Ja Morant was squatting on the court when the first Memphis Grizzlies win in 11 days was finally over, and Jaren Jackson Jr. bent over to embrace him.
Of all the images and actions that made clear Sunday was not a normal home game at FedExForum, this felt like an especially important one. Here were the two faces of this franchise physically and emotionally spent, just like the city they represent.
“We needed it, Morant said simply, and of course he was talking about more than the 19-point comeback he and Jackson had just spearheaded against the Indiana Pacers.
But there is no neat and easy way to discuss all this, to connect a sporting event or an NBA team to the disgusting and disturbing way in which Tyre Nichols was killed at the hands of Memphis police officers earlier this month. The end of the Grizzlies’ five-game losing streak is not going to change how Nichols’ life ended, nor is it going to change the systemic issues of police brutality that surfaced yet again.
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To suggest otherwise would ignore reality at the moment. It would diminish the trauma these past few weeks, and particularly the past few days, have caused for so many.
As the Grizzlies took the court, protests were happening across the city for a third straight day. A moment of silence for Nichols punctuated a somber pregame scene. The coaches and players were still grappling with what they saw in that video – “I couldn’t even make it through,” Morant admitted – and what their responsibility is moving forward.
They were just like so many of us trying to sift through something like this happening where we live. And yet they are also nothing like us, thanks to what they can do on a basketball court, and perhaps that’s why I refuse to dismiss the power of sports as a mere cliché in this moment.
There are certainly far more serious problems Memphis must confront than whether the Grizzlies win or lose basketball games from here on out. They can not become a distraction in the traditional sense. Coach Taylor Jenkins spoke eloquently about this before and after Sunday’s 112-100 victory, about how he struggled to focus on his job, about how “we can’t let this just be an afterthought in two weeks or a month.”
But the Grizzlies, be it through Morant or Jackson or simply the spotlight that comes from being one of the NBA’s best young teams, are a vehicle through which people can see this city at its best. They have been since arriving here as our first major professional franchise. There is no greater melting pot in Memphis these days than a Grizzlies game at FedExForum, and maybe no greater joy than watching them rise up into a bona fide contender.
Harnessing that, for healing and for hope and for meaningful action, is now part of the mission, however hard that may be so soon after such a devastating tragedy for the city.
“When there’s stuff going on outside of basketball, basketball is kind of the furthest thing from your mind. It might be bad to say, but it’s kind of the truth,” guard Tyus Jones said. “There’s bigger things than basketball in the world going on, especially here in Memphis. It’s hard not to have your mind elsewhere. … We’re trying to be a light for the city of Memphis. We know a lot of people look at the Grizzlies.”
You could sense the weight of all that when Sunday’s game started.
So much has suddenly been swirling around these players. They’re down two starters due to injury (Desmond Bane and Steven Adams). They’re about to inject a new veteran into the mix (Danny Green). They’ve had to digest the ramifications of their first extended losing streak, and that Shannon Sharpe nonsense, and a Jackson-related conspiracy theory, and the anguish of watching a young Black man from their city die at the hands of the people sworn to protect him.
Simply returning home couldn’t fix everything immediately. Their problems, much like the problems highlighted by Nichols’ death, do not involve a straightforward solution.
But eventually, once the second half arrived, the Grizzlies started to look like themselves again. Morant and Jackson were electric together, willing their teammates during an incredible third-quarter surge.
Morant never left the game after halftime, jawing with the Pacers and finishing with his second-straight triple-double. Jackson logged a season-high 38 minutes. This was, maybe more than any other stat, indicative of how desperately the Grizzlies needed this.
For themselves and for their losing streak, of course. But also for the city, and for so much more.
So yes, Jenkins called Sunday one of the best wins of the season. But he also said this about Nichols: “He’s going to be in my heart forever, and I’ve never met him.”
It was a particularly poignant thought to close a postgame news conference, one in which we can all aspire.
You can reach Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter:@mgiannotto.
Story Credit: usatoday.com