Memphis rallies around Grizzlies' postseason run
Tony Allen was filling up his tank at a gas station when he realized just what the Grizzlies' stunning run through the NBA playoffs mean to Memphis as Tennessee fends off the overflowing Mississippi.
Allen was wearing a Grizzlies' T-shirt with players pictured in a huddle with the words ''Together we stand, divided we fall'' when a woman approached him.
She didn't know who the Memphis guard was or ask for an autograph. The woman only wanted to know how she could get that T-shirt for herself.
''That showed how much the fans just love the Grizzlies,'' Allen said. ''She didn't take not one chance looking me in the eye, she was so focused on my shirt.''
The team's surprising success has been the perfect pick-me-up for city, which is dealing with record flooding while desperate for a winner.
Hundreds of people around the city have been flooded out of their homes and remain in shelters, battling the river and scrambling for the bare necessities. Other Memphis residents fortunate enough to stay dry have painted the city Grizzlies' blue and yellow.
No matter who you talk to - security guards, hotel desk clerks or salesmen - everyone in and around Memphis want to know: ''You a Grizzlies' fan, right?''
The University of Memphis Tigers remain this city's first basketball love. But city still stings from the NCAA vacating the Tigers' 2008 season with an overtime loss to Kansas in the national championship. A 1985 Final Four also was vacated.
The Grizzlies - for now - have overtaken the Tigers.
''This is going beyond what the Tigers have ever done,'' fan Justin Sanders said. ''It's that big.''
Sanders is a fan of the Tigers and his family has had season tickets on the front row, midcourt behind the scorer's table for nine of the Grizzlies' 10 seasons in Memphis. He's had people asking him why he would support the Grizzlies over the years.
''This run has given me unbelievable pride in my city and my team,'' Sanders said.
The Grizzlies went from the first NBA franchise to lose its first 12 playoff games to becoming only the second No. 8 seed to knock off the top seed in a best-of-seven series when they sent San Antonio packing in six games. Now Memphis is two wins from the Western Conference finals, though the Oklahoma City Thunder lead 3-2 going into Game 6 on Friday night.
It's why Memphis is buzzing with the Grizzlies' logo painted everywhere from vacant lots to storefronts downtown and a downtown building lit up at night with the message ''Go Grizz.''
''The city has galvanized and come together and the people are just going gaga over the whole success we're having,'' Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. ''All of that is beautiful, and I'm always happy for that.''
Memphis is a city that has seen too many big dreams fizzle away.
Sand bags keep the Mississippi River out of the Pyramid, the Grizzlies' first home in Memphis. The bulging river has backed up creeks and the Wolf River, flooding neighborhoods north and south of downtown where Beale Street and the Grizzlies' arena remain high and dry on the bluffs overlooking the devastation.
The Grizzlies' playoff run hasn't been affected, and neither Hollins nor his players have been flooded out. Top scorer Zach Randolph was an hour late for pre-game last weekend before Game 3 because of traffic detours around flooded roads on his way to the arena.
Hollins feels for everyone struggling with the flooding, but has to focus on his Grizzlies. It's a franchise largely ignored in the southwest corner of Tennessee.
''We're playing for this team, this organization and for ourselves,'' he said.
This has been a tough first decade for the Grizzlies in Memphis, a possible contraction candidate by the NBA. The Grizzlies sold out only four games during the regular season, and one of those was against the Los Angeles Lakers with plenty of fans wearing L.A. gold.
Now each playoff game has sold out, the next faster than the last. Tickets for Friday night were gone within minutes after the box office opened.
Adam Rubrum, 29, and his family has been watching the Grizzlies since they played at the Pyramid. He has never seen the arena so electric.
''It's a nice feeling, because outside the city, there are still people who think this franchise is a joke.'' Rubrum said.
Not now. People across Tennessee, who usually call Memphis the capital of either Arkansas or Mississippi, have taken notice of the NBA team in Memphis. The Grizzlies are a hot topic on talk radio with new fans changing profile pictures on Facebook to the team logo.
In Memphis, fans are doing their best to help keep this run going. With the Grizzlies pushing Monday night's game to three overtimes before a 133-123 loss, fans just stood at one point and held up rally towels showing off the phrase ''Believe Memphis.'' The Grizzlies appreciate that energy.
''We just want to come out and play hard like it's our last game,'' guard O.J. Mayo said.
If they lose, it will be - and no one in Memphis wants that.
AP freelance writer Clay Bailey contributed to this story.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker