There was this man who was walking along and met a snake," began Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, by way of launching a cautionary tale to an auditor at an after-hours gathering last week -- a day or two after he and members of the Shelby County Commission had met to consider the issue of the FedExForum.
As the county mayor told it, the snake proceeded to say, "Hey, mister, do me a favor and put me in your pocket!" The pedestrian sensibly declined, on the grounds, as he put it, that "Hey, you're a snake!"
"Oh, come on, mister," replied the snake. "I get so lonely crawling all alone down here. Trust me, I'll do you no harm." And the serpent continued to plead in such terms until the man finally relented and put the snake in his pocket. He then resumed his walk. So far, so good.
After an interval, however, the snake poked his head out of the man's pocket. "Mister, do me one more favor," he said.
"What is it this time?" asked the man, warily.
"Would you kiss me?" asked the snake.
"WHAT?" exclaimed the pedestrian.
"Yes, please sir, kiss me. You don't know what it's like to go as long as I have without affection. Nobody has ever kissed me. Come on, mister, please!"
Against his better judgment, the man relented and lifted the snake out of his pocket. He brought it up to his mouth and prepared to kiss the creature, when ZAP! The snake lashed out and stung the man's face with a wicked, and potentially lethal, bite.
The man screamed and his knees buckled. He began to sag but mustered enough energy and outrage to say, "How could you do that? I trusted you!"
The creature responded to this reproach with a simple, matter-of-fact answer: "What's the problem? You knew I was a snake when you picked me up!"
The mayor left no doubt as to the moral of the story: "We in government make these arrangements and get into these partnerships with the private sector, and we tend to overlook the fact that these entrepreneurs and businessmen are out to make money. When it turns out that they're doing just that, trying to make money out of the arrangement, we get all fussed and bothered, and we holler 'Snake!' But we knew that's what they were when we picked them up!"
That was Wharton's way of dealing with some of the newly realized consequences of the FedExForum agreement reached by the city and county with HOOPS, the entity representing the NBA Grizzlies.
Among the troubling details of the agreement that have surfaced during hearings of the Shelby County Commission in recent weeks was a clause that disguised a multimillion-dollar payment to the Grizzlies for moving the team from Vancouver as a "penalty" for failure to meet a wholly artificial 2003 deadline for completion of the arena.
An even more troublesome clause apparently binds in perpetuity the fate of the soon-to-be-abandoned Pyramid to that of the FedExForum. To HOOPS -- or, to be more precise, to Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley -- is reserved not only the right of first refusal for future events at The Pyramid but the apparent right to insist that the building be maintained as a permanent fallback facility for use by the Grizzlies or the NBA.
At last week's committee meeting, belated action was taken to moderate the snake problem. County attorney Brian Kuhn noted that the agreement with HOOPS provided for a dispute-resolution committee, Wharton insisted that the committee could negotiate changes in the agreement "even pre-emptively," and Commissioner Deidre Malone successfully moved to have the Pyramid issue re-renegotiated at the earliest opportunity.
Commissioners Walter Bailey and John Willingham, whose Public Service and Tourism committee was the venue for the problem disclosures, didn't say, "We told you so." They didn't need to.
Meanwhile, as all principals to the matter -- Bailey and Willingham included -- agree, the Grizzlies are here (and winning!), the Forum will be built, and a happy ending to the story is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But after last week, there was a realization on everybody's part that to get to that ending will require some hard work, some cautious monitoring -- and some rewriting.