Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Of Dreams and Ja

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2021 at 10:00 AM

The Memphis Grizzlies' annual Martin Luther King Day game is the most important sporting event in this city. It provides Memphis — and not just our beloved NBA franchise — a national platform, one from which the powerful and inspiring work of the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) is on full display. It's the rare sporting event that feels bigger. Because it is.
click to enlarge Ja Morant - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Ja Morant

And this year's game felt especially right, even with FedExForum empty of fans, even with pandemic conditions still heavy worldwide, even with our nation's capital becoming, yes, a fortress for the upcoming inauguration of our 46th president. In the game's closing seconds, a dynamic Black player (Ja Morant) found a sharp-shooting white teammate (Grayson Allen) who buried a game-winning three-pointer to beat one of the league's best young teams. If you looked west shortly before Allen's game-winner, you saw the new year's most beautiful sunset, a lovely metaphor for the Grizzlies' comeback victory against, of course, the Phoenix Suns. It felt . . . just right.

The TNT studio hosts were especially sentimental, Kenny Smith being one of this year's three NCRM Sports Legacy Honorees. A two-time NBA champion (as a Houston Rocket), Smith and his more-provocative colleague — Hall of Famer Charles Barkley — were effusive in their gratitude for the platform the NBA has provided them, as Black men, to speak about topics more important than James Harden taking his talents to Brooklyn. Best of all, Smith, Barkley, and friends see what is rising in Memphis (on the hardwood): Morant, one of the league's top two or three players under the age of 25, and Jaren Jackson Jr. — a future All-Star himself — soon to return from knee surgery. The Grizzlies keep Memphis proud, one year to the next, but particularly on MLK Day. I'm choosing to see their win this week as an omen for a year we all rise, as Memphians and as human beings.

• Memphis Tiger coach Penny Hardaway is a past recipient of the NCRM Sports Legacy Award. That was an especially happy day at FedExForum, a packed crowd — it was 2018 — saluting a past hero, one already rumored to be returning to the college program where he played a generation ago. Hardaway is surely calling on days like that right now, as his current Tiger team tries to find its way through a season already damaged by COVID-19 (three January games postponed) and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (two losses after the Tigers led at halftime). Now 6-5, the Tigers face four games in eight days before the calendar turns to February. And a coach with top-five aspirations for his program now must wonder if 20 wins are within reach, let alone an NCAA tournament bid. Hardaway was philosophical last week during a virtual press conference, identifying the same cloud the rest of us do these days when things turn sour: "We're trying to play through a pandemic. It's not the worst thing. We have to be mindful, continue to be safe. You just have to work through the rigors of what's happening."

• I've written in this space about Tom Brady being the first one-man dynasty in the history of American team sports. The 43-year-old quarterback has now proven that a New England Patriots uniform wasn't required for this "dynasty" to happen, having led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC Championship in his first season with the franchise. The game will be Brady's 14th(!) conference title game. Perspective? You've heard of Joe Montana, John Elway, and Dan Marino. That trio played in 16 conference championships combined.

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