Quick, how many home games have the Memphis Grizzlies won this season? Better yet, how many career franchise playoff wins did the Grizzlies have prior to the start of the 2011 NBA Playoffs? I’ll wait while you look those numbers up.
The Grizzlies boasted a 30-11 home regular season record, with a 3-0 record against the Spurs at the FedEx Forum in Round 1 of the playoffs. As for the second question, the Grizzlies had not won a playoff game since the franchise was born back in 1995. So, naturally, many of the most diehard NBA fans were unwilling to give them a shot in their first round series with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Once the Grizzlies knocked off the mighty Spurs in six games, however, the nation began to take notice of a Memphis team who as of Sunday afternoon is up 1-0 on the 4th seed Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semi-finals.
Why is it, however, that America has become so enamored with a Grizzlies team who was ranked 27th overall in television ratings this season? Simply, this is a team who boasts “all heart, grit and grind.”
That has become the Grizzlies mantra throughout their playoff run, with the many faces of the franchise being an outspoken, unwanted Tony Allen, Pau Gasol’s little brother and the baby-faced Zach Randolph, who was once part of the infamous “Jail Blazers.” In fact, their so-called franchise player, Rudy Gay, hasn’t played a game since mid-February. Not quite the household names that the other remaining teams in the playoffs boast. But, for some reason, there has been no more popular team in the NBA over the past two weeks than the Grizzlies.
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I’ll say upfront that I cover the Grizzlies and have a close relationship with the team and its other media personalities, so I’ve been a believer in this team for quite some time. To say that I’m rather surprised by this surge, well, that’s never been the case. I called the Grizzlies to beat the Spurs in 6 games, and have already called for them to knock off the Thunder in 6 games; this while many experts have already slept on the Grizzlies, calling for them to lose in Round 1 and saying that while their run against the Spurs was magical, they have no chance against Kevin Durant and the Thunder.
For non-NBA fans out there, think of this team in a similar light as the World Champion San Francisco Giants. Not the team with the highest payroll or the boatload of talent as their playoff counterparts, but a team with little to lose and a whole lotta heart.
In my work with the Grizzlies I get no fewer than 20-30 e-mails or comments a day along the lines of, “Lakers fan here, I’m rooting for you guys to get to the Western Conference Finals” or “Magic fan, now that my team is out I am rooting for the Grizzlies to win it all” or “As a Suns fan…” You get the idea.
This of course begs the question, why are so many people now boarding the Grizzlies bandwagon? All heart, grit and grind, I suppose. Technically, there are no real mainstream household names on this team. Zach Randolph can count the franchises that casted him as an unlovable loser on both hands and when Memphis traded all-world talent Pau Gasol to the Lakers for his lesser known little brother and a bag of balls, the Memphis front office became the laughing stock of the league. Now, it’s the Grizzlies who are laughing last. Their second best player in the playoffs was signed away from the Celtics, who didn’t want him, for three years at $9.5 million. An absolute bargain in this day! They sent the second-overall pick from the 2009 NBA Draft, Hasheem Thabeet, to the Rockets for a role-player some nine years his senior (Shane Battier). There have been so many questionable moves, all which have turned into a perfect storm for the Grizzlies.
In a league where it takes two or three superstars to win championships, the Grizzlies arguably have none—though Zach Randolph has already cemented his name as the best power forward in the NBA, according to Kevin Durant. This is a huge reason why NBA fans are flocking to the Memphis Grizzlies. Admit it, we love the underdogs! We love to hate other people’s success and we love it more when a team who “buys” success fails to complete its transaction. The Grizzlies are a blue-collar team in a blue-collar city. They are seen as a team who embodies the American Dream, “Hard work equals success.” This is no slight on a team like the Miami Heat, but a championship bought does not read as well as a championship earned.
There’s no guarantee that the Grizzlies will win a championship this season, let alone win their second round series against the Thunder. But after beating the Spurs, everything else is simply icing on the cake. For a franchise who had zero playoff wins prior to the start of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the city of Memphis finally gets something they’ve longed for, respect.