I need the Al Green video, now. I have very mixed feelings about drawing connections between sports and music, but Memphis is just too important—and too infrequently in the national spotlight—to pass up. Also, very busy day for me on the Internet: This week’s NBA Playoff Kibitz on GQ.com; a piece for Good Men Project on “toughness”, the flip side of “soft”; and my first column for Sportsfeat.com, where I “make picks” and then write about it.
I almost posted Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere”, but we didn’t hear a ton about the floods in Memphis during the telecast, and I can’t well be more sensationalist than ESPN. Also, that would be regionally inaccurate. I am happy with what I chose instead. The Grizzlies beat the Thunder, coming back in what was the first truly dramatic game of the series. We all know that the two teams are stylistic opposites; it wasn’t until today that I really put together how much deeper the difference between these two franchises run. Actually, it starts with a similarity: Both Memphis and OKC are small markets, considered at various times unlikely homes for an NBA team. After that, though, all goes out the window.
OKC is the argument for why the league can go with this “hockey model”; the Grizzlies, by contrast, are almost always rumored to be for sale or on the verge of relocation. Oklahoma City had to be taught to embrace pro basketball, while until recently, Memphis had Calipari—sort of like having another NBA team on the premises. What’s more, the Thunder have been the best-case scenario for a team building from scratch. They hit the jackpot with Durant, and in Sam Presti, just may have the sharpest GM out there. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, threw away a lottery pick on Thabeet; took on the very questionable Zach Randolph; believed in the even more questionable Tony Allen; overpaid for Conley to make him feel confident; may have done the same for Rudy Gay to make themselves feel better; and of course, traded Pau for Marc when, really, no one thought Marc would be this good. Then you have the two cities: largely white OKC trying to leave behind its sleepy, bland past for a shiny new future, and Memphis, which is, well Memphis. But hey, at least both are small markets. The NBA has to be happy about that!
My soul left my body and hovered over it, watching, in the third quarter of Grizzlies/Thunder. I had to watch it off of DVR, and I couldn’t help but check the score beforehand, so this—not the last buzzer—was the reckoning I kept. Westbrook, whose demonism has gone from horror-movie chic to more ordinary menace, slowed at the top of the key, leaned in, and rocketed a pass to Durant for a straight-up-and-down dunk. Like an human exclamation point, set up by a blasted semi-colon. I didn’t cry out, cheer, or any of my usual reactions to this kind of play. Almost every single movement on the court by Durant or Westbrook holds my attention; for me, this should have been been the ultimate pay-off. Instead, I was just kind of annoyed. Not because I did or didn’t want to see the Thunder score, but for how frivolous it seemed in the broader context of the game. The play came across as a fluke—the difference between oasis and mirage. It wasn’t true or real, in whatever senses of those words you feel like deploying.
I still don’t even know if I like the Grizzlies, who batter the middle, chase ad hoc buckets, and come off as at once haphazard and grounded. It is, indeed, understandable smooth shit that murderers move with. On Friday, I wrote that Memphis’s win over the Spurs didn’t have the “prophetic tinge” of Warriors 2007. Maybe I spoke too soon, at least on a personal level. Or maybe, with the Grizzlies, the details are just finer, and less separable from the overall effect, than with the latest Durant/Westbrook air strike.
Nothing quite starts a day like Leitch RT’ing Hollinger talking about how the Flaming Lips are for real part of the New OKC’s identity. It’s true—when I lunched with Mayor Mick, he talked a lot about how important that was to the kind of city they wanted to be, and also how tight him and Wayne Coyne are.
If you really want a music war to pop off between Memphis and Oklahoma City, there’s going to be hell to pay. Memphis, in case you didn’t know, is arguably the most musically important city this side of New York. You know about Sun Records and B.B. King’s Beale Street, Stax, and Hi (Al Green and beyond), all of which are civic institutions there—albeit some in sarcophagal form. Anyone reading this is likely also up on 8Ball and MJG and the entire Hypnotize Minds camp (I always forget that Frayser Boy has an Oscar). But scratch the surface just barely, and you get Sleepy John Estes, Big Star, the Replacements at Ardent, and nearby soul outposts Fame and Muscle Shoals. Jay Reatard (RIP), River City Tanlines, I posted a Scruffs song because, well, they’re from Memphis and can go toe-to-toe with any more famous act. Dan Penn’s “Raining in Memphis” guts “Walkin’ in Memphis” any day of the week.
But let’s not totally sell OKC short. It’s long been a place that people were from, not one people stayed at. Still, giants like Charlie Christian and Don Cherry, were the jazz-saturated Deep Deuce neighborhood, once the regional hub for black culture in the Southwest. Ralph Ellison wrote about those formative experiences. There’s a street named after Wanda Jackson, a lifelong native. COLOR ME BADD IS FROM OKLAHOMA CITY. Toby Keith has a restaurant there. Sam Rivers is from El Reno, which falls within the metropolitan area for census purposes. Also, the Dust Bowl did kind of trigger a huge migration to California, which is why Merle Haggard’s birth certificate says nothing about the state forever associated with him. Who knows how this match-up might go, if history had not been so cruel?
Regardless, I have to give this to Memphis in a landslide. And, out of personal bias, OKC produced no James Carr or O.V. Wright. That right there decides it for me. Please offer your input and corrections however this medium encourages such activity. And no, the Thunder cannot claim all of Seattle’s past musical achievement. I would say the same thing about the Grizz and Vancouver, but I think they’re just fine without Destroyer.
The Grizzlies’ win didn’t have the prophetic tinge of the 2007 Warriors. There wasn’t that sense that a new form of basketball had arrived from a far-off moon, or that style was unraveling and reconstituting itself before our very eyes. Golden State taking it to Dallas like they did, in the way they did, was so improbable that there was no choice but to take a leap of faith. Paradoxical as it may sound, it was the only rational response. BELIEVE! was an imperative, not a plea. Memphis, on the other hand, were radical only for their deficiencies. The heart of this team is Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, a tandem of skilled big men who could have existed at any point in the last four decades of the game. Tony Allen may be a miscreant web icon, and a horrendous decision-maker with the ball. But he’s an uncanny defender, with instincts that are nearly the inverse of his clap-trap on offense. Most players who play the lanes and gamble with football-style coverage end up getting burned. Allen not only converts more than anyone in the league—he’s also never struggling to get back into position. It’s only a gamble if one day they impale you with it.
What makes the Grizzles so special is that they beat the Spurs with good, old-fashioned basketball. They made the Right Way grimy, and dispatched with San Antonio on its terms. That Memphis could do this while remaining true to their personality—their terms—makes them at once more remarkable and more durable than a blinding cosmic event like the Warriors.