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Jenni Carlson: Memphians are enjoying the moment with Grizzlies

by Jenni Carlson Modified: May 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm •  Published: May 6, 2011

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.

He chuckled.

“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.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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