Memphis has the reputation of being a basketball town. The catch is that Memphians have always expected their teams to win. The University of Memphis Tigers have spoiled them into thinking that winning is everything -- that is, until this week. Something miraculous happened here this weekend, and it had nothing to do with the score of yesterday's Grizzlies/Thunder Game #7.
A bit of background: the NBA's Grizzlies franchise has never been a real contender in the record books. After the initial euphoria over having a professional team playing here in a brand new arena, attendance was spotty for years. It's never been a problem to get Grizzlies tickets. The more important question was how cheaply they could be had.
But something happened this year. A group of players who were not overly enthusiastic about being here decided to become a team -- a real team who played hard and enjoyed doing so. And slowly, the rankings started to improve. There was no chance, of course, of making the playoffs -- until at the last moment, the playoff berth was within reach. An overflow crowd watched in amazement as the Grizzlies won the game that catapulted them into the playoffs as the number 8 seed in the western division.
Being number 8 had its drawbacks. It meant that they had to play the first seed, San Antonio, in the first round. They didn't have a chance of winning that series. Fans said that just making the playoffs was enough. The more optimistic ones thought it would be nice of the Grizzlies could win one of those playoff games. Just one win would be enough. And win they did, over and over -- eliminating the top seed and moving on to the semi-finals. Then came the seesaw of emotions as two teams traded victories. Game 5 went through three overtimes before the Grizzlies tired and faltered. They were through. Except they weren't. Exhausted though they were, they came home to play the sixth game in front of their hometown crowd. Fans who gave up early (and I was one of them!) missed the stunning come-back victory that re-tied the series.
Fan support was incredible. Growl towels and headbands sprouted everywhere, along with signs reading "Believe" all over town. They opened the FedEx Forum yesterday so that fans who could not travel to Oklahoma City could watch the final game together. Fans filled sports bars and emptied grocery store shelves to throw watch parties that rivaled those of Superbowl Sunday. Everything stopped in Memphis in honor of that game.
And the Grizzlies won! No, not the game itself. They won the admiration and gratitude of a city -- a city in the middle of a hundred-year flood -- a racially and politically divided city -- that desperately needed a reason to come together as a single entity. The Grizzlies did that, and everyone knew it. Fans cheered the team even as they went down in defeat. Over 1000 people met them at the airport last night to say "Thank You" one more time. We are all better this morning because the Grizzlies taught us a lesson about believing in the impossible.