The Game Outside 

Going to see the Grizzlies offers lessons in free enterprise and life.

On a Monday evening in late January, a business appointment took me downtown around sunset. As I drove, memory tickled. Weren't the Grizzlies playing at home tonight?

I checked my schedule. Yes! Against the Dallas Mavericks, a terrific team.

So what if the word "Grizzlies" and the word "terrific" seldom inhabit the same sentence? This was the NBA, where even a Grizzly can be a world-beater once in a while. I had the evening free. Sounded like a plan.

What it became was a slightly comic, slightly weird venture into Grizzlyana — the street theater that takes place outside FedExForum and along the largely empty blocks nearby.

I encountered Grizzlyana when I parked and again when I bought a ticket. In both cases, local "businessmen" tried to play me for a sucker. It didn't quite work out the way I — or they — figured.

At 5:30 p.m., I parked on Pontotoc Street, just two blocks from the forum. The space I found had three virtues: It was close to my business appointment; it was close to the arena; and it was free.

Or was it? As I killed the engine, a man of about 50 walked up to my window. He wasn't threatening. He simply asked if I'd like him to watch my car while I was gone.

When I was about to come to Memphis, I bought a car to get me here. I Googled "Car Least Likely To Be Stolen," and I own the result: a 2005 Chevrolet Malibu. I instantly christened the car the Mali-bore. No one could possibly want to steal it or any part of it. Doesn't have spoilers, tail fins, or a 346 hemi. Doesn't even have hubcaps. That's how dull it is.

All of which I told the man. He nodded and ambled away. I went to my appointment. An hour later, en route to the game, I checked on the car. Bingo, the man reappeared and again politely offered to protect my ride. I again declined — politely.

Time to buy a seat. Outside the forum, it's a free-market bazaar, because seven or eight "independent businessmen" are always standing there. Each has a fistful of tickets and a great rap. Each looks at you as if you're the sorriest chump who ever lived. Each tries to sell you a ticket at face value (if you're foolish enough to spend that much).

On this evening, it was only 15 minutes until Dirk Nowitzki would begin to bury jumpers. But on the steps of the forum, there was barely a soul. I knew that supply and demand had swung in my favor.

A scalper offered me a ticket for $100. I offered him $10. He snorted. Another offered me a ticket for $78. I offered him $10. He cursed.

"You know, fellas, in 10 minutes you'll be eating those tickets and you'll wish you'd sold me one," I said. No response.

A passerby overheard. He was about 50, heavy-set, kindly eyes. He offered me a club-level seat for $10. I jumped. The regular scalpers glowered. The man explained that his wife was sick that night, so my ship had just docked. We had a great time watching the Griz dump a lead in the last four minutes, as they always seem to do. I said goodnight and walked to Pontotoc, where I hoped my car still sat.

It was there. So was its wing man.

"Sir, I spent all this time taking care of your car," said the man. "How about a little something for my time?"

I could have bent here. Or broken. But I had twice made it very clear that I didn't want his guardian angel-ship. I nodded no, got in the Mali-bore, and drove away. My thought: The same guy in New York or L.A. would have somehow closed the deal. This guy didn't quite have enough moxie or persuasiveness to do it.

But guilt built. Had I done the right thing? I wouldn't have missed a few bucks.

Two nights later, the Grizzlies were playing Denver. I parked on Pontotoc. The guy was there. He remembered me. I slipped him $10 and asked him to take care of my car. When I returned after the game, he shook my hand and told me to drive carefully on my way home.

Outside the forum, the scalpers were idle. I offered one $10 for a club-level seat. No bickering or dickering. He handed it over. Thanked me for my business.

The Grizzlies again tanked in the last four minutes. But the real game was outside the main gates, and in 48 hours it had swung from big-hustle to big-sweetheart.

Bob Levy is Hardin Chair of Excellence in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis.

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