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Spring Fling

Memphis is going after prep basketball and state sports championships.

By John Branston

The Sports Authority, Memphis Grizzlies, and Memphis Redbirds aim to deliver on their promise to give a boost to prep sports in Memphis.

Tiffany Brown, managing director of the Sports Authority, says the authority and Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau will make the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association (TSSAA) "an offer they can't refuse" for Spring Fling 2003. Spring Fling is the annual state championships for public and private schools in softball, baseball, track, tennis, and boys' soccer. It has been held in Chattanooga in recent years, meaning a long and costly trek for the Memphis athletes who usually manage to win a good share of the championships anyway.

Even with venues such as the Racquet Club, AutoZone Park, Mike Rose soccer complex, and the track at Christian Brothers High School, Memphis is no shoo-in. Cities have seen the economic impact and marketing potential of showing off their attributes to thousands of young athletes and their parents for five days, and they're chasing the business the same way they go after conventions and trade shows.

Ronnie Carter, executive director of the TSSAA, said Memphis will have competition from Nashville, Murfreesboro, Jackson, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, all of which plan to make bids.

"We know those proposals will be good also," he said.

That's more interest than Spring Fling attracted either of the two times it was up for bids before, Carter said. The typical bid consists of motel rooms for TSSAA staff, gate receipts, and financial assistance for teams that have to travel from faraway parts of the state. That's where Brown hopes the Grizzlies and other sponsors will get involved.

Memphis will also go after the state basketball tournament now held in Murfreesboro. The city and county are allowing free use of the Mid-South Coliseum this year for basketball games in the sub-state tournament, "laying the groundwork for us to go after the state tournament," Brown said.

In addition to being a neutral court, the Coliseum can hold bigger crowds than any of the high school gyms and could give the participating schools a bigger pay day. But attendance at prep games is down this year, possibly due to a lack of rivalries or competition from the Grizzlies and the University of Memphis. Two years ago, state champion White Station and a Raleigh Egypt team led by Scooter McFadgon packed local gyms for four games. This year's game drew under 1,000 fans, and an invitational match-up at White Station this Saturday has attracted only four teams instead of the hoped-for six or eight.

The Coliseum will also be the site of the Memphis public schools city championship basketball games for boys and girls in February. Those games were previously held in high school gymnasiums.

The Grizzlies have agreed to pick up the sponsorship of the awards for "Mr. Basketball" and "Miss Basketball" for Memphis high school students. Brown said 12 finalists for each award will be chosen, with the winner announced in March, probably at The Pyramid.


What Happened?

The Grizzlies' victory string runs out in Los Angeles.

By Chris Przybyszewski

For a young team like the Memphis Grizzlies, the old adage seems appropriate: Two steps forward, one step back. Or, in this particular case, three steps forward and one big leap back. The Grizzlies, fresh off three straight wins over playoff-bound teams -- two of those on the road -- found themselves exposed by the spotlight of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. The superstar guard scored 56 points by the end of the third quarter Monday night and the final result wasn't pretty: Los Angeles 120, Memphis 81.

What happened? Where were the dazzling assists by Jason Williams (held to two assists, two turnovers)? What happened to protecting the ball (the Grizzlies turned it over 25 times to L.A.'s 8)? And where was the defensive toughness so evident in the three wins (the Lakers shot 49.5 percent and only turned the ball over eight times)?

For one thing, the Lakers' defense happened. While fans in L.A. are used to seeing a ton of points from the two-time NBA champions, an often unnoticed part of L.A. head coach Phil Jackson's game is defense. Blistering defense. The Griz shot all of 39.7 percent and scored only 59 points through three quarters -- three more than Bryant alone. In the Grizzlies' previous five wins, the squad scored an average of 96.2 ppg. Along the way, the Lakers notched 14 steals and eight blocks.

The Grizzlies offense is a fragile thing, with much of the focus on rookie Pau Gasol. Gasol scored the Grizzlies' first 10 points and ended with a team high 25 in the loss to the Lakers. However, with the exception of Gasol and Stromile Swift (22 points), the Grizzlies got little else in the way of offense. Shane Battier scored only six points and Jason Williams had only one. This Memphis squad must find a way to weather tough defenses in order to improve. The only way to weather a tough defense is through execution and ball movement, both of which are Griz weaknesses at this point.

And, to put it mildly, Kobe happened. With center Shaquille O'Neal suspended for fighting and his squad on a two-game losing slide, Bryant wanted the ball like Michael Jordan wants the ball -- the way a superstar always wants the ball. And when Bryant got the ball, he did bad things to the Grizzlies.

The Grizzlies have seen this sort of thing before. Recently, Toronto's Vince Carter scored 31 against them, doing everything in his power to pull off the road win. In that game the Grizzlies rallied and used late-game team defense to win. In the next game, the Grizzlies held two All-Stars -- Phoenix's Anfernee Hardaway and Stephon Marbury to 13 points and 12 points, respectively. In the Grizzlies' stunning double-overtime win over Utah in Salt Lake City, Jazz superstars John Stockton and Karl Malone combined for 44 points. But -- as in the Toronto game -- the Grizzlies stepped up the defense, holding Malone scoreless in overtime.

In each of the wins the Grizzlies used a team concept. However, Bryant saw mostly one-on-one coverage, which is similar to poking a big dog with a pointed stick. The Grizzlies' best individual defenders -- Battier and Rodney Buford -- couldn't stop him.

Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe pleaded no mas after the game. "He was unbelievable; he was unconscious, inside, outside," Lowe said of Bryant. "I want to say we looked a little tired but I can't take anything away from him. He's just too good."

Well, yes. Technically Bryant is very good. But, on the other hand, this league has plenty of good players and the Grizzlies have stopped those players through team defense, and -- more importantly -- a lack of deference to the superstars. In the case of the Lakers, Lowe seems to lose his competitive edge. After the teams' first meeting back in November when the Lakers beat the Grizzlies in L.A., 110-86, Lowe said: "They were too good for us. We can't play with them." So much for never say die.

Later in the season, the Grizzlies showed that the squad could play with the Lakers -- at least a Lakers team that was unfocused and bloated with confidence -- by beating L.A. at The Pyramid. Even then, Lowe sounded astonished by the event. "We played a perfect basketball game tonight," he said.

Maybe Lowe just has a problem with the Lakers. Even coaches are allowed to have role models, I suppose. But maybe when the Lakers and Griz meet again, Lowe will try to work up a defense for Bryant rather than just enjoying the show.

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