Why Memphis loves its Grizzlies

MEMPHIS -- For those of us who do not call Memphis home, President Obama's upcoming visit to Booker T. Washington High School on Monday seems like just a kind gesture for a city that's been a bit under water, literally and figuratively.

We've all seen the pictures of submerged neighborhoods and lost farmland caused by the rising Mississippi River. With Memphis already handcuffed by a 26 percent poverty rate, reportedly fewer than a hundred of the city's residents hit the hardest by the flood have insurance.

Some can't think of returning home until the water recedes, probably sometime in June.

Others have no home to return to.

It's a challenge to say the least, so yes, glancing from the outside it would appear that Obama's first visit to Memphis as president couldn't have come at a better time.

But for Memphians, Obama's selection of Booker T. to deliver his commencement speech, out of more than 400 schools across the country, is more than just timely support from a politician. It's yet another sign that maybe, just maybe, after decades of economic hardship, disappointment and unwelcomed notoriety, that finally there is a seat at the table for them.

"It's a city of hard knocks in a lot of ways," said Memphis Grizzlies forward Shane Battier, who was drafted by the team in 2001, traded to the Houston Rockets in 2006, and brought back just before the trade deadline this year. "The people who live here and grew up here and stay here really take pride in anything that can boost the image in the city and nationally.

"And much like Detroit, when you say you're from Detroit, people say 'Ah, man.' And when you say you're from Memphis people say 'Ah, man,' but it's 'No, don't feel sorry for me.' I'm proud of where I'm from. It's a city of fighters."

You learn to fight when you're the seventh-poorest city in the country. When you're a city that yellow fever outbreaks nearly wiped off the map in the 19th century.

You learn to hold your head up in the midst of trouble when the rest of the world despises you for being the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination or when your biggest tourist attraction is Graceland, famous as the home of Elvis Presley -- and for the bathroom where a fat, strung-out Elvis Presley laid down and died at age 42.

For those of us who do not call Memphis home, we see the Grizzlies' unlikely playoff run as a great underdog story, like so many great underdog stories before.

But if you live here, you know the Grizzlies' rallying cry of "Grit and Grind" is not just some cool marketing catchphrase to sum up its magical season. It is the autobiography of Memphis, Tenn. If you live here, you know that resilience is the sound of the blues on Beale Street, and you know that long-suffering is the flavor of the barbecue that's a Memphis specialty.

"We're good people, we're friendly people, but we've been through a lot and because of that, as a city we tend to have an inferiority complex, " said Jason Potter, the Grizzlies' director of promotion and event presentation. Except for four years at Indiana University, Potter has lived in Memphis his entire life and can't see leaving.

"We're used to fighting the odds, but when something good happens, we're always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"That's why it's been so good to see so many people wearing 'Believe Memphis' T-shirts. It's not just about believing in the team. It's also about believing in each other and this city and all that it can become. It's about believing we can turn this thing around."

By "this thing" Potter is alluding to setbacks such as the shuttering of a shopping center in the heart of downtown and the failure of the 320-foot-tall Pyramid Arena, once the home of the Grizzlies, which has been sitting empty since 2007. There was talk of a casino coming into the Pyramid, bringing jobs and tourism to the city, but the plans were scrapped. Recently, plans have been floated to turn the building into a Bass Pro Shops megastore, but that too is questionable.

By "this thing," Potter means the on-again, off-again relationship the city seems to have with optimism. And who can blame them? Whenever it seems something good's coming, there's always something unfortunate to trip them up.

That's as true in the sports realm as it is economically. During decades of efforts to bring an NFL team to town, Memphis was passed up time and again. Finally the city got a share of a team in 1997, when the Houston Oilers left Texas and moved to Tennessee. The team was supposed to play in Memphis for two years while a new stadium was being built in Nashville. But the team packed up and left after one year because of poor working conditions and attendance, becoming the Tennessee Titans.

Over the years, the city has seen the World Football League, the United States Football League, the Arena League, the XFL and the Canadian Football League bring teams to town (the Memphis Southmen, Showboats, Pharaohs, Maniax and Mad Dogs), only to meet with ultimate failure. And before the Grizzlies, Memphis had three iterations of an unsuccessful ABA franchise -- the Pros, the Tams and the Sounds -- along with myriad other minor sports franchises over the years: the Americans, Blues, Chicks, Express, Fire, Hot Shots, Houn'Dawgs, Pros, Red Sox, Redbirds, RiverKings, Rockers, Rogues, Royals, and Xplorers.

The Memphis Tigers have been a source of pride over the years, but their 2008 Final Four trip has been fraught with controversy and was wiped from the books because of allegations that 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose had someone else take his SAT in order to get into college.

No wonder Potter said Memphians have an inferiority complex; the population is bigger than Boston's but the city's portfolio is so much smaller.

They've seen promises of new jobs come and go. They've seen teams do the same. There was a huge news conference for the Allen Iverson signing, and then the dude never even played a game on the Grizzlies' home floor. They've seen their biggest wins questioned, and more losses than they care to count, including the tragedy of last summer: the unexplained killing of homegrown NBA star Lorenzen Wright.

The Grizzlies did have a three-year playoff run during Battier's first stint with the team, shortly after arriving from Vancouver, but they didn't get a lot of love from the city because that team wasn't Memphis. Not only were they swept every year, and not only did people expect the team to leave, but the squad was built around the talent and personality of Pau Gasol, who is about as "grit and grind" as cashmere.

Who can rally around that?

But finally, finally, the Grizzlies have a stronger bond with the community because of the acquisition of more rugged players like Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Pau's younger brother Marc. The physical play the team shows on the floor is indicative of the spirit of Memphis, and something the people in the area can relate to.

As Randolph said not long after knocking off the San Antonio Spurs: "This is a blue-collar town. I am a blue-collar player so this is a good fit for me."

But more importantly, the team re-signed Randolph. And Rudy Gay. And Mike Conley Jr. That sent a clear message to the city that this is season is not lightning in a bottle but the beginning of a winning tradition. No matter what happens the rest of the season, it appears the Memphis Grizzlies are here to stay, and with that comes greater expectations -- and perhaps some long-overdue healing.

"Before the Grizzlies got here we were divided," said Napoleon Dickerson Jr., who owns a barbershop in the city with his father, Napoleon Dickerson Sr. "[Race] is still an issue. It's still the South. But now we all have something in common to come together and cheer about. We've never had that before.

"Now when you see people out they are talking to each other and having general conversation, about sports and people. And I think that's going to spill over past basketball, which will only help the city."

There is always a temptation to overstate the impact a winning run by a team like the Grizzlies has on the locals. Remember when Michigan State made it to the Final Four in 2009 and some started wondering whether the Spartans' success would provide the struggling city of Detroit with a spark?

It didn't, of course.

Folks still don't have jobs, and it's estimated that nearly half of the adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate. So even if the Grizzlies manage to win an NBA championship, the city will still have a depressing high school graduation rate of 67 percent to contend with.

But Dickerson is not the only local who believes the story of Memphis' Grizzlies is unique in that it is one of the few times -- along with some memorable, city-unifying NCAA tourney runs by the college team -- since the assassination of Dr. King that blacks and whites of a certain generation can come together and talk.

While the rest of the nation was able to heal after King's death in 1968, in a lot of ways the people of Memphis still seem to be psychologically trapped in that moment. Older blacks bring it up with emotion in their voices. Older whites whisper, or try not to talk about it at all, as if they're ashamed or embarrassed. And many in the younger generations, frustrated with this dynamic as well as with Memphis' woeful economic outlook, leave after graduation.

When you add it all together you have a city that is slowly choking itself with its own past.

"I am the only one among all of my friends from high school who came back," Potter said. "I was planning on leaving until the Grizzlies showed up and I was excited about the chance to work for an NBA team in my hometown.

"Before this year my friends would always tease me about staying here. But now my friends who live in other cities are wondering what's going on back home and talking about the Grizzlies. They have a pride in the city that wasn't there before."

Which was part of the intent, according to former NBA player Elliot Perry, a Memphian who joined the ownership group in 2005. Perry, who volunteers for the Grizzlies Foundation in addition to the Boys & Girls Club, said now that the franchise has the city's attention, he wants to use it to promote education to help lift the city up.

"We've always envisioned being more than just an NBA team in Memphis, " said Perry, who also runs an annual fundraiser to support local organizations dedicated to helping kids. "We wanted to be community leaders. But it's hard to do that when you're not winning, because no one is paying attention to you. Now we have the city's attention, we have the country's attention, and so our next step is to use our influence to stress the importance of education, to help keep our brightest kids here in the city and create jobs so people can live."

All of which is good news to Penny Hardaway, another homegrown NBA player, whose prospective professional career was almost derailed when he was shot in the foot during a robbery at a relative's house in the city.

"It's not as [violent] as it used to be, but it's still there a little bit, and people think that's what's Memphis is all about, and it's not," he said. "Having the Grizzlies here has brought money to our community, it brought the NBA to our community and it's brought the community together."

Now, according to Andy Cates, another minority owner of the Grizzlies, the goal is to keep it that way.

"I love this city and I love the people of this city," said Cates, who also grew up in Memphis. "We have contributed so much good to the history of this country from our music to our food and just our spirit. We have to build on this positive energy that we have.

"What the Grizzlies have been able to do this year is fantastic, but I'm even more excited about what this city can do now that we're finally coming together."

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.