MikeCheck: ‘Checking In’ during NBA hiatus with Grizzlies superfan Michael Zepatos
For now, the games have ceased as league players, team officials and fans continue to cope with the global Coronavirus health crisis that’s forced the NBA’s hiatus.
But for the Grizzlies and the league’s 29 other teams, the business and spirit of the game forge ahead as franchises try to make an impact in their communities during these challenging times. When the season was suspended March 11, Memphis was positioned to make the playoffs for the first time in three years as one of the NBA’s youngest and most rapidly improving teams.
Whenever the season resumes, count on the Grizzlies to be ready.
Meanwhile, the organization continues to prioritize the health, safety and security of the franchise and the region it calls home. Grind City Media will use this space each week to ‘Check In’ with the Grizzlies, their biggest fans and the community as they endure this hiatus together.
GCM checks in this week with Grizzlies MVP season-ticket member Michael Zepatos, a regular at FedExForum for nearly a decade. Zepatos, 34, is also a member of the family that owns the historic Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis.
Grind City Media: Share a little about your background, what line of work you’re in here in Memphis and how you first became a huge fan of the Grizzlies?
Zepatos: I was born and raised in Memphis, and lived here my whole life. Our family owns the Arcade Restaurant, and I’m an associate vice president over at Raymond James. I went to a Grizz game or two back at the Pyramid when I was, oh, I don’t know how many years old. And about nine or 10 years ago, I got season tickets on the club level and gradually moved down. Back then, it was just something fun to do. I really started doing some research on the players, and I really became a hardcore fan about seven years ago. I now go to about 70 percent of the home games, and usually several away games, two or four a year. Sometimes even more.
GCM: At what point did you get hooked on this team? How did it go from being a casual event at FedExForum to becoming a true fan love affair with the Grizzlies? What was it about the team at that time that you particularly latched onto?
Zepatos: I really think it was when we made the playoffs in 2012 and played the Clippers. We were a fourth seed in the West. It was actually right before those playoffs when I really got into it. It was Zach Randolph back then and Mike Conley and those guys. And when you saw them on the floor and how that team really represented Memphis, I think that’s what really got me hooked and into it. Pretty much ever since then at the Forum, we’ve pretty much been there.
GCM: Having followed the Grizzlies closely this year as a fan, what do you miss most right now about watching Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., coach Taylor Jenkins and this exciting team?
Zepatos: The thing that really sucks about this is – well everything does at a time like this – but we were going to make it to the playoffs. We had gotten that eighth seed, and the energy was back in the arena for those home games. It really felt like a playoff atmosphere in the building. Everyone was into every single game. The crowds were cheering and it was packed. Every time the iPhone calendar pops up with the Grizz schedule, me and my friends immediately start texting, ‘There was supposed to be a game tonight!’ or ‘I wish we were at the game tonight.’
Being there in that atmosphere is big. Watching the players walk onto the court. Even watching the games on TV if it’s an away game. On that note, I was supposed to go the Denver away game this week. It’s just the plans, the atmosphere and the camaraderie. And it really felt like we were going to make the playoffs this year. And then it all just totally stopped.
GCM: In what ways has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your family or work, and how have these challenging times maybe fostered more of a community and teamwork mindset for you?
Zepatos: Obviously, it’s impacted everyone worldwide. As for us short-term, the restaurant can’t be dine-in right now. So we were only doing takeout and delivery. We actually temporarily closed as of about three days ago. But it is temporary, and we are going to re-open. The traffic patterns just aren’t there, and they shouldn’t be there right now because we all need to self-isolate. And that’s very important. But just day-to-day life has stopped. We’re doing daily happy hours on Zoom conference calls. Everybody is working from home, you’re not seeing anybody.
It’s a total lifestyle change. We have people message us on Facebook, saying they wish they could come eat with us at the restaurant, or they miss coming out for our brunch. That’s kind of cool to see. But from that standpoint, it’s had a toll both personally and work-related.
GCM: Reflecting on the season, what are two or three moments that most stand out to you?
Zepatos: What was really exciting to me was that this was supposed to be a rebuilding and rebranding year for the Grizzlies. And just about everyone as a fan was ready to accept that. Me, too. We got a new coach, a new front-office. Taylor Jenkins came in, and we’re one of the youngest teams in the NBA. So when the season started, everyone thought it was going to be a mediocre year, for lack of a better term. And it totally transformed. Hopefully we’re playoff-eligible. We got to that eighth seed before everything stopped. And just seeing the fans and team come together, that’s the coolest thing about this year.
And as far as moments, seeing Ja jump over Kevin Love was amazing. I loved that. But what I liked a little bit better was the January home game against Cleveland, when Jae Crowder passed the ball at the rim and Ja just caught it and slammed it through the net on a play toward the end of the game. That’s my top moment of the season, because it happened right in front of me. That was one of my all-time highlights. It wasn’t intentional at all, but worked out perfectly.
GCM: From your perspective as a fan, if you had a message to share with any member of the Grizzlies team as they cope with the NBA hiatus, what would it be?
Zepatos: I’d say it to every player, but to Ja, specifically: Keep your spirits up. We love you. I definitely think you were the top contender for NBA Rookie of the Year. You got Rookie of the Month three months in a row. I just cannot believe this (ordeal) is happening. I hope none of these opportunities or this season get taken away because of the crisis from this virus.
GCM: Lastly, when this all clears and NBA basketball is back, what do you imagine those feelings will be like for you when you enter FedExForum for that next Grizzlies home game?
Zepatos: Oh, my friends and I were talking about it on Zoom two days ago. It’s always so fun to walk into the Forum. The energy around it, when the game starts, when the fire shoots out from the goals, when they start yelling every player’s name, the crowd is cheering, the energy is contagious. Well, I shouldn’t say contagious; that’s a bad term right now. But the energy, it’s just so exciting. It’s so exciting to be at games with your friends and fellow fans. I can’t wait.
It’s kind of weird, because you were used to going to the arena two or three times a week and then summer hits. And you don’t go for four or five months. Then it’s October, and the season is back. It’s that same sense of euphoria. But it’s going to be that times a thousand. Plus, we’ll be able to escape our houses, eventually, again hopefully. So that’ll just add to the excitement.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.