**This is the second in series of 10 poems and art pieces we’ll be posting leading into the 2018-19 NBA season. All art in this series is done by friend of blog, Andrew Maahs whose portfolio can be found at http://www.Basemintdesign.com. The poem below should be read to the tune of Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.**
It seems like yesterday
But it was long ago (it was October 29th, 2008)
Marc was lovely, he was the king of the court (Marc as in Gasol who had 12 and 12 in his Grizzlies debut)
There in the darkness with the intros playing low
And the wins that we shared
The bloody battles that we won (it’s unclear which battle is referenced here)
Caught like starving bears out of control (probably referencing Memphis mascot: the Grizzly bear)
Till there were no Spurs left to maul and no Thunders left to roll (Grizzlies’ playoff opponents during their heyday)
And I remember what he said to me
How he swore that he knew we could win (it is assumed this was a private, undocumented conversation, though it could be referencing Mike Conley’s comments here in 2015)
I remember how he held me oh so tight (Marc & Mike in April of 2011)
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then (likely a reference to Conley’s unfulfillment in ultimate NBA success)
Against the West (could Memphis have had more success in the east?)
We were grindin’ against the West
We were young and strong, we were grindin’
against the West
And the years rolled slowly past
And I’m finding me and Marc alone (aside from Conley & Gasol, only Wayne Selden & Andrew Harrison appeared in the team’s last playoff run in 2017)
Surrounded by teammates I thought were my friends (could Conley be alluding to locker room issues?)
We found ourselves further and further from our goal (2018 was the first season since 2010 that the Grizz missed the playoffs. The “goal” in this case is likely an NBA Championship.)
And I guess I lost the day
It was Golden State alone (in 2015, after taking a 2-1 lead over eventual champion Golden State, the Grizzlies would lose three straight games; each by double digits)
I was living to play and playing to live
Never thought about injuries or even how much I hurt (Conley has missed 122 games since the 2014-15 season)
Moving 48 minutes a night for months at a time
Playing for Dave and for Fiz and JB
I began to find myself losin’
Losin’ with Marc again and again
Against the west
A little something against the west
I found myself seeking shelter against the west
Well those losin days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Media days and commitments
Nights in Houston, days in Portland
I’m still runnin’ against Harden
I’m older now and still runnin’
Against the Brow
Still runnin’ against the west
Me and Marc still runnin’
See the young man run (likely alluding to Jaren Jackson Jr, the probable torchbearer for Mike & Marc in Memphis)
Watch the young man run
Let the Grizzlies ride
Against the west
Let the Grizzlies ride
Once or twice before, I’ve mentioned my yet-to-be-published (or even started) Choose Your Own Adventure, NBA-style doorstop of a book based on trades or signings that didn’t quite happen (Chris Paul to Lakers is and will continue to be the Mount Everest of What-Ifs based on circumstance alone). Well, today is the first extension of that concept; what I’ll refer to as an Alternative Chapter. It’s nothing more than me channeling my imagination to come up with a (somewhat plausible) scenario for a team or player that strays away from reality. Today’s Alternative Chapter features the pride of Huntington, West Virginia, O.J. Mayo.
Mayo’s only in his fourth season in the NBA, but it feels like we’re all old friends because his name has been plastered across prep headlines since he was named to the all-state first-team in Kentucky … as an eighth grader.
At this point, I’ll stop and posit a theory about O.J. Mayo. Scouts, high school beat writers, opponents, fans and junkies (of the hoop variety) accelerated the Mayo hype-wagon in part (large, small, medium part?) because of his name. O.J. Mayo is not a name we easily forget. Oh-jay-may-oh (or you could say it like this). Say it enough and it will stick to your mind like bugs splattered across your windshield. Had he been named Jeff Ridges, the likelihood of his rapid rise through the prep rankings may have taken a longer, more traditional and healthy route. Instead, Mayo’s been ingrained in the basketball zeitgeist since 2002. Great exposure brings great expectations and that’s where the reality of Mayo has fallen short. This whole concept is applicable beyond the basketball court and should likely be addressed by Malcolm Gladwell if someone else hasn’t cracked the code already.
Onto the Alternative Chapter …
Every few weeks, O.J. Mayo’s name is mentioned in trade rumors … to the Bulls, to the Pacers, to the Nets. There’s the consoling, “Well someone wants me,” but after multiple failed trades, even a basketball vagabond like Mayo wonders, “Am I really wanted … by anyone?” These doubts are human (and potentially canine), but they make any of us feel unwanted and unloved. And since we the fans have been reading about the great O.J. Mayo for years already, maybe we’re tired of his undersized two-guardness, his catchy name, the constant trade rumors and the confusion of his game not living up to the hype (“I thought he was supposed to be better?”). Maybe we don’t want him either.
Fast forward to May 2012 when the sixth seed Grizzlies are bounced in game six against the Lakers in Memphis. After suffering a sprained ankle in game five, Tony Allen is forced to sit out the next game which means Mayo draws the start and gets the luxury of guarding Kobe Bryant. Between games five and six, reporters bait Mayo into a headline-making comment and he sadly takes the hook; cracking a joke about the time he “locked Kobe up” in a game of one-on-one. Not that Kobe needed more motivation for an elimination game, but he attacks Mayo inside and out, abusing the smaller guard without mercy. After Bryant scores 16 in the first quarter, Mayo’s confidence is shaken and it shows on offense where his performance brings up Starksian memories from the early 90s—just another small shooting guard lining up the sights for a soon-to-be-Hall of Famer. He shoots 1-14 from the field. His coach, Lionel Hollins ends his misery with two minutes left in the third quarter and benches Mayo in favor of the rangy Quincy Pondexter. Mayo exits to a cold chorus of boos from the hometown fans; his last time in a Grizzlies jersey.
The season over, a team option on his fifth year, Mayo gets out of Memphis as soon as he’s able. Bags packed, he ventures to the Caribbean for a couple weeks of quiet, uninterrupted reflection. His beard grows unkempt, his hair ‘fros out, unbrushed. Despite the images of a black Castaway, his mind is clear and upon return stateside, he meets with his agent Rob Pelinka. While the Grizzlies have rejected the team option, Pelinka excitedly rattles off teams that have contacted him regarding his client’s services. The refreshed Mayo cuts him off. He’s done, he says. Tired of the games and politics. Tired of the unfair expectations (“Don’t they know Kobe’s 6’7” … at least 6’7”!?!?”). He demands Pelinka look into Spanish opportunities (“I’ve already talked to Marc (Gasol) about it.”).
The first hint that Spain offered refuge
And that’s how O.J. Mayo came to join FCB Regal (aka, FC Barcelona) of the Spanish top division. He signed for one year to “get your confidence back” as Pelinka put it. Mayo didn’t disagree. He arrived in September and played for about a third of the money he would’ve made in the NBA. Sadly, Euro legend Pete Mickeal retired due to a degenerative knee condition, but close one man’s window and another man often hurls a basketball through it, then climbs in and that’s what Mayo did.
Like so many expats before him, Mayo was revived by a new culture and new people. The passion of the fans brought back nostalgia for the high school crowds he played to nearly a decade before and his game thrived. In his first season alone, Barcelona won the rare treble: the domestic Copa del Rey, the ACB Championship and the Euro League title. This wasn’t any indictment of the quality of Spanish league basketball; just the realization of O.J. Mayo’s potential.
The record books and tales of Mayo’s long stay in the Spanish league are much too long for the meager space allotted here. Just know that the acceptance and sense of inclusion that was so hard to come by in the Association was made readily available by his teammates and fans in Barcelona.
The title of this post is about the wonderful collective Lionel Hollins has created in Memphis. But it’s not just about Memphis because, more than ever, I’m unable to stay away from the cyclonic Russell Westbrook and, less intriguingly, the OKC Thunder.
Even in defeat, the Grizzlies put on a presentation to make basketball purists smile. Even though Zbo and Marc Gasol combined for nearly 50% of Memphis’s total 123 points, the team was selflessly expressive. For their stats, effort and abilities, the Memphis bigs get the their names in lights, but Shane Battier’s harassing defense, Mike Conley’s huge three to send the game into OT and Greivis Vasquez’s shot-put style deep three to put the game into a third OT proved anyone in a Grizz uniform (Haddadi?) can carry the flame of the moment. How a cast of NBA orphans that includes Zbo, Tony Allen, OJ Mayo, Sam Young, Mike Conley, etc. arrived at this style and accepted it is a feel-good story, NBA style.
Whether it was osmosis or never-ending note taking, recalling coaching strategies and tactics from memory or utilizing a network of NBA champion coaches, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins learned a few things from his time in the NBA: How to lead and coach. In one of the three overtimes, TNT cut away to the Grizzlies bench where Hollins was sitting quietly, nodding in approval while Shane Battier rattled off motivational encouragements worthy of Krzyzewski. In the world of basketball idealism, Coach K and Dr. Jack nodded along with Hollins—game recognize. That everyone else was buying in to Battier’s earnest words evidenced the cult of trust Hollins has created in a short time in Memphis.
Tracing Hollins’s basketball roots through the years, you can see the current Grizzlies predecessors in Dr. Jack Ramsay’s Blazer squads and it’s not a stretch to believe Hollins learned a few things from Chuck Daly in the few months he played for Daly in Detroit. Daly’s and Ramsay’s squads were inclusive, moving the ball and riding hot hands from night to night. Everyone contributed and was expected to. Coupling Hollins’s lineage with his up-front communication style (he was at the helm when Memphis let Iverson know he wouldn’t be treated different from any other player) and you have a coach who’s going to give everyone a chance (Haddadi, again) and not take any guff from his players.
The template for Marc G?
The cult of trust instills guys like Mike Conley and Greivis Vasquez with the confidence needed to bang home clutch threes when everyone’s expecting them to wilt in the bright, shining, face of the basketball-prince, Kevin Durant. It creates opportunities for Tony Allen to be reborn and OJ Mayo and Shane Battier to be welcomed back home not just with open arms, but with open roles on a winning basketball team.
Beyond all the good times in Memphis, down at the seedy end of the court, something strange and fun continues to happen: the all-to-public maturation of the relationship between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Whether it’s been mandated by Sam Presti up on high or if it’s just natural for Kevin Durant and Scott Brooks to do so, there’s an element of protectionism that surrounds Russell Westbrook. When Russell-related questions pop up in Durant’s interviews, he takes the high road and talks about his point guard warm, earthy tones. Keep saying the right things, Kevin, but we saw you getting exasperated the last two games. In the post-game presser, Scotty Brooks took the same sweet route when talking about Russell. Everything was peachy and kind and why not? The guy put up 40 including several on drives that could maybe be duplicated by Derrick Rose or Monta Ellis. And, most importantly for the Oklahomans, they left town with a series-equalizing victory.
Not everyone’s sucking lollipops and eating cotton candy though. How can they be when their point guard’s field goal attempts per game jump up almost 30% from the regular season to the post season? And how about his field goal percentage dropping from 44% to 40%? The same trends show up in his advanced stats. Russell’s Edge continues to be a twisted riddle. It seems appropriate and logical to compare him to Derrick Rose, but the bolder Russell becomes, the more I see him riding a fine, narrow, dangerous edge—Evel Knievel style. I don’t mean that just to add humor to his tales, but because the comparison is accurate and legitimate. Russell’s aware of the dangers of his freelancing (alienating Durant and/or putting OKC in a position to get knocked out of the playoffs), but it doesn’t slow down his improvisational drives or macho pull-up jumpers. The combination of ultra-confidence and the need to prove he can be Durant has crash and burn written all over it. Yet young Russell continues down that same path with fury and venom (anyone else notice that road rage element to his game?).
Lost in the ongoing Westbrook-Durant drama are the Oaklean efforts of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. Every play in the paint and rebound up for grabs is being contested by desperate players on both sides. These small efforts on every play are making a good series great. I can’t not mention the bearded playmaking genius of James Harden. What secrets does his beard hold? I haven’t been this surprised about a player’s playmaking abilities since JR Smith diced up the Lakers in a losing series in 2009.
In the sense that styles make fights, basketball isn’t any different from boxing. OKC and Memphis are a perfect matchup and proved it on Monday night. The feel-good-Grizzlies with their labor party lineup (Comrade Gasol?) aren’t walking the path of righteousness any more than OKC with Westbrook trying to tip the superstar seesaw closer to his side. The contrasting styles and storylines, hungry fan bases and 63-minute instant classics are encompassing a wide range of this league’s great potential. Who knew we’d reach this potential somewhere between Oklahoma City and Memphis?