MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Elevated self-image. Community pride. A bonding spirit.
You know all those things we're always saying the Thunder does for Oklahoma City? The same goes for the Grizzlies in Memphis.
Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals matching the Thunder and Grizzlies continues Monday night, and it's a series of cities with similar histories. Places something less than Gothams that revel in their relatively new status as major league cities.
“When you have a professional sports team like that representing your city,” said John Moore, president of Memphis' chamber of commerce, “and they have their own unique way to play, and it's kind of exemplary of Memphis' grit and grind mentality, it's a huge source of pride.”
Oklahoma City and Memphis are separated by less than 25,000 people in metro population. Of the 30 NBA franchises, seven are the lone major league team in town. Three of those seven — Thunder, Grizzlies and Spurs — remain alive in the conference semifinals.
“It's a unifying factor in a unique way,” said Rick Shadyac Jr., CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. “It's the team we can all rally around.”
Shadyac came to Memphis four years ago from Washington, D.C., which he calls a Redskins town, “but that's a little diluted. Now, people are passionately following the Washington Nationals. And I do. But it's different when you follow one team.”
Shadyac relates a story oft-told in OKC. How people of different races and different backgrounds come together to high five and cheer and buy each other beers for 2 1/2 hours while a ball team plays a game.
“Brings everybody together in a really cool fashion,” Shadyac said.
Unlike Oklahoma City, Memphis long had sought major league status. OKC got serious in the 1990s, when current Thunder chairman Clay Bennett led a group that sought a National Hockey League franchise.
Starting in 1970, Memphis had a series of teams in the American Basketball Association and various football teams in leagues trying to make ground on the NFL. In 1993, Memphis was a finalist for NFL expansion franchises that eventually went to Jacksonville and Charlotte.
Finally, the Grizzlies arrived in 2001 from Vancouver, though not until recent years have the Grizzlies emerged as a contender.
“The NBA has done everything for Memphis that I'm sure it has done for Oklahoma City,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It's raised our profile. They've changed our world, even in spite of some of those lean years.”
Moore and his family lived in Edmond in the late 1980s. “We've kind of watched Oklahoma City develop over the same time frame,” Moore said. “It's really impressive. We're both winners, in the sense that our brand is being waved throughout the world.
“We're both in there, showing the world what we're all about. One more arrow in your quiver to advance the growth of your city.”
Oklahoma City had a trial run as an NBA city, with two seasons of hosting the Hornets after they were displaced from New Orleans. It went famously.
Memphis, too, had a tryout as a major league city. It didn't go quite so well.
In 1997, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee, with a new stadium promised in Nashville by 1999. The Oilers played that '97 season in Memphis' Liberty Bowl, with plans to do the same in 1998.
But the Oilers based in Nashville and just came over for Sunday games. Memphians were not thrilled at being a stopover for a franchise headed to cross-state rival Nashville.
Oilers owner Bud Adams was criticized for hefty ticket prices.
The Oilers drew five crowds under 32,000, including just 17,071 for an October game against the Bengals.
Rain during the home finale against the Steelers meant much of the crowd was adorned in yellow ponchos. The Steelers always have a healthy congregation of fans on road games anyway. With everyone in yellow, the Liberty Bowl looked like a total-Pittsburgh crowd.
Kevin Kane, president of Memphis' Convention and Visitors Bureau, was in a suite with Adams that day. “He was so furious, he turned to someone, kind of like a fly on the wall, basically made the decision right there, ‘we're going to play at Vanderbilt'” in 1998, Kane said.
And thus the Oilers were gone.
“So it really was a black eye,” Kane said. “We were the butt of jokes … basically, Memphis couldn't support pro sports.”
During that time period, Memphis' AA baseball team in the Southern League was moving to Jackson, Tenn. Memphis' Central Hockey League franchise was moving to northern Mississippi.
“One awful scenario after another,” Kane said. “We were really questioning, can Memphis support sports?”
But in 2000, Chicago-based Michael Heisley bought the Vancouver Grizzlies, a franchise that began play in 1995. Heisley investigated a variety of cities — Las Vegas, New Orleans, St. Louis, Anaheim, San Diego, Buffalo and Louisville — before settling on Memphis.
The Grizzlies moved in 2001, and Memphis finally had its own major league team.
Quasi major league
Before the Grizzlies, Memphis lived on the fringe of major league sports:
* Memphis had an American Basketball Association franchise for five seasons, 1970-75.
The New Orleans Buccaneers moved to Memphis in 1970 and became the Pros, switched their name to the Tams after two seasons, then two seasons later became the Sounds. One year later, the franchise moved to Baltimore but folded before the season.
The Tams were owned by Charlie Finley, who gained fame as owner of baseball's Oakland Athletics.
* Memphis had three football franchises in leagues that gained wide fame:
1. The Memphis Showboats of the USFL, who played in 1984 and 1985 and included future NFL star Reggie White.
2. The Memphis Mad Dogs of the Canadian Football League, who played in 1995, the last of three years in which the CFL tried to make it south of the border.
3. The Memphis Maniax of the XFL, who played in 2001, the only season of the made-for-NBC league that tried to compete with the NFL.
Grizzlies involved in community
Memphis is becoming increasingly known for its basketball team. But Memphis long has been known for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
And St. Jude and the Grizzlies have a great relationship.
The Thunder prides itself on community involvement, but Memphis civic leaders say the Grizzlies' commitment to their city is impressive, too. And nowhere is that more apparent than with St. Jude.
“We are blessed to have a wonderful relationship with the Grizzlies,” said Rick Shadyac Jr., CEO of St. Jude. “They have been die-hard supporters of ours since moving to the city.”
St. Jude is the beneficiary of a Grizzlies' tipoff luncheon each season and a midseason Griz Gala, in which all the players participate.
But Shadyac said the commitment is as much personal as corporate.
“Several of the players, but one in particular,” Shadyac said. “Marc Gasol has really and truly singled himself out.”
Gasol regularly visits St. Jude. Has tea parties with the kids and speaks Spanish with many of the international patients. “They look at him like he's a wonderful giant,” Shadyac said.
Visiting players, too, have impacted St. Jude.
Shadyac said Kevin Durant has visited the hospital and personally connected with a certain young patient.
“Nothing cooler for our kids than to meet some of these people,” Shadyac said.