If AOL's 32 million subscribers clicked on "Sports" Tuesday, they got a picture of Jason Williams and a story about the Memphis Grizzlies' win over Sacramento. That's the kind of "Big Time" publicity boosters were talking about when they brought the team here.
So how's it going elsewhere on the publicity front after the NBA's first month in Memphis? All in all, not so bad, particularly if you are of the just-spell-the-name-right persuasion.
Locally, WMC-TV general manager Howard Meagle is pleased with early television ratings for the Grizzlies. The regular season opener on November 1st drew a 12.5 rating on what Meagle called a night of "incredible competition," including the World Series. That was the only game televised so far on WMC-TV, although other games have been televised on affiliate Channel 50. Those games, Meagle said, have drawn a 5 in prime time and a 3 to 4 in afternoon slots.
The best is yet to come. In December WMC-TV will televise the Grizzlies' games against Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards and Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had kind words for Memphis and Grizzlies part-owners Staley and Andy Cates last weekend under the headline "Memphis Develops Into A Major Player":
"The Soulsville project is yet another high-profile enterprise in the continuing makeover of Memphis. A city with a rich cultural history, it long seemed reluctant or unable to play in the same go-go league as such aggressive Atlanta wannabe brethren as Charlotte, Nashville and Jacksonville. It's playing now. The city's first major-league sports franchise, the NBA Grizzlies, was lured from Vancouver this season, with a new $250 million downtown arena expected within the next few years."
The Wall Street Journal's Stefan Fatsis is a doubter:
"With few rock-solid markets left, the risk of trading one weak one for another grows. The NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies just moved to Memphis. Vancouver was a reasonable, if failed, Canadian experiment. Can the NBA succeed in Memphis, the nation's No. 41 TV market? The Griz are supposed to get a new arena and a new nickname, but attendance, so far, isn't encouraging: 19,000, 13,000, 11,000. Elvis is already leaving the building."
In Minnesota, Judge Harry Seymour Crump indirectly gave comfort to Memphis NBA backers in an order banning the owner of the Minnesota Twins from moving the team (with a name like Crump, we shouldn't be surprised):
"The welfare, recreation, prestige, prosperity, trade and commerce of the people of the community are at stake ... Baseball crosses social barriers, creates community spirit, and is much more than a private enterprise. Baseball is a national pastime."
Sounds like a blueprint, if not an actual citation, for the Memphis response to the Duncan Ragsdale lawsuit still on appeal.
The Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger doesn't have a Grizzlies beat reporter but does give Memphis top billing in its Associated Press roundup of NBA results. The Tennessean of Nashville covered the home opener with a feature by writer Joe Biddle:
"It was the second coming of Elvis, a full slab of Rendezvous ribs, and some sweet soul music rolled into one. It was ushers spit-polished in tuxedos, Memphis native Justin Timberlake of 'NSync with a stirring national anthem, and Memphis blues man Isaac Hayes making women go limp as he got way down with 'God Bless America.'"
Then Biddle gets down himself with a little analysis.
"Memphis long has been a hoops hotbed. Kids grow up learning a crossover dribble before their ABCs."
Oh? Has he been looking at our young hoopsters -- or our school report cards?
The Tennessean doesn't have a Grizzlies beat reporter, but Middle Tennessee NBA fans are now getting the Grizzlies on TV instead of the Atlanta Hawks. Fox Sports Net has added a 20-game package this season as part of a three-year contract. The number of telecasts increases to 25 in each of the next two years.
In Louisville, Kentucky, they're approximately where Memphis was one year ago in the NBA courtship. But the mayor and Board of Aldermen are sharply divided over the merits of a new arena, which, of course, is the price of admission.
"Mayor Dave Armstrong's office has been working for three weeks with a private consultant on a financing plan for a pro basketball arena in Louisville," says the Louisville Courier-Journal this week. "The consultant, The Goal Group of Washington, D.C., is the same firm that a committee of the Board of Aldermen voted against hiring last week. The committee's recommendation is scheduled to go before the full board tonight [Tuesday]. But Steve Magre, the board's president, said yesterday that he would table the discussion because he doesn't believe there is enough support on the board to build an arena -- let alone hire a consultant."
The Goal Group was recommended by Memphis officials, who used the firm to help lure the Grizzlies.
As you might expect, there's not much cheering in Vancouver.
"Hey, the Grizzlies open their NBA regular season schedule tonight," wrote columnist Gary Kingston of The Vancouver Sun. "In the Pyramid in Memphis. Against Detroit. Of course, that's if you still care. Don't care anymore? Don't worry. It's a widely held view."
The Sun didn't send Kingston or anyone else to the opener, which may explain things. Bet a few complimentary beers and some barbecue would put his mind right.
Give Avron Fogelman credit for this much: At least he forced Memphis to face up to the consequences of standardized testing and put forward a clear, if politically unpopular, way to respond.
That's more than Memphis City Schools superintendent Johnnie B. Watson, the board of education, and some kibitzing state lawmakers did this week. Instead, they veered into the safe harbor of political correctness by bashing Fogelman, challenging the validity of standardized testing, parsing the meaning of the word "failing," and blaming optional schools. In a key public test of his leadership on the testing issue, Watson straddled the fence.
As everyone now knows, Fogelman, an outspoken Memphis businessman and state board of education member, suggested the bar be lowered for Memphis City Schools on the Gateway tests required for graduation three years hence. Or else, he suggested in light of available evidence including recently released school report cards, seven out of 10 students could fail.
At Monday's board meeting, Lora Jobe submitted a letter to the state board objecting to Fogelman's suggestion. Her colleagues unanimously signed on. But sometimes unanimous agreement is not what it seems.
Jobe wants Memphis students to pass the tests, period. With help, she believes, they can do it. The Class of 2005 gets three chances a year to pass Gateway tests in algebra, English, and biology. Jobe said it would be "an insult" to lower the standards for MCS.
Sincere as they come, Jobe is possibly not the best person on the board to act as spokesperson for a hard-line position on testing. She and colleague Barbara Prescott come from the affluent, highly educated Grahamwood Elementary and White Station High School optional school population that breezes through standardized tests. Inner-city schools with a high percentage of low-income families have a much tougher row to hoe.
Optional schools may even be part of the problem, suggested board member Lee Brown, because they are magnets for high-achievers. Brown, elected to the board last year, wants to take a fresh look at the 25-year-old program, acknowledging that his own children were among its beneficiaries.
Board member Carl Johnson questioned the validity of standardized testing which grades students and schools on a bell curve so that 50 percent are either "low-performing" or "failing." Johnson said his problem is not so much with the tests as with the "interpretation" of the results, especially when some 75 percent of the students in MCS are on free or reduced-price lunch.
As Johnson spoke, Watson vigorously nodded his assent. Last week the superintendent seemed to react favorably to some of Fogelman's comments, but by Monday he was preaching his familiar theme of "you can't compare city and county schools" and warning of the dangers of "high-stakes tests."
What Watson, or anyone else for that matter, did not do was utter a single word in defense of such tests, which have been a well-established fact of life in Memphis and Tennessee for 10 years. The tests themselves have been studied, revised, studied some more, and revised again. The grading has been fine-tuned. The Gateway tests are not graded on a curve; theoretically, at least, everyone can pass. A passing score in biology, for example, is a mere 22 out of 62 questions. And, yes, it is possible to flunk the course and pass the test and graduate.
Why should Watson rise to the defense of testing? Because for better and for worse, preparing for such tests is now a standard part of the curriculum in every city school. A case can be made that the curriculum is test-driven. Some optional students begin practicing for college entrance exams in the seventh grade. Elementary schools identify the specific skills that will be on the standardized tests and give students test-taking tips and practice. Watson himself unilaterally threw out his predecessor Gerry House's free-lancing "reforms" in favor of a more standardized curriculum in elementary reading and math in an effort to raise test scores.
One of the calmest and most sensible comments at Monday's board meeting came from the youngest member, Michael Hooks Jr. He suggested inviting Fogelman to come and have his say. If Fogelman will do that and stick to his guns instead of bending to political pressure, he could prompt a useful civic discussion of such questions as why more than 60 Title I schools in Memphis are NOT on the failing list, why a school that raises its scores from a 25 to a 49 should be called a failure, and whether the handful of seniors who were denied diplomas this year will be multiplied by 100 or so in three years.
Maybe Memphis will have a graduation debacle on its hands in three years, or maybe everything will be all right. But the possibility of a train wreck is not unreasonable given past performance, and Fogelman should not be vilified for saying so.