Posted May 6 2011 11:16AM - Updated May 6 2011 6:13PM
MEMPHIS -- You can still walk out of the Rendezvous licking the last traces of the dry rub from the charcoal pork ribs off your fingers, push back from the table at Pearl's Oyster House as the fire of the Hot Shucks on the half shell burn your tongue, and then have it pleasantly doused 'til all hours of the morning listening to blues at The Black Diamond.
But these days it seems that of all the items on all the menus, what the city of Memphis finally is sinking its teeth into are the Grizzlies. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and the rest -- just call them the hottest dish in town. And a long time coming.
"We always talked about what the city would be like during Memphis in May," said Shane Battier, who spent his first five NBA seasons with the Grizzlies and returned to the team in a February trade. "That's the best month of the year in Memphis between the Music Fest and the Barbeque Fest.
"As players, we always talked about, 'Man, what if we made a deep playoff run one year?' With the craziness of Memphis in May and the craziness of a playoff run, what would the city be like?"
It would be like this:
The players happily strutting down South Main Street in the aftermath of their stunning ouster of the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, exchanging fist bumps and cheers outside nightclubs with a suddenly enamored populace.
Horns honking in the streets, "Go Grizzlies!" signs taped up in office windows, horse-drawn carriages decorated in Grizzlies blue, downtown hotels filling up on game nights and the FedExForum finally bursting at the seams with 18,119 white-towel waving fans that have come to see their team.
"Oh, man, [and] not the whole place filled up with those Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and LeBron James jerseys," said Rudy Gay, the injured star who has his left shoulder in a sling and has to watch the party from the sidelines
The Grizzlies sold out only four times during the regular season and those were games against the Lakers, Celtics, Heat and Bulls. Overall, the Grizzlies drew an average of 14,650 per game, ranking 27th in the league.
"The people on those big nights weren't coming to see us," said Gay. "They were coming to see the other team."
Not anymore. With the second round of the playoffs shifting to Memphis this weekend for Games 3 and 4 and the series with Oklahoma City tied at 1-1, the Grizzlies have already sold out five times in the postseason. The enthusiasm keeps building.
"Hey, we've made a connection," said Randolph.
The Grizzlies have connected by playing a tough, rugged, workman's type of game inside the arena they've nicknamed the "Grind House." And they've done it, of course, by winning. When the Grizzlies made three straight playoff appearance from 2004-2006, they went 0-12, getting swept three straight times and losing the faith of the fanbase.
"The fans were there, but then we didn't win any playoff games and there was a lot of negativity written about the organization and the ownership," said coach Lionel Hollins, who had twice previously served in an interim role. "Then they imploded the team, trading J-Will (Jason Williams) and (James) Posey to Miami and got rid of Bonzi Wells and Lorenzen Wright.
"Then we traded Shane and the team just changed like that overnight and became a very young team. By not winning, it caused the fans to become alienated. There are only a few cities that that doesn't happen and now that we've started back to have success, they've come back and they've come back in maybe a bigger way because we have won in the playoffs.
"I like to think they'll stay, because of the style of play and the way these guys are unselfish, play together and just come out and work hard every game. I think it's the way you establish a concrete fan base that's higher than normal.
"I was in Portland and saw it happen. I hadn't been there for the first seven years of the franchise. For seven years they never made the playoffs and in that seventh year (1977) we make it in and we're not drawing that many fans. We're in a 12,000-seat building and not selling out.
"But as the team got closer to making the playoffs, people got interested. And then we win the first round and they got more interested. Then going all the way and winning a championship, Blazermania became forever. So it's something that definitely can happen in Memphis."
The city of Memphis always has appreciated basketball. Good basketball. There is a history that goes back to the ABA days of the Memphis Sounds and Tams and Pros. It's Melrose High and Overton High and Johnny Newman. The Memphis high school ranks crank out as many Division I college players as any big city the nation.
It is the tradition established by the University of Memphis -- then Memphis State -- dating back to the 1973 NCAA Tournament. The Tigers under coach Gene Bartow and led by Larry Finch made a run to the championship game where they lost to UCLA in John Wooden's final game. Memphis went back to the Final Four under Dana Kirk in 1985 and again in 2008 with John Calipari and Derrick Rose.
The Tigers ranked eighth nationally in college basketball attendance last season, drawing 16,498 per game, even though they were never in the top 25 and played in the NIT. It was nothing to see a huge crowd show up for a game against Rice one afternoon and then see the Grizzlies play before a half-empty house the next night.
Since relocating from Vancouver in 2001, the fact that many in the NBA looked down their noses at the Grizzlies didn't mean that Memphis wasn't a good basketball town and couldn't become a successful franchise. When the talk in the labor negotiation turns to possible contraction of teams, the Grizzlies and their fans are often one of the first to be placed on the cut list. Or offered up for relocation due to lack of interest.
"That's wrong. It's not understanding," said Battier. "You just can't fool them with bad basketball. That's what I learned in my first five years here. You can't fool them with t-shirt giveaways and bobblehead dolls to fill the building. You've got to put a product on the floor."
Many of the city's business leaders and most of the fans didn't believe team owner Michael Heisley was doing that. On one hand he was thought to be cutting corners. On the other, he was thought to be too involved. He was the one who pushed to sign Allen Iverson prior to last season. That move was a disaster. So was the decision to make Hasheem Thabeet the No. 2 pick in the 2009 Draft.
And, of course, there was the trade that sent center Pau Gasol to the Lakers in 2008 for what was viewed as a pocketful of beans. But the ensuing moves are what assembled the core of the current roster.
"It's part of the business. You're gonna get whacked if you're a coach or front office executive in the NBA," said general manager Chris Wallace. "It's an occupational hazard.
"We had a plan about what we wanted to do when we traded Pau and we were willing to wait it out. I'm just so happy for Mr. Heisley, who's pumped an awful lot of money into this team over 10-plus years. There are people who have been in this organization dating back to the Vancouver days. And I'm happy for the fans of Memphis, because this is a great basketball city. I don't think there's another city in the south that has a richer basketball tradition."
Even other NBA players have looked down on Memphis. When Gay signed his $84 million contract extension with the Grizzlies last summer, he received text messages from many of his buddies around the league offering their condolences.
"They didn't get it," Gay said. "They didn't know how good this could be. I knew."
Now everyone is learning. Sales of season tickets have shot up more than 125 percent from the same time last year. There are Grizzlies "watch parties" all through downtown for the spillover crowds that can't get their hands on what is a suddenly sizzling ticket.
Memphis in May: Blues, barbecue and basketball.
"It was always one of those, 'What if?' questions," said Battier. "To live it now and experience it, this is sweet. Man, it's awesome."
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