MikeCheck: ‘Checking In’ during NBA hiatus with Memphis icon and Grizzlies exec Elliot Perry
The NBA has now been on hiatus for more than a month as league players, team officials and fans continue to cope with the global Coronavirus health crisis.
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.
The first round of those playoffs were scheduled to start this weekend. But 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 uses 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 Memphis sports and community icon, Grizzlies Foundation board chairman and franchise minority ownership partner Elliot Perry.
Grind City Media: What was your mindset early on as one of the first public figures involved with the Mid-South Food Bank, Memphis Athletic Ministries and other organizations amid COVID-19 relief efforts to distribute 14-day food packages throughout Shelby County?
Perry: Having a family myself, my wife, daughter and I were home just talking and thinking of something we could do to help, whether big or small. We knew most people would be pressed in terms of food. We knew the shortages going on in the grocery stores. And we knew some people were under pressure, maybe having lost jobs as everything was shutting down. We reached out to the Mid-South Food Bank about these 14-day boxes. We started partnering with others to join us. Justise Winslow just got here to the Grizzlies and wanted to get involved in the community. So we also talked to his brother and his mom and got that collaboration going.
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403 FAMILIES SERVED. Today was an Amazing Awesome Day as we were able to partner with @streetsministries & @midsouthfoodbank to serve 403 families in the Graham Heights neighborhood. Thanks to @sucasamemphis and Streets staff for volunteering and thanks to @2pcmemphis for providing all volunteers masks. In serving 403 families in the Graham Heights neighborhood, it’s always powerful to witness the power of Service in our community. I again want to thank the anonymous donor who helped make this happen. @streetsministries thank you for your leadership and impact in those communities you serve. #godisgood #helpingothers #streetsministries #midsouthfoodbank
GCM: What were sort of the next steps in terms of organizing and making sure families in need were able to drive through and get access to the food boxes in a safe and timely fashion?
Perry: On that first day handing them out, we knew we had a little over 400 of the 14-day boxes we could distribute. And that first day we did it, we didn’t realize the need – well, we knew there was a big need, but didn’t realize how much need was there. So that first day, we did 225 boxes. But we turned away at least 70 cars. We had run out of food. A week and half later, we were able to do more and distributed to 300 cars. Other people started joining and it was a big up-tick in people wanting to give to the Food Bank. We got an anonymous $10,000 donation, so we are able to do it three more times. We have another one this month, and another in May.
We’ve been able to set up drive-through distributions in Memphis, Frayser, Graham Heights and we’re looking to do one in Orange Mound and also the Soulsville area. I think there will be six in all, just trying to find good partners and communities where we know the need is there.
GCM: How challenging is it to be among those on the front lines at a time like this? How do you and other organizers balance prioritizing your own safety with also being readily available to help meet such significant needs for those most impacted in our communities?
Perry: I’d be lying if I said you’re not fearful of catching something. So we make sure we stress safety with the masks and gloves, social distancing. Honestly, we got better at it the more we did them. We pre-pack the boxes before we get started with cars coming through, to make sure we have that distance as we’re putting boxes in cars as they’re going. But it goes back to simple acts of kindness and just caring about people. We all want to help in our own little ways and try to be selfless in giving whatever resources you have, and that’s with money or time.
GCM: You’re involved in the community at many levels, starting when you were a star athlete who was born here and played for both the Memphis Tigers and Grizzlies. You’re a philanthropist, businessman, board member of mentoring programs in the city. As Memphis tries to return to normal on the other side of this pandemic, what are some key steps to take?
Perry: That’s a hard question. It’s just going to take some time. We have to get comfortable with going to large gatherings again, whether that’s going to restaurants, basketball games, football games, all those things. These are things we didn’t even think twice about doing before, we just did them. Even with going back to school. We just need to follow guidelines as best as possible to maintain peace and hope. And at some point, we’ll get a vaccine to attack this thing and let this curve trend downward, particularly in our (African-American) community.
And then there’s also leadership needed to make some decisive decisions on when schools are going back, when restaurants and business are opening again. Be patient. It’s going to take time for everyone to feel comfortable.
GCM: You’ve mentioned the schools several times. As board chairman of the Grizzlies Foundation, which runs multiple outreach and mentoring programs, why is it more vital to maintain these programs while many schools are now closed for the rest of the school year?
Perry: We’ve been meeting regularly on conference calls with our MENTOR Memphis Grizzlies staff to make sure we keep finding ways to stay connected with our students and mentees. We’ve looked at Zoom and Skype and figured this is one of those times to try it. It’s been an important connection. It allows us as mentors to stay connected with the mentees, but also gives our mentees the opportunity to stay engaged with everything, too.
And what we’re doing now is adjusting even more to simply talk about what’s going on in life. We’ve been making those relationships more organic and working with what we’re all going through instead of saying, ‘we’re going to talk specifically about this today.’ We want to talk to our mentees about how they’re doing, how their families are doing. But also reiterate what makes this mentoring space so important. How are we handling these tough times? Tough times don’t last, but tough people do. How do we execute those things outwardly? Hopefully, we can continue to stay connected with our young men, mentees and students out there.
GCM: Drawing on your days as an NBA player and working for the NBA Players Association, how crucial it is for the players and league to remain united on potential plans to resume games?
Perry: It’s very important everyone is on the same page. Because when this thing breaks, it may be two or three weeks or more when things are back into play – if they are back in play at all. I’ve been impressed with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s leadership in considering all the possibilities that could take place. In terms of all of the discussions that I’ve heard or have been part of, they’ve been open to any and all of these possibilities.
Players just want to play. I’ve been in a lockout before, and although this is not one, it feels sort of like a lockout. Players just want to lace up, but it’s important that, right now, they continue to find ways to work out, eat the right things, staying not just physically in shape but mentally in shape, because it could be a quick turnaround. A lot of that can be reiterated with leadership, coaches making sure they stay engaged and in contact, making sure they’re trying to do the right things. You think about the nutrition plans and making sure the nutritionist are checking in with guys. All of those things are important for when and if we do come back.
GCM: Next month marks the one-year anniversary since you represented the Grizzlies at the Draft Lottery, when Memphis landed the No. 2 pick used on Ja Morant. The previous year, you were at the Lottery when the Grizzlies got the No. 4 pick used on Jaren Jackson Jr. What were those moments like in retrospect? How have you seen those two handle the NBA transition?
Perry: I’ll start with Jaren. I know that year, our chances were higher to get the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, but we knew No. 4 was in play as well. I wasn’t disappointed at all, but I knew some fans may have been disappointed that we didn’t get higher, given the percentages we had. I knew we would get a really good player. Looking back, other than Luka Doncic, Jaren has proven to be ahead of the curve. Trae Young has also played very well in Atlanta. But Jaren had a really good rookie year. This year, he got off to a bit of a slow start, but, man, he’s really spread his wings even more as the season progressed.
This past year, I really didn’t go into the Lottery with any expectations. Our percentages were low and more than likely, we were going to get the No. 7, No. 8 pick. But being on that stage when it started to trend our way, there was so much excitement. Not just from a personal standpoint, but an entire organizational standpoint. The draft is about luck, but about timing, too. When you get a high pick, you want the players in that draft who are going to have the highest impact. So as you watched, I was excited when No. 4 and No. 3 went off the board, because we were going to be either No. 1 or No. 2. I just started clapping. I remember Patrick Ewing looking over to me and he says, ‘You don’t even know if you got No. 1 yet, and you’re clapping.’ And I said, ‘Because I’m good with it either way!’ I knew either way we’d be getting a game-changing player. We got the best fit for us in Ja. And we’ve got two young guys who will be with us for some time as the cornerstones of this team.
GCM: If you were asked to speak to Grizzlies players as well as the fans right now, as we get through this challenging time, what would you most emphasize?
Perry: I’d say pretty much the same thing to both groups. Stay the course. You can clearly see we’re building something. We have a culture now. We have an identity that we had to rebuild from the Grit’N’Grind days. All of the things that make up a good franchise with stability, we think we have everything in place. Be committed and stay the course as we continue to grow. To the fans, many thought this would be a four, five or six-year rebuild from the success we had with Grit’N’Grind. It was going to be hard to tear that thing down and rebuild it. But we got lucky in a couple of ways in the draft, and that pushed us forward. Also having the right coach in place with Taylor Jenkins, and the front-office staff and how they approach it, we’re on track.
In the ownership meetings I’ve been in with them, the information and direction they give is as crystal clear as I’ve ever seen with any of our other ownership meetings. Stick with us. We see the beginnings of something good.
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.