Grit is Good
The Memphis sports landscape continues to glow, particularly on the hardwood.
illustration by Carl Fox | Memphis Urban Sketchers
After dropping their opening game of the 2012-13 season to the same Los Angeles Clippers that eliminated them in the 2012 playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies won 14 of their next 16 games for the best start in franchise history. During the streak, the Griz handled the NBA champion Miami Heat and reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder, establishing a place among league contenders unseen since the team moved to Memphis in 2001.
Playing their first season under a new ownership group led by tech tycoon Robert Pera, the Grizzlies climbed near the top of the Western Conference behind five starters playing their third season together. That core was broken up, though, on January 31st with the trade of the team’s top scorer (and franchise leader in games played), Rudy Gay. Under the weight of big contracts for three other players (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley), the Grizzlies had to shed salary and Gay’s contract landed in Toronto, with veteran forward Tayshaun Prince finding himself in Memphis after the three-team deal with Detroit was finalized. (The Raptors also sent reserve forward Ed Davis to Memphis.)
The Grizzlies lost three of their first four games after the big trade (the first before Prince could join the team), but then won eight straight games and 14 of 15, the lone defeat coming at Miami on March 1st. Randolph made his second All-Star team (averaging 15.4 points and 11.2 rebounds while accumulating 45 double-doubles, good for fourth in the NBA). Conley led the league in total steals (174) and center Marc Gasol defied convention by winning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award despite not ranking among the NBA’s top 10 in rebounds, blocks, or steals. (Looking at more modern metrics, Gasol finished second only to Indiana’s Paul George in defensive win shares. His trophy was well earned.)
Having gone 29-15 before the Gay trade, the Grizzlies went 27-11 after the deal, establishing a new franchise record for wins while going 32-9 at FedExForum. Alas, those 56 wins were only good enough for the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs and drew, yes, the Los Angeles Clippers as the Grizzlies’ first-round opponent.
The Griz dropped the first two games in L.A., then reeled off four straight wins — each by at least 10 points — to dismiss All-NBA point guard Chris Paul and friends. In the second round for just the second time in franchise history, the Grizzlies dropped the opener at Oklahoma City then again won four straight games over another All-NBA talent (Kevin Durant). Randolph (28 points, 11 rebounds) and Conley (13 points, 11 assists) were key in the Game 5 clincher, a victory that took Memphis fans a place they’d never been before: the Western Conference finals.
The Grizzlies’ series with San Antonio was their third straight playoff rematch of the coach Lionel Hollins era, Memphis having upset the top-seeded Spurs in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs. Alas, supporting players like Matt Bonner, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green (the trio combined for 11 three-pointers in the Spurs’ blowout Game 1 victory) proved too much for the Griz, especially with stalwart (and yes, All-NBA) center Tim Duncan playing his best playoff basketball in years. The Grizzlies ended Game 2 on a 15-2 run to force overtime, only to fall victim to a Spurs defense that held Memphis to four points in the extra period. Fans at FedExForum were treated to another overtime affair in Game 3 . . . and another San Antonio win. The Spurs finished off the four-game sweep on the latest date (Memorial Day, May 27th) NBA basketball has ever been played in Memphis.
On June 10th, Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien announced that Hollins would not be offered a new contract for the 2013-14 season and beyond. Hollins departs Memphis with the most wins (196) in franchise history. Succeeding Hollins will be Dave Joerger, an assistant for six seasons on the Grizzlies’ bench.
The Memphis Tigers’ final season in Conference USA unfolded with as many deflating twists as uplifting achievements. Having opened the season with visions of membership in the vaunted Big East Conference starting with the 2013-14 season, the U of M found itself staring instead at a future alongside many of those same C-USA programs in a new league spawned out of the disintegration of the Big East. Stacked with veterans, the Tigers expected to dominate C-USA (nothing new there), while also making some strides — for the first time under fourth-year coach Josh Pastner — in the NCAA tournament. Some goals were met, some merely approximated.
Ranked in the Top 20 to start the season, the Tigers were staggered in late November by two losses (to VCU and Minnesota) in three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Junior point guard Joe Jackson played all of seven minutes in the loss to the Gophers. And upon returning to Memphis, junior center Tarik Black abruptly left a practice at the Finch Center, earning a one-game suspension from Pastner. These were captains of the Tiger team, players expected to establish a standard of excellence for newcomers like Geron Johnson and McDonald’s All-American Shaq Goodwin.
Despite the early-season off-court friction, the Tigers reeled off 22 wins in 23 games, the lone defeat coming at the hands of the eventual national champion Louisville Cardinals. Senior D.J. Stephens — for three years a highlight-generating role player for his leaping and dunking ability — became the story of the season, securing a spot in the starting lineup and delivering the quality Pastner demands most of his players: energy. Stephens led the Tigers with 6.6 rebounds per game and all of C-USA with 95 blocked shots, enough to earn him the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Jackson rebounded from his listless play on the islands, reaching double-figures in the scoring column in 16 consecutive games and becoming the program’s 48th player to reach 1,000 points for his career. (Jackson finished the season with 1,209, good for 24th in Tiger history.) Averaging 13.6 points and with an improved assist-to-turnover ratio (173-102), Jackson earned C-USA Player of the Year honors, the fifth (and final) Tiger to do so.
The Tigers stumbled at Xavier in late February, but finished their final C-USA regular season with an unblemished 16-0 record. Then in March at the conference tournament in Tulsa, junior guard Chris Crawford took over. The league’s Sixth Man of the Year drained 19 three-pointers in his team’s three-game run to a third consecutive tourney championship, averaging 25.7 points in wins over Tulane, Tulsa, and Southern Miss. (Memphis won seven of the last eight C-USA tournaments in which it played.)
With a record of 30-4 on Selection Sunday, the Tigers found themselves back in the Top 20 (#19) and seeded sixth in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region. Behind 14 points from Jackson and stellar defense from Johnson — who held St. Mary’s star Matt Dellavedova to 10 points on 3 of 13 shooting — the Tigers earned their first win in the Big Dance under Pastner. (By one measure, this was Pastner’s first win over a ranked opponent. The Gaels were in the coaches’ Top 25, though not in the AP poll.) Alas, the win put the Tigers up against bruising Michigan State in the third round. The Spartans put the clamps on the U of M (the Tigers made 19 of 63 shots) and won handily, 70-48.
The U of M roster will be transformed for the Tigers’ first season in the American Athletic Conference. Gone are Stephens, Black, and Antonio Barton (the latter two transferring after graduating in three years) as well as Adonis Thomas, who chose to enter the NBA draft after a disappointing sophomore campaign that saw him average 11.7 points and 4.5 rebounds, good enough for a third-team all-conference selection. Pastner will welcome the second-ranked freshman class in the country, led by a pair of local Parade All-Americans: swingman Nick King of East High School and forward Austin Nichols of Briarcrest. Two more four-star recruits (guard Markel Crawford from Melrose and Connecticut standout Kuran Iverson) will fight for rotation minutes with Jackson, Johnson, Goodwin, and Chris Crawford. Add high-energy forward David Pellom (a transfer from George Washington) and veteran guard Michael Dixon (from Missouri) into the mix and the Tigers should be ready and able to challenge for the first AAC championship next winter.
Following the club’s first losing season in five years (57-87 in 2012), the Memphis Redbirds were infused with four prospects ranked among the top 100 in minor-league baseball by Baseball America: outfielder Oscar Taveras (#3), pitchers Carlos Martinez (#38) and Michael Wacha (#76), and second baseman Kolten Wong (#84). After setting a single-season franchise record for strikeouts (160) in 2012 with Memphis, Shelby Miller found himself locked into the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals rotation and vying for Rookie of the Year consideration. All of which now have the Cardinals’ farm system atop those same Baseball America rankings.
Injuries and struggles among Cardinal pitchers resulted in no fewer than eight Redbird pitchers making their big-league debuts over the first three months of the 2013 campaign. One of those hurlers, John Gast, opened the season in Memphis with 32 consecutive scoreless innings, a franchise record that should last a while. (Wacha won his first game for the Cardinals three weeks before his 22nd birthday.) Down on the farm, Taveras suffered an ankle injury in mid-May that lingered well into the summer and kept him from putting up the kind of numbers that earned him Texas League Player of the Year honors in 2012. Wong was a consistent presence at the top of the Redbirds order, with a .316 batting average and six triples at the end of June.
With veteran first baseman Brock Peterson leading the Pacific Coast League in home runs (19), the Redbirds were contending for their division lead after three months of the season, though hovering around the .500 mark. If Martinez and Wacha remain in the rotation for the balance of the season, Memphis could return to the PCL playoffs for the first time since 2010. In other words, a healthy St. Louis Cardinals rotation means a healthy Memphis pennant race.
University of Memphis football under rookie coach Justin Fuente began in much the same way it ended under former coach Larry Porter. Nine games into Fuente’s first season on the sideline at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers sported a record of 1-8 with blowout losses to programs that hardly awaken echoes: 41-7 at East Carolina, 44-13 at SMU. But over the team’s final three games as members of Conference USA, a long-suffering program turned the tables, demolishing Tulane (37-23), UAB (46-9), and Southern Miss (42-24) to finish the 2012 season 4-8 (one win shy of the total over the three previous seasons).
Among the Tigers returning to help build on the progress will be quarterback Jacob Karam, running back Brandon Hayes (577 yards as a junior), and a pair of defensive linemen with all-conference potential: Johnnie Farms and Martin Ifedi.
The Tigers will play seven home games this fall: Duke (Sept. 7), Arkansas State (Sept. 21), UCF (Oct. 5), SMU (Oct. 19), Cincinnati (Oct. 30), UT-Martin (Nov. 9), Temple (Nov. 30).