CHOKE THAT WHISTLE, REF 

CHOKE THAT WHISTLE, REF

Memphis has been “big time” for a whole month now, plenty long enough for any scribe who has witnessed a couple of NBA games to qualify as an expert. Here, then, a few observations on The Pyramid, the Grizzlies, and the NBA.
  • It’s the game, stupid. Our leaders don’t seem to get it. Or do they? Mayor Willie Herenton was sitting at courtside, not in some distant luxury box, Saturday night when the Grizzlies got their first win. And given the wherewithal, who wouldn’t be? The Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers had two wins and 16 losses between them, but the teams played hard and the score was close. The result was the closest thing Memphis will see this year to playoff intensity.
  • Corollary: It’s not the arena, stupid. Baseball is all about hot dogs, conversations, green grass, and sunshine or moonlight. The game is secondary. The surroundings matter. A luxury box makes sense. There’s plenty of time to do business and entertain. The infrequent action looks about the same from the dugout or the bleachers. But the size, speed, skill and back-and-forth of college or pro basketball can only be fully appreciated from the first bank of seats at courtside. The proposed new $250 million arena will not do for an action-packed indoor winter sport what AutoZone Park did for a dull outdoor summer sport. The premium seats -- the place to be -- is the first ten rows. At least five luxury boxes in The Pyramid were empty Saturday, and several others had only a few occupants.
  • Choke that whistle: Grizzlies forward Stromile Swift leaps to block a shot. Then he whirls and blocks another shot. Then he lunges and saves the ball from going out of bounds and hurls it back on to the floor. There’s a scramble, then a mad dash to the other end, then a drive to the hoop for two points. Thank you, refs, for letting them play. A whistle at any point in this sequence means another thrilling trip to the free-throw line. Instead, both teams ended Saturday’s game with fouls to spare. Twenty-five years ago, North Carolina Coach Dean Smith nearly ruined college basketball with his four-corners stall offense. The rules got changed and the game was saved. Pro coaches who micro-manage the final minutes and too many fouls are doing the same thing to the pro game today. Bring back the 118-112 thriller. Change the rules.
  • Do the math: Forget Duncan Ragsdale and his lawsuit, the numbers on the new arena don’t add up. Not the tourism tax, not the state contribution (what is it?), and especially not the attendance projections. In the end it all comes down to fans in seats. Two home stands into their first season, the Grizzlies have already drawn three crowds below the 14,500 projected break-even point. And they’re not alone. The New Jersey Nets averaged 6,547 fans in their first four home victories. The Charlotte Hornets can’t muster 10,000 fans after years of sellouts. If private sources want to pay for a new arena, fine. But the projections of March are fanciful, and responsible parties need to admit it.
  • An encouraging quote from afar: “The welfare, recreation, prestige, prosperity, trade and commerce of the people of the community are at stake.” So said Judge Harry Seymour Crump last week in ordering the owner of the Minnesota Twins to stay put. Sport, he wrote, “crosses social barriers, creates community spirit and is much more than a private enterprise.” He was talking about baseball but the Grizzlies owners say the same things, and it’s nice to hear a judicial echo.
  • A discouraging note from afar: “Can the NBA succeed in Memphis, the nation’s No. 41 TV market,” asked Wall Street Journal columnist Steven Fatsis. Citing attendance figures, he answered his own question: “Elvis is already leaving the building.” Grizzlies owners say it’s OK to be No. 41 if you’re the only game in town. But they’re not. John Calipari and the Tigers are formidable competition. Note that Calipari’s rival, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, wants no part of the NBA in Louisville.

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