingham ultimately failed (Vulcans, Stallions, Fire, Barracudas) and why, other than the Bartow years at UAB and a run to the Sweet 16 in 2004 under former coach Mike Anderson, the basketball doesn't bounce as high as the football flies.
But if you look closely enough, you'll see an NBA legacy. Two, actually. Both are unforgettable and quite impressive for a town where nine out of 10 people are watching 'Bama or Auburn on Saturday afternoons in the fall, and the other person is taking a nap.
You see, this is where Michael Jordan lived out his mid-life crisis by playing Double-A baseball. And this is the place that gave birth to the Round Mound of Rebound (and Sound), the one and only Charles Barkley.
Some 15 years after he turned in his centerfielder's glove for good, you can still hear the gears grinding from the famous bus that Jordan bestowed upon his star-struck Birmingham Barons teammates, who couldn't believe their luck.
"Actually," said Curt Bloom, the Barons' broadcaster then and now, "that bus was sold just last year, to a private owner in Washington, D.C. For years, people tried to buy it. Michael had signed both doors. That bus was almost as legendary as Michael."
Not since Martin Luther King's Civil Rights marches in the 1960s did any one man attract so much to Birmingham as Jordan did. It was just too irresistible: the then-three-time NBA champ switching careers and spending time in the minor leagues. The old Hoover Met, home of the Barons, became fashionable overnight.
"It was quite a spectacle," said Bloom. "The entire city took to it. There are attendance records that still stand. It was global news. People came from as far away as China. It was the biggest game in town."
For Bloom, at least, nothing beats the memory of going to a local park to play pickup basketball one day during the season and noticing a limo pull into the parking lot. Out stepped a familiar figure, wearing a Nike warmup, with high-tops replacing baseball cleats. It was Jordan, and he wanted to know who had next.
"I remember shaking my head and saying, 'This cannot be happening.' I was going to play with the greatest player ever," Bloom said.
Awkwardly, Bloom threw a pass to Jordan, then tried to set a pick. Jordan was amused and said, "I don't need that."
Until Jordan landed in town, the favorite son of Birmingham basketball was Barkley, born and raised in nearby Leeds. It helped that Barkley stayed home after high school and went to Auburn, where he had twin majors: basketball and buffet. Barkley's personality won him many fans and his play won Auburn many games.
Most important to the folks around here is how Barkley remained loyal to his "Bermin-ham" roots, during and after his NBA playing days. He returns quite often, donating time and money to causes, never turning his back on a place that loves him but, unapologetically, loves college football just a bit more.
The city was built on steel, then developed other commercial and industrial interests, but in terms of sports, the main passion never changed. They do take kindly to their racin'. Talladega will get over 100,000 at the Super Speedway. And minor league baseball causes a ripple now and then.
When autumn comes, though, there's only one thing on the minds of people in Birmingham.
Iverson might be one of the most recognized players in the NBA, still an enormous fan favorite. But if he walks the streets on a Saturday afternoon here in the thick of college football season, this is one time he won't draw a double team.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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