How often are we in the right place at the right time? Human nature is such that we gripe about the “wrong place, wrong time” if we so much as get pulled over for speeding. As though the decisions we make — and the pressure we put on a gas pedal — have nothing to do with making a situation “wrong.” But how often do we pause long enough to recognize that we’re in precisely the right place, and at precisely the right time?
Wearing my sportswriter’s hat, I’ve had this feeling a few times over my career. The first NBA game hosted by the Memphis Grizzlies (November 1, 2001) was one such occasion. Any of the five 200-yard outbursts by the Memphis Tigers’ DeAngelo Williams at the Liberty Bowl made me feel as though I was seeing something I’d never see again (he kept surprising me). And attending the 2004 World Series in St. Louis with my dad — I left my sportswriter’s hat at home for this one — was the right place and the right time, and profoundly so.
But sporting events, by necessity, are scripted. We may not know the outcome or who the next hero will be, but we know when the game will be played, and where. (Ticket sales are important.) Forgettable games, alas, are more common than the 2000 Pacific Coast League championship at AutoZone Park.
I traveled to Washington, D.C., in March with my family, an essential pilgrimage for parents with children of a certain age. The visit was my daughters’ first chance to walk in the footsteps of George Washington (at Mount Vernon), Barack Obama (we arranged a tour of the rooms the Secret Service still allows the public to see), and even Robert E. Lee (at Arlington House). From the viewing room atop the Washington Monument to the balcony of Ford’s Theatre, our nation’s capitol provides the most “I’m really here” settings per square mile in the entire country. Right place, easy. But right time?
On March 15th, during a convenient window of our five-day tour, we took the D.C. subway to Arlington Cemetery. The objective was to see Arlington House, the resting places of the Kennedy brothers, and a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, one of the more goose-bump-inducing ceremonies on American soil.
Upon being seated in our shuttle, though, a guide informed us that the Tomb of the Unknowns would be closed to the public for the remainder of the day. He reminded my family and our fellow travelers that Arlington remained an active cemetery, and that a funeral was taking place that afternoon. We were asked to kindly respect the family of the deceased, however inconvenient the altered plans may seem. We appeared to be in the right place, only the wrong time.
And that’s when my family became a part of history. The funeral, it turns out, was for Mr. Frank Buckles, a gentleman who had died 16 days earlier, not quite four weeks after his 110th birthday. You probably know the name by now: Frank Buckles was the last living American veteran of World War I.
While the ceremony for Mr. Buckles was private, the public was invited to gather quietly across a narrow paved road that runs alongside the Tomb of the Unknowns. Not far from the markers that honor the astronauts lost in the two space shuttle explosions, my family and I were able to say a personal goodbye to a man who was first discharged from the Army two years after John F. Kennedy was born. With a military band standing at attention, Buckles’ flag-draped casket was carefully placed on a horse-drawn caisson. Rarely in my life has silence seemed so heavy. This was the right place and precisely the right time.
If the fates allow, my daughter, Elena — born 101 years after Frank Buckles arrived on this earth — will someday tell her grandchildren that she witnessed the funeral of a World War I veteran. Her grandchildren in, let’s say, 2060 will have a difficult time with the math, the first Great War having been over for more than 140 years. The span of a normal lifetime and the basics of chronology will seem to contradict the confluence of this posthumous crossing of paths. It just doesn’t seem possible to reach back and touch history from such enormous distance.
It will be up to Elena, then, to remind my great-grandchildren that time and place do in fact grab us when we least expect it. We’d better be paying attention.
I’m not sure when sports-marketing pros decided that Mother Nature provided the best options for naming athletic teams. Whether a team plays hockey, hoops, or handball, if named recently, the players for that team are as likely to be named for a weather pattern as they are for a fighting something-or-other (a creature with teeth and legs, or at least a beak). Storm Chasers? Are you kidding? It should be noted the Storm Chasers are part of the finest minor-league system in baseball these days, future Kansas City All-Stars now trying to make out which “body part” is holding that bat in their logo. Ask survivors of the horrendous tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, over the weekend what they think of that logo.
With this most recent name-changing atrocity, it’s time for me to sling some nickname hash, and air frustrations I’ve kept to myself too long. In the interest of keeping your reading time under an hour, I’ll focus solely on nicknames in the four major American team sports. There’s plenty to cover.
* When Miami announced in the late Eighties that its NBA expansion team would be called the Heat, a Sports Illustrated writer wondered, “What does a kid aspire to be if he follows Miami basketball? A Hot?” Not only is weather a ridiculous “mascot” to adopt, the singular structure of names like Heat, Lightning, and Thunder make the work of analysts, fans, and yes, writers, that much more complicated. Which is correct: “The Tampa Bay Lightning have won five straight games,” or “The Tampa Bay Lightning has lost any credibility for establishing a sport played on ice in the Sunshine State”? Are the Oklahoma City Thunder on their way to their first NBA title? Or is it?
And here’s another problem I have with weather-related team names: they tend to suggest calamity. You think there may be some residents near the coast of North Carolina who might have a problem cheering for a hockey team (that ice sport, again) called the Hurricanes? (Worst of all, this franchise originally called Hartford home and had one of the coolest names we’ll ever see on a bubble-gum card: Whalers.)
Storm Chasers not only incorporates weather — dangerous weather — in its marketing pitch, it suggests a degree of stupidity, too. Hats off to the professional scientists who know how to safely track tornadoes, hurricanes, and the like. But when I see that logo, I’m thinking of the idiot who wants to race a twister on his Harley.
* Nicknames can be as poor for their geographic placement as they are for what they symbolize. How can there be an NBA team in New Orleans with a another team in Utah — and let’s emphasize here ... in Utah — named the Jazz? How can there be a basketball team in Minneapolis with a team — and I don’t care how many championships they’ve won —in Los Angeles called the Lakers? The Colts play football ... in Indianapolis? (Sad truth: A 25-year-old NFL fan today considers “Baltimore Colts” as ancient as “St. Louis Browns.”)
* Spelling counts with nicknames. Bless the Red Sox and White Sox. But was Ted Williams a Red Sock? Was Luke Appling the greatest White Sock of all time? And I’ve asked this for years without ever getting a reasonable answer: Why are the Toronto Maple Leafs not the “Maple Leaves.”
Maybe we’re running out of decent nicknames. (But how can there not be an NFL team called the Rhinos? Think about that marketing fun.) There are a few that have done it right. I admire Atlanta for going bird on us, with the Falcons, Hawks, and Thrashers. (Remember Atlanta’s original hockey team, the Flames? A team named, apparently, in honor of William Tecumsah Sherman.) The Pittsburgh Penguins — considering sport, color, and the underrated alliteration factor — may be the single best team nickname in America. I love the fact Memphis kept Grizzlies for its NBA team, a vast improvement on the city’s track record (TAMS, Americans — huh? — Showboats, Mad Dogs, etc.). There are even a few singular names that work: the St. Louis Blues and the Orlando Magic.
Omaha visits AutoZone Park to take on the Redbirds later this week. (They’ll also play here July 18-21.) Memphis is a town bursting with creative types, and some of them actually like baseball. Please visit Third and Union and send a verbal maelstrom of heckles toward the Storm Chaser dugout. Wear a name like that on your jersey if you must. But you need to hear about it.
"We can’t tell you who will win the NBA title, but we’re here to tell you the Memphis Grizzlies will win more playoff games next spring than the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs. Furthermore, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will make more national headlines in May than Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony. Would you bet those Grizzly hats on our scenario?"
The strangers look at us, wondering just how many beverages we’ve enjoyed to that point. (And why our hair is soaking wet.) “If what you say happens,” one of them finally responds, “you can have these hats, our season tickets, and we’ll buy you a tent at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. It would be the happiest lost bet of our lives.”
Stifling the urge to illuminate the fate of the 2011 Barbecue Fest, we shake hands, smile at one another, and leave our new friends blissfully unaware of the thrills that await them a few short months ahead.
A fan base’s expectations, of course, are as stable as a high school romance and run to the same extremes. Memphians this week will be stirring pleasant memories of the longest playoff run the Grizzlies have enjoyed with a dose or two of disappointment, the Western Conference finals seemingly within grasp only a week ago. Going back to the time-machine scenario, any Grizzlies fan last October would have accepted a second-round Game 7 with no qualifications or conditions. Kevin Durant on his home court simply proved too challenging a condition, even for this most resilient of Grizzly teams.
Any conversation on the Greatest Memphis Sports Moment has been forever altered. In part because an NBA playoff run requires so many moments as it takes shape. Will you remember Shane Battier’s three-pointer to upset the Spurs on the afternoon his daughter was born? How about the back-to-back victories over San Antonio to finish one series and Oklahoma City to open another? Or Zach Randolph’s 30-point, 13-rebound effort at FedExForum to force that decisive — and ultimately heartbreaking — Game 7? The moments stack upon each other like buttery, syrup-drenched flapjacks.
It’s those stacked moments that make the Grizzlies’ run unlike any other event in that Greatest Moments conversation. Those, and the fact that these moments happened in the big leagues, the NBA, every one of them on the national stage. Larry Finch and the 1973 Memphis State Tigers remain as important for when they reached the Final Four as they do for the accomplishment itself. The Tiger football team’s upset of Tennessee in 1996 was epic, but only because Memphis had a vastly inferior program. The Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight in 2002 was as much spectacle as it was sporting event. And the fighters were merely visitors borrowing a Memphis stage for one night.
I’ve seen more Grizzlies hats — and jerseys, and jackets, and towels ... oh, the towels — than ever before, including the team’s three playoff appearances in the previous decade. I’ve heard Grizzly conversations among people who wouldn’t know a 24-second shot clock from a 24-hour drive-thru. I couldn’t make a bank deposit last week without being asked about the Grizzlies’ chances against the Thunder. These are all part of the Greatest Sports Moment in Memphis history.
That Hot Tub Time Machine won’t take us into the future, so we’re left to wonder on our own how the 2011-12 Grizzlies will take shape, and what kind of expectations will follow them into a season with an entirely new standard to meet. Will labor strife delay the most-anticipated follow-up in franchise history? Will Rudy Gay’s return from injury force the ever-popular Battier to leave via free agency? Where will prognosticators put the Grizzlies in the Southwest Division, where the aging Spurs and Mavericks may be declining just as Memphis is leaping forward?
Questions to ponder, scenarios to consider. Here’s hoping commissioner David Stern finds a way to end the collective-bargaining stalemate. Memphis fans should be able to enjoy their team’s parting gift: the shortest offseason in Grizzlies history.
In the 2007 NBA playoffs, the 8th-seeded Golden State Warriors (with 42 regular-season wins) upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks (67-15 in the regular season) for what many consider the greatest upset in postseason history. Those Warriors, though, were then clobbered by Utah in five games, forever left in the category of one-and-done NBA Cinderella stories.
By taking two of their first three second-round games, the Memphis Grizzlies, of course, have already surpassed the achievement of the 2007 Warriors. However the series with Oklahoma City turns out, the Grizzlies have entered the chapter on Greatest Underdogs in NBA history. But when exactly does an 8th-seeded team lose the Underdog cape?
If there was anything truly shocking about the Grizzlies’ turning a 13-point deficit into an 8-point victory over the final 17 minutes (including overtime) of last Saturday’s Game 3 at FedExForum, it was how the event didn’t bring all that much surprise. Despite their shooting troubles (38 percent for the game), despite the Thunder’s Kevin Durant looking unguardable at times, and despite Serge Ibaka (six blocks) making life near the basket miserable for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies did what fans watching regularly over the last two months have come to expect. Since March 14th, the Grizzlies have won 12 of their 13 games at the newly christened Grind House, the lone loss coming by a single point to the Clippers (amid officiating controversy at the game’s end) on April 5th.
With two more games to play on their home floor (if the Thunder can force a Game 6), the Grizzlies — dare we say — should be expected to reach the Western Conference finals. It’s a bizarre notion to consider, a strange sentence to write, but one these remarkable, yes, underdogs have earned as they continue to make NBA history.
* Last week during a radio interview I was asked which Gasol brother has proved more valuable in these playoffs. It was a "tell-us-what-we-all-see" inquiry, but I didn’t mind accentuating the truth that’s unfolded over the first two playoff rounds. The Lakers’ Pau Gasol is an All-NBA talent with two championship rings he can taunt younger brother Marc with when they’re traveling together in the off-season. But if you ask the crowd at FedExForum Monday night to raise a hand if they’d reverse the 2008 trade that sent Pau from Memphis to Los Angeles for Marc, you’d see 18,119 people with their arms crossed. The numbers don’t lie: Pau averaged 13.4 points and 7.8 rebounds for L.A. while Marc has averaged 14.9 and 11.6 for the Grizzlies. And only one of the brothers is still playing.
* Should the Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks meet in the Western Conference finals, it would mean a pair of teams that lost their second-leading scorer well before the playoffs are vying for a berth in the NBA Finals. (The Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay and the Mavs’ Caron Butler have each been spectators since February.) If that’s happened before, show me.
* Had he stayed at the University of Memphis — a silly notion for myriad reasons now — Derrick Rose would have completed his senior season a few short weeks ago. Instead, he’s the youngest player in NBA history to be named Most Valuable Player and managed to win a game all by himself last Friday, scoring 44 of his team’s 99 points in a win at Atlanta. He’s the face of a lost banner for the U of M program and always will be, but he’s a talent you cannot turn away from. Among guards, this is the Magic and Michael category. Among contemporaries, the Hornets’ Chris Paul and sometimes the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook are the only other point guards in the conversation. But just as Michael needed Scottie Pippen and Magic needed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it appears Rose may need a perennial All-Star at his side before his Bulls can be considered title contenders.
* Monday night’s game at FedExForum will be the Grizzlies’ fifth sellout of the playoffs, giving them one more full house in the postseason than they had in 41 regular-season home games. Memphis may or may not win an NBA title, but the franchise has surely benefited more financially from its maiden voyage into the second round than any of the other six remaining teams in the playoffs. If we’ve learned anything from the modern economy, it’s this: What’s good for one business is good for all businesses.
Major-league sports remain a novelty in Tennessee. Not until the NFL's Tennessee Oilers kicked off at the Liberty Bowl here in Memphis on August 31, 1997, could the Volunteer state call a big-league team its own. (Historians will recall the Oilers beating the Oakland Raiders in overtime to welcome this new era.) On October 10, 1998, the expansion Nashville Predators dropped the puck for the first regular-season National Hockey League game in a state where, for generations, ice had been the exclusive partner of tea. Then, of course, on November 1, 2001, the Memphis Grizzlies hosted the Detroit Pistons at The Pyramid. The NFL, the NHL, and the NBA ... oh my.
Cut to the present and we find what can rightly be called the greatest month in Tennessee's professional sports history. For the first time in the franchise's 16-year history (the last 10 in Memphis), the Grizzlies are playing in the second round of the NBA playoffs. And for the first time in the Predators' 13 years of skating in the state capital, Nashville has landed in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Before Griz fans scoff at the notion of three hours spent watching men slap a rubber disk around an ice rink, they should consider the drama unfolding in the Predators' series with the Vancouver Canucks (the Western Conference's top seed ... sound familiar?). Saturday night in Vancouver, Nashville scored with 67 seconds left to force overtime, then won, 2-1, on a Matt Halischuk goal almost 15 minutes into the second overtime. The victory tied the series at a game apiece and seized home-ice advantage for the Preds.
Need stars? The Predators' Pekka Rinne and the Canucks' Roberto Luongo are two of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, given each year to the NHL's top goaltender. And here's a quick intro to the Canucks' Sedin twins for the uninitiated: Henrik led the NHL in scoring for the 2009-10 season and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. This season, his brother Daniel led the league in scoring and is a finalist for the Hart. Someone please calculate for me the odds of two men who shared a womb taking turns as scoring champ in a major professional sport.
Barring a Predator (or Canuck) sweep of the next three games, next Monday -- May 9th -- will be the day the Volunteer State can officially wave a new flag for sports fans in North America. On that night, Nashville would host Game 6 in its series with Vancouver. On the same night, here in Memphis, the Grizzlies will host Game 4 of their series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Two major-league sports, two playoff series, 200 miles apart in a state where, just 15 years ago, college sports was king. Knoxville can merely gaze west with wonder.
* Sometimes wisdom can be found in speaking -- or hearing -- the obvious. After the Grizzlies' win over San Antonio in Game 4 of their series on April 25th, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins was asked by Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated if the Grizzlies had entered the series thinking they were the better team. Hollins replied, "They won 61 games and we won 46. But it doesn't matter who was the better team in the regular season. In the playoffs, you have to be the better team in a series." Does the regular season matter when a team that fights for a top seed can be dismissed from the playoffs by a team that finished eighth in its conference? It matters as much as the money spent to attend those games matter. It matters as much as the myriad numbers and statistics tell us it matters. But when it comes to which team will prevail over a best-of-seven battle, no. The regular season means nothing. Hats off to Hollins for making sure his young team knew that.