RJP: Memphis Grizzlies

Grit N Grind, Baby

Curtis M. Harris

The Retired Jersey Project is chugging along! (Read this if you need to catch up on the rules.)

Sadly, this franchise didn’t stand much of a chance surviving in Vancouver, but against all odds they’ve flourished in Memphis!

The city’s other foray into major pro basketball came in the early 1970s with the Memphis Pros/Sounds/Tams of the ABA. The Sounds are a great name and personally I wish they had renamed the current NBA club after them.

Oh well. Their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle, clearly takes stylistic cues from the Sounds, so that’s something.

Anyhoo, today’s journey down jersey retirement lane will focus on some very obvious Memphis players from the Grit N Grind era. The only reason Marc Gasol and Mike Conley aren’t on the following list is because they ain’t retired yet.

Jerseys to Retire

#9 Tony Allen (2010-2017)

3x All-Defensive 1st Team—3x All-Defensive 2nd Team

Tony Allen’s statistics don’t inspire much enthusiasm. Sure, averages of 8.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, and 1.7 SPG aren’t bad by any means, especially those steals. But they don’t jump out at you either. Well, this is where it pays to get in on the ground floor of a franchise when it establishes an identity. And you happen to play a big part of establishing that new attitude.

After six seasons with the Boston Celtics, Allen arrived in Memphis as a free agent in the summer of 2010. He had a well-deserved reputation as fierce defensive wing able to harangue opposing wings with his freakishly long arms. He also had the swagger of being an NBA champion in 2008 and coming within a hair’s breadth of another title in 2010.

That sort of bravado is needed when revamping a franchise that had mostly meandered for so, so long.

And behold!

In Allen’s first season, the Grizzlies hustled to 46 wins. As the #8 seed they upset the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. The upset gave Memphis its first playoff victories—as in first playoff games they ever won—and first playoff series victory in franchise history. They almost got another awesome upset against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but lost in seven games in the semi-finals. This wasn’t all due to Tony Allen, obviously, but they never missed the playoffs during his seven seasons there after hardly ever making the playoffs over the previous 15 years.

Anyways, I don’t think anyone epitomizes the ethos of Grit N Grind better than a hustling guard who seemed to learn dribbling yesterday and would often miss open layups on the fastbreak BUT was still a fearsome basketball player.

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#50 Zach Randolph (2009-2017)

All-NBA 3rd Team—2x All-Star

If you woulda told people in 2009 that Zach Randolph would one day be a beloved civic statesman, they’d look at you cross-eyed.

Not that Randolph was viewed as a bad man personally or anything. It’s just that in the 2000s he’d been associated with the Portland Trail Blazers’ descent into the so-called “Jail Blazers.” Then he was the latest in New York’s ever-growing string of failed star saviors envisioned by Isiah Thomas. Then Randolph got the kiss of death: a stint with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Yet, throughout the 2010s, Z-Bo’s bump n thump style became the heart and soul of Memphis’s grittin’ n grindin’.

The power forward gloriously lacked muscle definition and could barely jump over a phone book, but he strong-armed and overpowered opponents setting the identity of the Grizzlies beginning in the 2009-10 season.

His offensive moves were defined by twinkle toe feet setting up a deft touch, especially on his mini-hooks around the basket. And boy did he know how to spin and bump into opponents to create room. The shock waves from Randolph’s shoulders crashing into defenders threw off their timing, while Randolph’s quick release needed no time to get a shot off.

The end result was that there was never a crevice too small for Z-Bo to get a bucket.

Rarely has a star player fit so well with a city and rarely did it take almost a decade into that player’s career to find such a home. But it happened. All hail Z-Bo!

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The Memphis Sounds/Pros/Tams

For a team that wasn’t all that good, the Memphis ABA franchise sure did cycle through a lot of names. Arriving from New Orleans in 1970, the former Buccaneers became the Memphis Pros and enjoyed a 41-43 season in 1970-71. It would EASILY be the best season for Memphis hoops in the ABA. Here’s the record rundown (and name changes) over the ensuing years…

1971-72: Pros go 26-58
1972-73: Tams go 24-60
1973-74: Tams go 21-63
1974-75: Sounds go 27-57

Thereafter, they ignominiously folded and that was that. Well at least there’s three players to remember from those years. And it so happens they’re players from Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, which is how the team got the Tams nickname. First letter of each state gives you T-A-M.

#11 Wil Jones (1970-1974)—from Arkansas, he was the eldest of the Jones brothers (Wil, Caldwell, Major, Charles) who flooded pro basketball during the 1970s and 1980s. He was an ABA All-Star in 1972 with the Pros.

#14 Johnny Neumann (1971-1974)—a native Memphian, this shooting guard averaged 18.4 PPG, 4.0 APG, and 3.9 RPG for his hometown club, yet never made an ABA All-Star squad. I call shenanigans.

#33 Wendell Ladner (1970-1972)—a 2x ABA All-Star and hailed from neighboring Mississippi. Sadly died at age 27 in a plane crash, but he partied hard enough to fill a dozen lifetimes.

Let’s finish this with the Grit n Grind of the soul kind from Al Green.

(Turn them speakers up)