You could feel the excitement in the Plaza Club on that warm afternoon in March 2001, when the mayors and members of the NBA pursuit team announced that Memphis was going to get a real professional sports team at long last.
"A new beginning in the history of Memphis," Mayor Willie Herenton said. "It will be amazing how much we will have for this community," Shelby County mayor Jim Rout said. FedEx would buy the naming rights for a new arena. Not one but two NBA teams applied to move to Memphis.
What? You say the Plaza Club no longer exists? So it goes. The important thing is that the Grizzlies are still around and open their 10th season in Memphis Wednesday night. Pro sports is a gamble. Some things about the Grizzlies and FedExForum turned out well, some not so well. How did it work? Here's a 10-part answer to the NBA's ten-year run.
Memphis is major league. After 30 years of futility, the goal of NBA Now was to get a team. To ignore the magnitude of this is to forget all those Memphis teams in the ABA, WFL, and USFL. The Flyer's story on the March 2001 announcement ran next to a half-page ad for "Memphis Maniax Fan Appreciation Weekend" and the big XFL battle featuring Tommy Maddox and Jim Druckenmiller. Instead we got Pau, Kobe, Shaq, and Lebron. Enough said.
FedExForum is a big-time building. And, so far, property taxes have not gone into it. Downtown developer Terry Lynch calls it "a shining example of a public/private partnership. It's a phenomenal building. I wish we could do more like it."
The financial indicators are troubling. The recession took a billion-dollar bite out of First Horizon, Regions Morgan Keegan, and FedEx, three of our local sports sponsors, ticket buyers, and corporate big hitters. As an exercise in masochism, I compared the 2005 and current stock price of First Horizon ($33, $9.50), Regions Financial ($33, $7), and FedEx ($104, $89). We are not as rich a community as we were when the arena was built.
The attendance trend is troubling. In the financing plan, the average attendance was pegged at 14,900 and the "worst case" at 10,700. Grizzlies attendance peaked at 16,862 in 2005, bottomed at 12,745 in 2008, and rebounded to 13,485 in 2009. Those are tickets sold and distributed, not butts in seats. Not for nothing do the legal documents address attrition, buyout, relocation, and termination payments.
The Pyramid is a major-league headache. It will cost at least $50 million to reuse. Some say its debt should have been rolled in with the cost of FedExForum, but it wasn't, and now we have an empty monument at the north end of downtown that is going to be hard to retrofit.
Tiger basketball: good for FedExForum, bad for Grizzlies. John Calipari came to Memphis in 2000. From 2000 to 2009, the Tigers won an average 27 games a year, went to three straight Elite Eights, and had a .750 winning percentage. From 1990 to 1999, the Tigers won an average 18 games a year and their winning percentage was .592. The Tigers routinely sell out, and fans have gotten to see Rodney Carney, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans.
The ripple impact was disappointing. Phil Jackson may have been harsh in his comparison of downtown Memphis to Dresden, Germany, but the fact is Union Avenue between Danny Thomas and the Peabody is bleak, and we still have a bus station, not a new convention center. Beale Street got a bump from the Westin Hotel, but Peabody Place is essentially closed.
FedExForum is a good casino fighter. At 13,000 a game for 41 pro games and 17,000 a game for 16 Tiger games plus concerts, that's a lot of money that stays in Memphis instead of Tunica.
Bonding is bull. A Final Four run by the Tigers or a playoff win (yet to come) from the Grizzlies would create excitement and warm feelings, but sports is not civics. The consolidation vote will show how "One Memphis" we really are.
The best may be yet to come. In 2001, nobody foresaw the arrival of Jerry West and Hubie Brown. If Dirk Nowitzki misses that jump shot or Chucky Atkins makes that layup, the Grizzlies break the playoff jinx and maybe things are different. It could still happen.
The consolidation proposal and the contested August election in which local Democrats lost several races have sparked some strong language that's reminiscent of the turbulent 1960s.
One of those doing the talking, no surprise, is blogger and radio host Thaddeus Matthews, who says "power brokers" are out to undercut black voter clout. "Some people need to go to jail" over the election, he says, and if they don't, then it could be time to "economically shut this city down." As for Memphis mayor A C Wharton, "we'll take care of him next year" when he runs for reelection, Matthews says.
It must be noted, of course, that Matthews loves controversy, shoots from the lip, and was an enemy and then an ally of former Mayor Willie Herenton, who got slaughtered by Congressman Steve Cohen in the Democratic primary. He is routinely called a race-baiter, vulgar, fat, Thud, and much worse.
What's significant is that Matthews made the above comments in a church filled with a church crowd — middle-aged or older men and women and several mainstream Democrats and former public officials, who greeted his nine-minute speech with loud applause and cries of "that's right." His baritone delivery was measured, coherent, and effective. Flyer reporter Jackson Baker attended the meeting and wrote about and recorded it on his "Politics" blog. One of those cheering on Matthews was sheriff runner-up and Cohen buddy, Randy Wade, who, after joking about all the names Matthews is called, said "that N-word is my friend."
Anti-consolidation sentiment is running nearly as strong in some parts of the black community in Memphis as it is in suburban Shelby County. The Shelby County Democratic Party opposes it, as does a biracial coalition of eight Shelby County Commission members. This is prime fodder for Matthews' blog and his radio show on WPLX-AM 1180. The fact that he's on the same side of the issue as people who hate his guts doesn't bother him a bit.
"What does consolidation do for the African-American community? Nothing," said Matthews, who lives in Shelby County just outside the Memphis city limits. "It's total disenfranchisement. If you already have the power base, why would you give it up?"
Matthews, 53, says he was "born radical." He was attending all-black Manassas High School and playing first trumpet in the band under noted musician Emerson Able when school busing started in 1972. He was bused to majority-white Frayser High for his senior year, relegated to third trumpet, told to sit in the back of the auditorium with the other black male students, and got suspended for leading a walkout. He wound up graduating from Northside.
He started blogging in 2005. He took a three-month hiatus this summer to work on his radio program and resumed blogging this week.
"I'm listed as a racist," he said in an interview in his office in the Pinch District. "I have never said black folks should hate whites. On my show yesterday I said it's not the white man's fault. We have allowed certain things to happen because of our black leaders. We want to give all of our money to the black church, and we have not prepared our community to be economically viable."
His favorite targets are Wharton, "old fossils" on the NAACP, parents who let their kids wear baggy pants to school, and consolidation. He is organizing a meeting this week on Beale Street for youth, with no politicians allowed.
"There is no One Memphis," he says. "That was just a PR statement. White Democrats had a choice in the August election, and they crossed over and voted Republican. They bloc-voted. I think the African-American community has to bloc-vote too."
Democrats lost several local races to Republicans and are expected to lose congressional seats in November. If it stirs the pot, it's fine with Matthews. On his website this week, he promises to post about blacks who played a role in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
"Tell all your friends," he says on the website. "I'm about to kick ass again and bring you the documents no one wants to see."
You take on the 800-pound gorilla at your peril.
Nike is the 800-pound gorilla of athletic shoes and apparel, especially in Memphis. It has 1,500 employees here and a warehouse that processes 53 million pairs of shoes a year. It has MJ and Tiger, Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. It has an $11 million deal with the University of Memphis. It has even bigger deals with most of the Southeastern Conference schools, except a certain school in Knoxville. It even has deals with high schools. It has $20 billion in annual revenue.
But no guts, no glory. Hell, Nike started with Phil Knight selling track shoes out of a van and Bill Bowerman making urethane soles in a waffle iron in his kitchen. Which brings us to the made-in-Memphis documentary film, Sole of a Hustla, which was released in September.
Produced by venture capitalist and filmmaker Bob Compton (who also did the schools critique Two Million Minutes), it tells the story of Game Time Athletics and four young Memphis men with very little business experience or higher education and a good idea.
The idea was custom-made sneakers that could be designed and delivered in small batches to local schools and sold for $60 a pair as a fund-raiser, the same way kids sell wrapping paper or chocolate bars.
A few years ago, Compton got a cold call from Checliss "Big C" Rice, who dreamed of if not being like Mike at least being a little bit like Nike.
Compton, a Harvard-educated venture capitalist, thought a black-owned company selling shoes to local schools seemed like a great idea that would fill a missing niche in the Memphis economy.
So he made a big bet on Game Time Athletics and "Big C" Rice and his three partners.
The initial successes, surprises, and eventual disappointments are unflinchingly chronicled in Sole of a Hustla. Inspired by the phenomenal popularity of "Air Jordan" shoes, Game Time started its own line of shoes manufactured in China and pitched them to high schools, including Mitchell, Kirby, East, and Northside.
The brightly colored creations were called "spirit" shoes.
Rice predicted sales of $50 million within five years. But there were problems almost immediately. Bookkeeping was shoddy, orders went unpaid, and some of the football shoes had design flaws that made the cleats come off. Compton eventually lost $350,000. The movie ends with Compton and Rice in a tearful embrace in their empty office in downtown Memphis.
"Every time you go into a startup, there is a high risk of failure," Compton said in an interview this week. "We didn't fail because of a lack of creativity or energy on the part of Big C or the team but because the team was spread too thin and because we were pioneering a new concept. So it took longer for customers to understand the value proposition.
"Starting a business is hard," Compton added. "Starting a business if you are African-American is really hard. There are no role models or avenues to financing sources, and they didn't really have the strong math skills you need to manage cash flow and balance statements."
Surprisingly, the shoes sold better at some private schools than they did at inner-city schools.
"Students at inner-city schools don't feel much school loyalty," Compton said. "It turned out to be a very hard sell. By the time kids are in high school, Nike has locked their brand into their brains. They would rather have an Air Jordan."
Game Time, which once had deals with 20 schools, is a T-shirt company today. One partner founded his own shoe design company, another started a catering business, and a third is managing a retail store. Compton and "Big C" are still friends.
"Everyone found other opportunities," said Compton, who has moved from Memphis to Washington, D.C. "And everyone learned from the experience."
Bernard Richmond is a one man downtown image wrecking crew.
Last weekend, Memphis police say, he attempted to rape a 24-year old woman in the first-floor lobby of a parking garage at 60 Madison Avenue, across from the University of Memphis Law School.
First, he asked her for money, but investigators believe the panhandling was a ruse for the assault. A parking-lot security guard heard the woman’s screams and drove off Richmond, who was arrested nearby at South Fourth and Gayoso a few hours later. He is in jail on $125,000 bond after a court appearance Monday. The woman was not injured. The attack occurred at approximately 2:30 a.m. Saturday.
The attempted rape is the second one this month at the parking garage. It sets back efforts by the Center City Commission, Mayor A C Wharton, and Memphis police to convince the public that downtown is as safe or safer than any neighborhood in Memphis. The law school was hailed as a catch for downtown when it moved earlier this year from the University of Memphis campus into the renovated former customs house and postal inspection station.
It also fuels the fears of downtown residents who see aggressive panhandling as something more than a nuisance. It won’t help efforts to bring Pinnacle Airlines and other businesses downtown to fill up empty office buildings or attract tourists to the riverfront and Beale Street. And it defies the compassion of advocates for the homeless who argue that criminalizing panhandling is uncalled for.
In April, the Memphis City Council passed an ordinance cracking down on panhandling downtown. It limits panhandling to certain zones downtown where there are police and security cameras. Council members and staff said the measure drew more calls and comments pro and con than anything they had done this year.
According to the police report, Richmond, 45, “approached the victim as she entered the parking garage lobby, grabbing her in a bear hug, dragging her to the rear of the lobby.”
He pulled her underwear down and pulled down his own underwear and attempted to rape her. When the parking-lot security guard intervened, Richmond fled.
Richmond has a long arrest record, including previous charges of attempted rape and aggravated sexual battery. He has also been arrested for panhandling, robbery, disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana, criminal trespass (eight times), driving without a license, evading arrest, theft, burglary (two times), violation of parole, carrying a pistol (two times), and contempt of court (five times).
He is also not smart. His latest attack was captured by video surveillance. Col. R.L. Shemwell of the Memphis Police Department said Richmond told officers he had just been released from jail on September 20th, but public records say September 17th. He was indicted in February 2008 on a 2007 robbery charge.
“He is not a panhandler,” said Larry Bloom, manager of public safety for the Center City Commission. “He used that as a ruse to get her to come close to him, and then he tried to rape her.”
Bloom said the CCC will not change its panhandling policy in light of the Richmond incident. By ordinance, there is no panhandling allowed in non-exempt areas, after 7 p.m., or inside buildings.
“He [Richmond] is an outlier,” he said. “Most of our guys are active during the day and maybe until 11 or 12 at night. Passive panhandlers are not a problem. Homeless are not a problem. Research shows, and we have confirmed, that only a small percentage of homeless panhandle, and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless. There’s a core group of about 25 guys that we deal with.”
Bloom said increased police presence has made a difference. But defining the three or four areas where panhandling is permitted “has taken longer than I thought it would,” because it is hard to satisfy downtown stakeholders and advocates for the homeless and passive panhandlers. “Nobody wants them anywhere, but you can’t do that because it is protected free speech,” he said. “There will be a learning curve for everybody.”