When last the Thunder ventured to Memphis, there was lots of that Grizzlies pale blue in the stands.
Thing is, much of it was empty seats.
That won't be the case Saturday afternoon.
As its Western Conference playoff series heads east for Game 3, the Thunder will be greeted with a flurry of Growl Towels and “Believe Memphis” headbands. It will be loud. It will be raucous. It will be unlike anything the Thunder has ever seen at the FedExForum.
Memphis has a severe case of Grizzlies Fever.
“This is the first time there's been so much buzz about this team,” Memphis attorney Arnold Perl said. “In earlier years, the Grizzlies were in the playoffs, and while there was excitement, there wasn't this frenzied excitement.”
Perl knows better than most. He served as the chairman of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority, a long-winded title for the group that essentially oversaw the construction of the FedExForum.
“Everyone should build one arena in their lifetime,” Perl said.
“No one could get me to do that again.”
The arena was built solely for an NBA team. No consideration was given to possibly luring an NHL team to the building one day, so that means the seats are closer and the arena is more intimate. That makes for a hostile environment for visitors.
Unless, of course, there are thousands of empty seats.
That's how it's been for years in Memphis, the result of a bad confluence of events that started with a 50-win season and a first-ever playoff appearance.
How is that a recipe for disaster?
Allow Memphis sports talk radio personality Chris Vernon to explain.
“The first time they went to the playoffs ... people were genuinely interested,” Vernon said, mentioning how much fans loved then-coach Hubie Brown and a team that included Shane Battier, Pau Gasol and Mike Miller. “I hosted a postgame show, and we're taking calls until 2 in the morning.
“The problem was ... you got swept in the playoffs. Then the next year, Hubie leaves and they bring in Mike Fratello. They get to the playoffs, and people are still excited, but they lose again. They get swept again.
“Now, your season ticket base and your fan base is dwindling down.”
That was only the beginning of the brewing storm.
Fratello wasn't exactly Mr. Personality, and playing a slowdown style, he endeared few fans. Then the team hit the skids about the same time the city's beloved Memphis Tigers hit the accelerator. Folks spent their money and their time on the Tigers.
Then, the economy went in the tank.
“There were a lot of things that went wrong,” Vernon said.
Even as the Grizzlies struggled and attendance lagged these past several seasons, there was evidence that Memphians were still paying attention. TV ratings for games, for example, remained steady and strong.
Chip Crain, who helped start the Grizzlies blog 3 Shades of Blue, believes that hits at the very heart of what defines Memphis.
First, it's a basketball city.
“I don't think it's ever going to be an NBA city vs. an NCAA city,” Crain said. “You put Memphis on the front of the jerseys, Memphis fans will support you.”
Second, it's a blue-collar city.
“You can say that, or you can just say we're not a rich city,” Crain said. “We don't have a lot of people with a ton of money here. That doesn't mean they're not supporting the team. It just means they can't afford to go to the Tigers and the Grizzlies every night.”
This is a place that sold out all of four Grizzlies games during the regular season. During these playoffs, Memphis has sold out five games.
Available tickets for these next two games against the Thunder sold out in less than 30 minutes.
After the fun that folks had during the Grizzlies' first-round upset of the Spurs, it's easy to see why. The celebration after the series-clinching win spilled out into nearby Beale Street, and the stories that have come out of the festivities are the stuff of legend.
Battier, the beloved forward who was traded away but returned to the Grizzlies earlier this season, walked home after the game. He lives downtown, and he strolled down Beale Street high-fiving fans all the way.
Chris Wallace, the team's general manager, walked among the throng, thanking people for their support.
Hamed Haddadi, a little-used reserve center, danced the night away at a local establishment.
Then there's the story of Calvin. Ron Higgins, a columnist at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, stumbled across him in the FedExForum parking garage the morning after the game. The man couldn't find his car keys.
“I jumped up and down so much,” Calvin said, “I lost them.”
He didn't seem to care.
“I'll have a great spot for Saturday's game,” he said.
The Thunder should be forewarned: this won't be the Memphis that you remember from before.
While Oklahoma City has been good on the road this season — it even won a first-round playoff game in Denver — the degree of difficulty is going up. The Grizzlies are better than the Nuggets, and the FedExForum will be more hostile than the Pepsi Center.
It hasn't always been that way, but it sure is now.
“All those people that loved the team during that 50-win season ... it's like some old, great friend has come back,” Vernon said. “It's like, ‘You know what? I really used to love you. I remember how fun you were.'”
Is this the start of something big? Or will this mutual admiration between city and team lose steam like it did before?
Folks in Memphis really don't know, and frankly, they aren't interested in taking time to speculate.
They're having too much fun cheering on their Griz.