Memphis put Tennessee on the NBA map

Douglas Fritz • Apr 16, 2020 at 10:00 AM

This is a story about a story.

And a photo.

These days, the National Basketball Association rests in silence along with the sports world — awaiting and hoping for the “all clear” that may or may not come in time to save the 2019-20 season.

Almost two decades ago, the dearth of professional basketball that engulfed our state was pierced by a siren heard from Memphis to Mountain City. Tennessee had landed its first-ever NBA team.

The Vancouver Grizzlies, an expansion team that never gained a foothold in the Pacific Northwest, cleared the hurdles that allowed the franchise to move to Memphis. On June 29 of 2001, The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis dedicated about 67 percent of the front page to a manipulated photo of a grizzly bear stalking Pyramid Arena with another in the background and a third up close and personal. The dramatic imagery and colossal display has to rank as one of the most eye-catching front-page designs in Tennessee newspaper history.

The headline — “Grizzlies' arrival ends years of frustration” — told the story of why it was a big day for Memphis. For decades, Memphis labored to land a major-league team, beginning in 1965 when Mike Lynn — who went on to become executive vice president and general manger of the Minnesota Vikings — tried to get the NFL to consider the southwest Tennessee town for an NFL franchise.

Memphis did have a brief stay in the ABA in the early 1970s. The Pros, Tams and Sounds had a five-year run. The Tams were owned by Charles O. Finley, who was much more famous for his baseball ownership of the Oakland A’s.

When the Grizzlies marched into town in the new century, Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins wrote, “… for a town that has struggled with its self-image — and that has found confirmation of its failings in its quixotic pursuit of major league sports — it was a historic, even cathartic day.”

So welcome was the new team, the franchise kept Grizzlies as the nickname. Grizzly bears are indigenous to British Columbia, but have no history in West Tennessee. Fans and the business community embraced the nickname and it stands to this day.

Yes, Memphis had the Tennessee Oilers of the NFL for one season. The team played in the Liberty Bowl in 1997 and went 8-8. That brief flirtation with a team destined for Nashville satiated Memphis perhaps for a time, but the Grizzlies changed the narrative.

As expected, success didn’t burst forth in the early years. The team made the playoffs in its third season, but was swept in the first round. The Grizzlies moved out of Pyramid Arena in 2004 and into the FedExForum, reaching the playoffs the first two years but getting kicked out in a sweep each time.

In 2010-11, Memphis won its first playoff series. And in 2012-13, the Grizzlies reached the Western Conference finals before losing to the San Antonio Spurs.

With rising star Ja Morant in the fold, Memphis had a 3 1/2-game lead for the final playoff spot before this season was interrupted.

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