Monday, December 6, 2010

Things are Looking Up

Posted By on Mon, Dec 6, 2010 at 7:45 AM

It would be difficult to find a happier fortnight in recent Memphis sports history: Over 13 days (November 20th to December 2nd), the Grizzlies beat the Miami Heat and the reigning NBA-champion L.A. Lakers at FedExForum, the Tiger basketball team won three games to climb to a ranking of 14th in the country, and FedEx reunited with the local PGA tournament to solidify the longest-running pro sports franchise in the city. Oh, and the Tiger football season ended.

If you count local sports among your mood variables, things should indeed be cheery and bright this holiday season. Our NBA team may not have all-world talent taking turns with the basketball, but would you really prefer to be a Miami basketball fan these days? Win, and you're merely holding court. Lose, and the whole world has an opinion about why. The Grizzlies, it would seem, are building a competitive team -- still among the youngest in the league, mind you -- the old-fashioned way. Teammates are learning how to complement each others' strengths, a star (O.J. Mayo) has moved to a supporting role without a trade demand, and new talent (Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez) is working its way into the rotation seamlessly. An effort worth cheering.

As for the return of FedEx as the title sponsor for our 52-year-old golf tournament, you have to wonder how the two parties ever split. It's as natural a fit as peanut butter and bananas, dry rub and popcorn. A distinctly Memphis fit that works in ways no FedEx Cup -- the PGA Tour's attempt to create a year-end champion -- ever will. Golf fans paying attention after the PGA Championship in August need to be introduced to football. But golf fans in Memphis have devoted their support (be it through ticket sales, sponsorship, or volunteering) to the St. Jude Classic as if their reputations as Southerners depended on it. FedEx recognized that long ago, and has once again embraced the idea of attaching its brand to all the love. I can't imagine the city of Memphis without FedEx. And I can't imagine Memphis sports without its PGA event. This is a marriage meant to be.

* I'm fascinated by Michael Vick and LeBron James. Not so much by their exploits as athletes, as I've gotten used to each of them doing things no one else on the planet does. But they are rarities, in that each has played the role of societal villain. And we now find ourselves debating whether to root for one is healthy, or if booing is the predictable ride on a bandwagon of negativity.

Vick killed dogs, on purpose. That's cruel, evil. He served time in prison for his behavior, as he should have. And now, in quarterbacking the Philadelphia Eagles, Vick is playing better than he ever did as an Atlanta Falcon, and stands a reasonable chance of playing in Super Bowl XLV next February. From scheduled exercise to the Lombardi Trophy in less than two years? I'm no Eagle fan, but I'm drawn to the complexity of cheering this star.

Then there's LeBron. The NBA's two-time MVP did precisely what capitalism teaches us to do, if we're able to find career success: pursue comfort and happiness. But in doing so, he publicly departed the only region he'd called home for the first quarter century of his life. In most fields, a local hero departing for greater glory, riches, and fame would be applauded, and would continue to be celebrated as a "native son" back home. (New Orleans Saints fans don't boo Eli or Peyton Manning every time they face the home team.) But in the case of "King James," the divorce has soiled whatever joy a seven-year marriage once brought. Not since Anakin Skywalker -- a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- has a hero been draped with a villain's cape so suddenly. Like Vick, James reminds us that sports heroes are built beyond their statistics, salaries, or even championships. It's all too human, and it's why we keep watching.

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