On Saturday night, the Memphis Grizzlies will not only host a conference finals game for the first time in franchise history but will also host, arguably, the biggest sporting event in the city's history. At 5-0 on their home floor so far this post-season and after recovering from a rough first seven quarters to force overtime in a Game 2 loss in San Antonio, the Grizzlies and their fans have plenty of hope for extending the series. But, down 0-2, the prospect of the team's season ending in Memphis on Memorial Day is a real one. And with culture-changing folk hero Tony Allen entering free-agency this summer, there's at least a small chance that we could be witnessing more than just the waning days of a playoff run.
Under Allen's manic influence, the Grizzlies and their fans have developed one of the league's more colorful cultures. For the benefit of those around the broader NBA community turning their full attention to Memphis for perhaps the first time, here's one reporter's alphabetical guide to Griz Land:
"All heart. Grit. Grind." — The origin of contemporary Griz culture, from February 8, 2011, in Oklahoma City:
This now-legendary interview came after a 105-101 overtime road win in which the Grizzlies were playing without ostensible stars O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay. Tony Allen, new to the team and barely in the rotation for most of the first two months of the season, scored 27 points, had 5 steals, and sent the game to overtime with a three-point play in the final minute of regulation.
At the time, it was as much about performance as phraseology, and the best, if largely forgotten, moment — Marc Gasol interrupting Allen's courtside soliloquy for a little head tap of deep gratitude — is unspoken. But this is what launched Allen into the cherished Memphis continuum of subcultural characters and rough-edged raconteurs, with the likes of Sputnik Monroe, Dewey Phillips, and Rufus Thomas.
This was a man who emerged as a transformative on-court force, beloved teammate, and fan fetish object after beating up a teammate in a minor gambling dispute; who turns playing basketball — and, more so, cheering from the bench — into a form of expressive, lunatic performance art; who, obviously, delivers ridiculous, inspirational post-game interviews that evolve into citywide rallying cries; and who generally approaches everything in life with a loopy joie de vivre that reminds us why we enjoy this stuff so much.
Maybe a few dozen fans exulted in the moment on Twitter as it happened, with local radio's Chris Vernon Show turning the audio into a recurring soundbite the next day. But this cult classic didn't become best-seller until later in the season. (See: "Tony Allen T-Shirt") These days, "grit, grind" always seems on the verge of ossifying into a used-up cliché, but the man they now call the Grindfather won’t let it.
Allen Iverson — The only player in franchise history — league history? — to never play a home game and still have his jersey pop up in the playoff crowd.
"Ante Up" — Tony Allen’s self-selected theme song is Future’s “Go Harder,” which now emerges from FedExForum speakers at appropriate moments. But this 2000 ode to desperation and thievery from Brooklyn rap duo M.O.P. is the people’s anthem. On the court, Allen is known to kidnap fools.
Barbecue Nachos — Memphis can turn anything into barbecue: Pizza, spaghetti, salad, baked potatoes, even beer. The signature concession grub at the Grindhouse takes the basic sports-arena nachos and piles it high with smoked pork (or chicken, if you must), sauce, and dry spices. Provided by downtown institution Rendezvous.
Big Spain — The nickname by acclamation for the Grizzlies' DPOY man in the middle, though I prefer The Changeling. The team's owner (see: "Robert Pera") chooses to go with "The Most Interesting Basketball Player in the World":
"Blue collar player, blue collar town." — This was the moment Memphis fell in love with Zach Randolph. After scoring 17 fourth-quarter points in a home Game 6 against the Spurs to give the franchise its first playoff series win, Randolph greeted sideline reporter Doris Burke with a post-game paean to getting what you got the hard way and making it better each and every day that might have been written by Grizzlies' season-ticket holder David Porter, the songwriter behind “Soul Man.”
Memphis rallies around rough edges, sharp elbows, colorful personalities, and generous spirits. The city relates to bad reputations and bruising, bumping redemption stories like Z-Bo, who doesn't just seem like someone who's found a home in Memphis. He seems like someone who's from here. As he said to Burke, "It's a fit."
#busthisbuttmarc — The real origin of that early season tête-à-tête between Zach Randolph and Kendrick Perkins? Marc Gasol putting Perkins in the spin cycle, prompting Randolph's mocking exhortation, to which Perkins took offense. Now fans echo Z-Bo in hashtag form when Gasol applies advanced post technique to a hapless defender.
Celebrity fans — The Lakers have Jack. The Clippers have Billy Crystal. The Knicks have Spike Lee. The Nets have Jay-Z and Beyonce. The Heat even have Jimmy Buffett. If you really want to stretch it, the Grizzlies can claim minority owner Justin Timberlake, who made the scene at one game this season. And wrestling legend Jerry Lawler and Super Bowl quarterback Joe Theismann, both Memphians, might show up when they're in town. But the real courtside celebrities at most Grizzlies' games are a self-described Middle-Aged Cracker Rapper and his Trophy Wife, "Lil Country," and a used-car impresario who doesn’t care about your credit but cares about you. Classing up the joint of late: The Bongo Lady and Her Embarrassed Son — an attorney-by-day, with eye-rolling sidekick, who was discovered drumming her little heart out when the team tested out a "Bongo Cam" earlier this season.
The Conley Correlation — So declared for the tendency this season for the Grizzlies to go as their emerging-star point guard does.
"Demarcus" — For a few years now, a mysterious North Memphian named Demarcus has been a semi-regular caller to The Chris Vernon Show. At playoff time, he expresses himself in song on game days. During the 2011 run, he was on a Tom Petty kick. "I Won't Back Down" was his chosen war whoop, though he also encored with "Free Fallin'," which became "Freakin' Baller." This postseason, his song choice — Queen's "We Will Rock You" — is pretty hackneyed, but Demarcus has put his own guileless spin on it ("We will salivate you!"), and when he adds an encore, look out. A sports-talk yeti who has never been seen, Demarcus has uncomprehendingly fended off charges this season that's he's been "catfishing" the Griz faithful ("If I'm not me then who am I?"). But the results speak for themselves: The Grizzlies were 8-0 this postseason on days Demarcus has appeared and sang before Tuesday night's overtime loss finally broke his streak. Here's Demarcus giving a command performance live on-air before Game 3 against the Thunder.
#feed50 — The Twitter drumbeat when Z-Bo gets going, as in the fourth quarter of Game 5 against the Clippers.
The 5/5 Rule — My own attempt to impose order on Tony Allen's game early in his Griz tenure: No shots unless he's within five feet of the basket or there are fewer than five seconds on the shot clock. That three-point attempt in overtime Tuesday night? An illustration of the merits of the 5/5 Rule.
The Grindhouse — The moniker of choice for FedExForum, naming-rights be damned. Everyone says it now. Players, broadcasters, writers. The idea has been widely misattributed to Tony Allen. It actually came from a local fan, Ryan Hamlin, who tweeted Allen the suggestion and was conferred a blessing.
Growl Towels: The Grizzlies' spin on the old "terrible towel" conceit, with slogans growing bolder this postseason, from the original "Believe Memphis" to the separate "Grit" and "Grind" to the nervier "We Don't Bluff," which was used only because "I'll Beat Your Ass" was probably a bridge too far. (Though, as Tony Allen's grand Game 1 performance suggests, sometimes we do bluff.)
Hamed Haddadi —In retrospect, probably the biggest cultural casualty of the Rudy Gay trade. The NBA's first Iranian player, Haddadi became an unlikely cult hero in Memphis one night against Cleveland, where he laid out Lebron James with a pick, dunked on Shaq, gave the greatest locker-room quote in team history ("I drop-step. I go around Shaq. I dunk that shit."), and then walked into a downtown bar to a standing ovation. Victories were always a little sweeter with Haddadi celebrating on the sideline. Put it to a referendum, and Griz fans would probably award Haddadi with a playoff share.
"He wit us" — Indelible Tony Allen trash talk. In theory, when faced with an opponent whose shot you don't respect, you feign defense only to turn and head in for the rebound as their shot is going up, muttering "He wit us" as you do. Mostly apocryphal, but I swear I saw Allen do this to Tyreke Evans in a game once.
The Ibakas of the World — Code for all the role players in the league that must be contained in addition to their team's stars. (See "All heart. Grit. Grind.") In this series, Danny Green, Matt Bonner, and Kawhi Leonard are Ibakas of the World who have troubled the Grizzlies.
"It's just basketball." — Lionel Hollins' common, exasperated response to reporter questions he deems overly analytical. Hollins is one of the league's best coaches, but he may not follow predecessors Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello down the broadcaster trail. The battle-cry corollary Hollins submits to his on-court charges: "Go play."
The Norma Rae Moment — Their team down heading into the fourth quarter of Game 3 against the Thunder two years back, the Grindhouse crowd collectively got the idea to stop waiving their "growl towels," as had been the intended use, and instead hold them stretched out above their heads, defiantly displaying the slogan "BELIEVE MEMPHIS" like some kind of unintentional homage to the famous scene in the 1979 film Norma Rae, in which Sally Field's heroine stands on a workbench and holds a "UNION" sign up to her textile-mill co-workers. It was at once corny and touching, and when the Grizzlies came back to win that game — if not the series — in overtime, a tradition was born.
Ol' Man River — Charles Barkley’s more-brilliant-than-he-knows nickname for Zach Randolph, bestowed in tribute to Randolph's "old-man game" and the way he keeps rolling along against younger, more athletic competitors. (They get weary, and sick of trying.) Particularly appropriate given Memphis' perch on the river the song refers to as well as the song's own treasured local history.
Old-school Jams — The Grindhouse probably isn't the only arena that plays Tag Team's 1993 hip-hop hit "Whoomp! (There It Is)" when things are going well in the fourth quarter or the Gap Band's 1982 R&B banger "You Dropped a Bomb On Me" after big wins. But, in Memphis, we love that shit like it came out yesterday.
Robert Pera — The Grizzlies new, young engineer-turned-tech-entrepreneur controlling owner doesn't love the spotlight like his predecessor Michael Heisley did, but that doesn't mean he isn't a colorful character in his own, quieter way. Two hours after his first public introduction in Memphis, Pera and his pals were out on the team practice court, putting up shots. At his next press conference, later in the season, Pera and team CEO Jason Levien addressed the media in matching Griz track suits, in apparent tribute to Ben Stiller and his sons from The Royal Tennenbaums. Most recently, playoff fever has inspired Pera to tweet out his own photoshop creations. (See: "Big Spain.")
The Rudy Gay Trade — The NBA's version of a Rorschach test.
The Shane Battier Memorial Baseline Jumper — Since dealing Battier for Rudy Gay in 2006, the Grizzlies have made scant use of one of the game's most efficient shots or the corner three's mid-range counterpart, both Battier specialties in his Grizzlies days. Potential inheritors such as Dahntay Jones and Sam Young offered faint imitations, and the SBMBJ was coined in honor of this rarely seen and even more rarely made shot. It was a little disorienting to see Battier himself lofting SBMBJs in his 36-game 2011 return engagement. But, happily, this year reserve wingman Quincy Pondexter has become an emerging master of the SBMBJ, fulfilling the prophecy of Young MC — as Orange County Register beat writer Dan Woike nicely put it this spring — with his work from the corners.
Strotential — Potential destined to never be realized, coined in dishonor of former Vancouver Grizzlies #2 overall pick Stromile Swift, who tantalized through two tours of duty with the franchise. Strotential bit the team hard in the 2009 draft, when the Grizzlies passed on James Harden, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, and Ricky Rubio to take Hasheem Thabeet. A current mystery is whether gifted teen guard Tony Wroten Jr. has potential or merely Strotential.
Thirsty Dog — Tony Allen's own description of his defensive style, and a justification for breaking the 5/5 Rule. Sometimes thirsty dogs gotta drink.
Tony Allen T-Shirt — For an agonizing little while, this could have referred to Allen’s miscue in Game 5 against the Thunder, when an errant warm-up shirt hit the floor, giving the Thunder an ill-timed four-point play. But the Grizzlies won that game, so now this still means the original gray grit grind. Tony Allen T-shirts are a cottage industry in Memphis. But this is the real one. Come to any Grizzlies' game and you will see them everywhere.
Tony Allen's Twitter — When Tony Allen writes his memoir, it will be in tweet form. And, like Allen's handle itself, it will be in its own, fully understood only by Allen code. Visit aa000g9 — "Anthony Allen, #9." You'll be forgiven for thinking the middle section means Allen's a "triple OG." It apparently really means he started from the bottom and now plays for the Grizzlies. — for live tweets of fender-benders with middle-aged white ladies ("She called her goons. Lol"), channel-surfing confusion (his mid-film discovery of Pulp Fiction is a personal fave), and other moments ripe for Allen's own Curb Your Enthusiasm-style sitcom.
Rick Trotter — The Grizzlies' growling public-address announcer has become a League Pass love-him-or-hate him for his spirited calls ("Shot clock: Violated!"). But can your team's PA guy knock out a strong national anthem and then live-tweet games while commanding the mic?
"Turn the water off." — Tony Allen's oft-used metaphor for shutting down his man. Solace for opponents who have had Tony Allen cut off their utilities? Z-Bo might be willing to help.
"Whoop That Trick" — The Grizzlies were heading into the final season of an initial three-year playoff run when Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer's rap-scene parable Hustle & Flow was released. "Whoop That Trick," the would-be-rapper protagonist's signature song, courtesy of longtime local fixture Al Kapone, didn't quite fit the personality of what was then a Pau Gasol/Mike Miller/Shane Battier-led team. But the song's menacing three-note keyboard riff with skittering counterpoint has remained an in-game staple ever since; a Memphis shibboleth, recognized by many, but still under the radar.
For some reason — the ease of transforming the title chant into "Whoop That Clip?," the desire for vengeance the playoff rematch with the Clippers provoked? — the song materialized as an arena chant this postseason, crowd response growing game to game during the normal dispensing of the beat. Then, in Game 6 against the Clippers, the team's mascot, Super Grizz, climbed to the top of a ladder at center court, unfurled a banner that read "FINISH THEM," and the beat dropped, with now 18,000-strong chanting "Whoop That Trick" in unison. It was a little nuts, and now, nearly 13 years later, an unexpected playoff anthem.
At the next home game, a visiting writer asked me if there were people who took exception to the "Whoop That Trick" chant. I assumed he meant around the league or even within Grizzlies' organization. "No, in the crowd," he said. "This is the Bible Belt." This never occurred to me. In Memphis, even the church ladies are down for a little trick whoopin'. But as my man Kevin Cerrito pointed out, the Grizzlies have also discovered, in Game 1 down in San Antonio, that sometimes they can be the trick.