Posted Dec 28 2011 6:57AM
Interesting how the Grizzlies drew the Thunder, of all teams, for their home opener Wednesday night, expected to be the biggest event in Memphis since last summer when these teams staged a cardiac playoff series.
Let that marinate a bit. Not the part about the Grizzlies and Thunder engaging in an epic series, although that was somewhat unexpected.
No, the part about a regular-season game being a Big Event in Memphis, where sellouts are less common than Elvis sightings.
Is this the same Memphis that tuned out the Grizzlies for the better part of a decade, the same Memphis that chipped in to put the Grizzlies in a financial squeeze, the same Memphis that yawned when the basketball world voted the Grizzlies as one of the Most Likely Teams To Be Contracted?
Well. In the wake of a playoff run that grabbed the city by the throat, the Grizzlies are suddenly a hot topic in town. There's a sense this small market team has big things in store. And that's comforting for an organization that recently wrote considerable contracts to four players who'll eat nearly $55 million of the payroll this season. Given the rather shaky history of local support for the Grizzlies, was this a wise business move? And about this sudden support, how genuine is it?
"We saw how crazy those games were and how it meant a lot to the fans," said Rudy Gay. "All summer long, people have been waiting for the next Grizzlies game. That's the way it should be in this city."
That's actually a reason to be cautious. This "hysteria" is from a three-week stretch in the spring when the Grizzlies made the Spurs look old, then took the Thunder to the limit in a series helped by a triple-OT thriller. Before then, the Grizzlies were still getting the same-old treatment from Memphis despite winning 46 games; they finished 27th out of 30 in home NBA attendance.
Owner Michael Heisley, anxious to keep the hype alive, extended the contracts of Zach Randolph (four years, $66 million) and Marc Gasol (four years, $58 million). With Gay (five years, $84 million) and Mike Conley (five years, $40 million) also with long deals, the Grizzlies have their core wrapped up. (The odd man out is O.J. Mayo, who'll likely be traded or allowed to walk next summer.) It was a strong statement made by Heisley, who always maintained he'd spend on the right players.
"Everybody's been taken care of," Randolph said.
Now we'll see how long the Grizzlies are taken care of by Memphis. The team and city have had an odd and mostly detached relationship. As the only pro team in town, the Grizzlies often found themselves playing second to the University of Memphis. In the last five years the Grizzlies ranked no higher than 27th in home attendance and once were dead last.
Of course, the attendance was tied to the product on the floor, which wasn't much. The Grizzlies didn't make the playoffs four of those years and suffered initially from the Pau Gasol trade, although that doesn't look so bad today. Heisley was so worried about attendance that he reached and signed a beyond-his-prime Allen Iverson against the wishes of almost everyone in the organization. Yes, the owner was that desperate.
The decision to draft Hasheem Thabeet with the second overall pick in 2009 threatened to set the franchise further back but gradually the pieces fell in place: Randolph, Gay, Conley, Gasol, along with Tony Allen and a few other vital role players.
"They put together a good team for us," Gay said.
Now comes the hard part. Now, we'll see if the Grizzlies can succeed on the floor and at the gate, neither of which can be taken for granted. Was last spring a fluke? It could be they simply caught fire at the right time and their key players, mainly Randolph and Gasol, were on a roll. Or maybe they're a legit division title contender and will only get better with Gay, who missed the playoff fun with a bum shoulder.
As for attendance, they'll find out soon enough if that was a fluke, too. Season ticket sales did soar by a few thousand and Grizzlies fever is at an all-time high. After losing Game 7 to Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies were met at the airport by a swarm. Gay took pictures of the scene, just to have evidence. Maybe they're hooked.
"The whole city of Memphis came around and took us to the next level," Gay said.
The performance by the team and the fans was either an indication of the future or a cruel tease. This season will tell for a team and city with much to prove.
"We have a team that can make a run at a championship," Conley said. "And we have the fans behind us."
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