With a strong playoff showing, the Grizzlies, a band of castoffs assembled by a man who lived in his parents' basement into his 30s, are finally being embraced in Memphis
This is an article from the May 9, 2011 issue
On the day Len Bias died of a drug overdose, Chris Wallace was a 27-year-old two-time college dropout who lived at home and owed his parents $18,000. His résumé read like a drifter's diary: He picked up trash in dormitories at the University of Kansas, bowing his head when coeds walked by; he doled out change to slot machine junkies at the Sands Regency Casino Hotel in Reno, wearing an apron stuffed with nickels; he took the graveyard shift at the Centennial Motel in his hometown of Buckhannon, W.Va., turning on the NO VACANCY sign to grab a couple of hours' sleep. Wallace had been hired as a field coordinator for a West Virginia congressional candidate, but the candidate sent him to locations so remote he sometimes couldn't find voters. His father, Bob, was the president of the West Virginia bar association and helped him land a research job with Union Drilling. When that did not work out either, one of the bosses told Bob, "Your son is going to be a loser."
Wallace was a journalism major without a degree who couldn't write all that well. However, he enjoyed reading Street & Smith's annual college basketball preview, so he started his own, the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, out of his parents' basement, accepted their loan, and dictated all 350 pages of the magazine to secretaries at his father's law firm. When Bias died on June 19, 1986, two days after the Celtics drafted him, NBA teams suddenly developed a keen interest in the personal habits of college players. Jon Spoelstra, then the Trail Blazers' general manager and an early subscriber to Wallace's magazine, hired him to conduct background checks. It was up to Wallace to distinguish the good kids from the bad ones.
But there was something hypocritical about Wallace's big break: He was condemning young men for making mistakes at the same stage of life that he did. "I have learned that there isn't a straight line to where you want to go," Wallace says. "You can take a pretty circuitous route." He is now the G.M. of the Grizzlies, retracing his improbable career path over a basket of fried catfish in a Memphis soul food restaurant where he is never allowed to pay. The catfish will be on the house for some time, since the Grizzlies became just the fourth team in NBA history to upset a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs when they eliminated the Spurs last Friday night. On Sunday they beat the Thunder 114--101 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals behind the play of a 29-year-old power forward whom Wallace would have once dismissed as a bad kid.
Zach Randolph arrived in Memphis in July 2009, having been traded three times and involved in at least a half dozen scrapes with the law. He punched both a teammate and an opponent. The Knicks and even the Clippers gave up on him. But Randolph is 6'9" and 260 pounds with a soft touch and an affable personality that belies his prodigious police record. Given that Randolph had two years and $33 million left on his contract, the Grizzlies were the only team seriously interested in him, and he might have been the only bona fide big man interested in them. "Memphis is a tough town, and not everybody loves it," Randolph says. "It sounded like me."
Since being acquired from Los Angeles for guard Quentin Richardson, Randolph has averaged 20.4 points and 11.9 rebounds, made an All-Star team, paid the utility bills for numerous families in the Memphis area every winter and acted as a personal greeter at the FedExForum. Any fan in the lower bowl who shouts "Z-Bo!" is rewarded with a wink, a nod, a point and a belly dance. After Randolph closed out the top-seeded Spurs in Game 6 of the first round, with fourth-quarter floaters, fadeaways and baby hooks made even more impressive because his feet barely left the ground, he peeled off his jersey and flung it into the stands, the Santa Claus of spring. "I want to go to Beale Street," he said, inspired by the victory party and lured by the Memphis in May music festival raging outside. "But I shouldn't." Then he collapsed into Wallace's arms. The G.M. felt like Muhammad Ali cornerman Bundini Brown, whispering into the champ's ear, "Zach, we love you and are fortunate to have you. The moon and the stars have come together for you in Memphis."
Randolph didn't hit Beale Street, but Wallace did, waving a white towel up and down the block. Players mingled on the streets until morning, soaking up the celebratory symphony. Thirty-six hours later the Grizzlies throttled the Thunder in their opener, suggesting once again that there is more than one way to assemble a small-market power. The series—a deep-fried alternative to Celtics-Heat—pits two teams with obvious geographic connections and similar financial challenges. The blueprints they followed to get here, however, could not be more different.
Wallace took his wife and son to Paris in 2006, and on a visit to the Louvre they ran into Sam Presti, then an assistant G.M. with the Spurs. The Wallaces were on their way to a place called Café Angelina, and they insisted that Presti tag along. Wallace downed four cups of the café's famous hot chocolate. Presti had one. Wallace was reminded of the cocoa as the Grizzlies left Saturday for Oklahoma City, where Presti is now the G.M. "It's the hedonistic gluttons against the disciplined people," he said with a laugh.
The Thunder has the 45th biggest television market in the U.S. (704,670), and to compensate, Presti has created a streamlined organization unsurpassed in terms of player evaluation and development, with homegrown stars who stay out of trouble and appreciative fans who fill 99.7% of the seats. Oklahoma City needed a Ping-Pong ball to bounce its way, but when it did, the team—then the Seattle SuperSonics—took advantage, snagging forward Kevin Durant with the second pick in 2007 and signing him last summer to a $87 million extension through 2016. It's no surprise that the Thunder is in the second round. It's the opposition that's a surprise.
The Grizzlies, who arrived in Memphis from Vancouver 10 years ago, have an even smaller television market (693,860), rank 27th in the NBA in attendance and are outdrawn by the local college team. Their margin for error would appear slimmer than Hasheem Thabeet, but they have survived drafting Thabeet with the second pick in 2009, trading Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo in '08, signing Darko Milicic for $21 million and bringing in Allen Iverson, who lasted three games. The closest they came to a superstar was 7-foot Pau Gasol, and they shipped him to the Lakers. That move turned Wallace into a punch line, but ultimately provided his team with an identity.
The trade went down in February 2008, when John Calipari was coach at the University of Memphis and Derrick Rose was leading the Tigers to the national title game. "They sucked all the oxygen out of the air in this city," Wallace says. "There was nothing left for us. We were a nonentity." Wallace had been in Memphis less than a year, but he became a Tigers fan, and he noticed how the locals rallied behind hardboiled kids. There is such a thing as a Memphis Player, and Gasol was never going to be one of them. "The Memphis Player is a little rough around the edges, hit a few bumps in the road, maybe ran into some legal situations," says Ken Bennett, the Tigers' chaplain and founder of Streets Ministries. "We love those guys."
Memphis is a unique market and Wallace a different G.M. He attends high school football games on Friday nights, watches the news on an Israeli television station and is a member of a pro-Israel lobby even though he is not Jewish. Wallace's fascination with the country dates to the Six-Day War of 1967, which became the source of almost every essay he wrote at Buckhannon-Upshur High. Wallace could relate to anyone in a struggle. He named his 13-year-old son Truman, after the failed haberdasher and oil prospector turned U.S. president. Wallace would have been thrilled to be a G.M. at 32, the way Presti was, and build around Durant, the way Oklahoma City did. But he had to take another indirect route.
The Lakers furnished the Grizzlies with money, draft picks and cap space. The city gave them the freedom to acquire players who might have been judged and undervalued elsewhere. Randolph was the most prominent example. Joining him was center Marc Gasol, Pau's younger brother, who once weighed more than 330 pounds; power forward Darrell Arthur, nicknamed Shady, who was swapped three times on draft night; and guard Tony Allen, who two years ago with the Celtics required police protection around the bench for a playoff series in his hometown of Chicago. "We have a whole team full of guys who think that they've been snubbed and mistreated," says point guard Mike Conley.
Coach Lionel Hollins has protected them from each other—except for the time Allen punched Mayo over a card game on a flight—channeling their grudges into fast breaks and the relentless pursuit of 50-50 balls. Conley, 23, averaged career highs in points (13.7), assists (6.5) and steals (1.8) this season. Gasol is outscoring and outrebounding his brother in the playoffs. Allen's defense earned him a billboard on the side of the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, next to the FedExForum, which he renamed the Grindhouse. Remarkably, the Grizzlies are grinding along without second-leading scorer Rudy Gay, who has a subluxation in his left shoulder and hasn't played since February. "A small-market team can succeed without making all the perfect decisions," Conley says. "But you have to believe in your guys and stick with them. They did that here."
Memphis fancies itself the ultimate eighth seed—"An underdog city," says forward Shane Battier, "dating back to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King"—but most small markets feel the same way. What separates Memphis, in the pigskin-possessed South, is a preference for basketball. No city of its size produces more high school talent. The Tigers rank in the top 10 in the NCAA in attendance. But the Grizzlies could never tap the well. They went 0--12 in the playoffs, failing to showcase the league. "We had the kindling," says Wallace. "We just needed the match to light it."
Game 6 sold out in five minutes, and when Randolph walked into the locker room before warmups, he asked what it was like at Golden State in 2007. The '07 Warriors were the only other eighth-seed to win a seven-game series, and they also relied heavily on castoffs. They haven't made the playoffs again since. "That won't happen here," Randolph says. "This is just the start." Randolph, Conley and Gay have all signed long-term extensions in the past year. Gasol will become a restricted free agent after the season, and owner Michael Heisley says, "It's very important that we keep him."
Heisley and Wallace run the team in concert, an owner who worked two jobs to put himself through Georgetown and slept on park benches between shifts, with a G.M. who did not move out of his parents' house until he was 32. Wallace finally got a full-time NBA job in 1989 when Spoelstra, then the Nuggets' general manager, hired him as director of college scouting. But Spoelstra was forced out three months later, and Wallace was fired six months after that. He drove back to West Virginia with his new wife, Debby, certain he'd had the shortest career of any executive in NBA history. Two more years passed, of cranking out previews for the magazine and working at the ABCD camp in New Jersey, picking up college coaches in vans at the Newark airport. The Heat hired him as its coordinator of scouting services in 1993, for $25,000, and, after being promoted to Miami's director of player personnel, he would go on to be general manager of the Celtics before moving to the Grizzlies. His lasting contribution with Miami came when he was asked if he knew a potential video coordinator. He recommended Spoelstra's son, a bright point guard out of the University of Portland named Erik.
Wallace mentions this, over a final glass of sweet tea at the Soul Fish Café, to illustrate the funny hops a basketball life can take. Now, Erik Spoelstra gives instructions to LeBron James in Miami while Wallace whispers platitudes to Randolph in Memphis. They are on opposite ends of the NBA's class struggle—one side printing money, the other hemorrhaging it, one side with a head start, the other forever playing catch-up. Judging by TV markets, attendance figures and draft choices, the Grizzlies should have been finished two weeks ago. But here they are, hustling and grinding and belly-dancing down Beale Street, Memphis Players each and every one.
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