Notes from the second row: The grit n’ poetry of Grizzlies basketball

The Grizzlies season may be over, but the poetry will go on

By Candace Echols

People prioritize things. My husband and I love a good Grizzlies game and so we sit up close. Jim likes to see whether or not Grayson Allen actually did bump ankles and foul the other guy, or if the refs, in fact, got it wrong. He likes to be within earshot so his (rather quippy) reprimands will count for something. 

For me, I like to see all of the interpersonal activity that you miss in the nosebleeds. Marc Gasol used to wave at his wife a couple of times each game. You would miss it if you didn’t know to look for it. But it was love, right there on the court, and it was so tender, especially considering it was coming from a man who stands head and shoulders above the rest. All that toughness mixed with all that tenderness. Poetry in the paint. That’s why we pay extra. 

Monday night, there were conversations going on all over that place that reminded me that the ball going through the hoop . . . that’s child’s play. There’s a surface-level tension that says, “Are we going to win this game?” but underneath it is a whole host of other things that represent humanity just getting by, trying to love (and sometimes, hate) each other, one day at a time. Whether the shot falls or not, that’s just the backdrop. 

Ja gets along with everyone, it seems. He laughs and jokes and chit-chats with the enemies constantly. It pokes a big fat hole in my own Jazz-hatred when I see him cackle with O’Neale or when he and Donovan are having a private conversation at half-court during a free throw. They are each bent over—pretending to be tired—clutching their knees with faces down so their words can’t be seen by the mere mortals. Whatever they are discussing, I am quite sure I have absolutely no paradigm for. I thought that I was on Ja’s team and Donovan was the enemy. But in this moment, I realize they are aligned in a way I never will be with either of them. They’ve fought similar basketball battles since they were children that I know nothing of, and they’ve won, which is why they are able to have the knee-clutching exchange at half-court and I’m sitting in a fold-down chair. But I still have to wonder…

Speaking of Ja, Tee Morant is a key part of the sideline conversation. Bless. His is the only presence in the Forum stronger than Ja’s. He represents all the dads who push. Is Ja who he is because of the pushing, or in spite of it? I will certainly never know, but it’s amazing how well-positioned Tee is to continually be chattering in his son’s ear. That nonchalant stroll down the sideline at 1:00 before each quarter ends helps. There’s an ongoing private message being whispered from father to son there, just as there is with all fathers to their sons. Even the fathers who have already died. 

Old relationships have a sacredness to them. That split-second when Mike Conley high-fived Z-Bo was a time machine. It took us to 2010 and back in the smack of two hands. And when T.A. was in the box last game, that face—that “grit, grind” clip—didn’t that just happen? How is it that Mike Conley is on a different team, Z-Bo is sporting a dapper suit in baseline seats, and T.A. is texting during the game? My brain must be playing tricks on me. No matter what my brain is doing, that high five wasn’t just between those two men. It was between all of us and all of them. We all slapped hands in slow-mo because we remember. We felt it. We breathed it. We slept it. We lived it. They gave us our identity as a town. So, thank you, Mike, for that high-five with Z-Bo last night. In that moment, you reminded us of an era so dear—so priceless—it changed us collectively, and we are forever grateful. 

Even with that all beauty happening down court, how about the aggressive fans in the second row floor seats. That gray-haired guy with the buzz cut who kept leaning into the front row so he could be close enough to really tear Royce O’Neale apart. That shameless berating—your hair is too gray for that, man. Show more wisdom. I wish you would have thrown a bottle so they could have thrown you out. Instead, your words fell like shards all around him and we could all see it in his eyes when he looked at you. Choose your words carefully. They hold the power of life and death. 

Conversations aren’t always out loud. Dillon Brooks lets us in on his internal conversations regularly. He can’t help it. He wears it on his sleeve and his face and in that looking-for-a-fight tension he carries in his shoulders. No one else on the court blasts testosterone surges quite like he does when he goes up for a slam dunk. A gust of wind hits our faces when we see that power unleashed. But when he has been sidelined again because of uncontrolled fouls, his head always drops. He seems to be battling his own demons in front of our eyes, right there in that vinyl folding chair that sits behind all the other ones. So much talent and power and grit. Hopefully, age or experience will hand him a harness for it. Because then, no telling…and I don’t just mean on the court. 

Any given night, there are a minimum of 12,000 conversations going on at the same time in the Forum—at least one in the mind of each soul present (even more in the minds of the multitasking women). People are constantly prioritizing messages that have been passed down from fathers and mothers, enemies and champions, friends and lovers, history and children. We are all believing some of them and discarding others. We are not always aware of what we are hanging onto or what we have left behind, and how they work together to make us. But each time that ball goes through the hoop, it offers hope that the negative stuff—the stuff old guys with buzz cuts scream mercilessly—will be defeated. 

Memphis as a place hears a lot of negative junk about who we are. It’s not all unfounded. We bring some of it on ourselves and other stuff is blown up for drama. Either way, every time we see Mike Conley and Z-Bo exchange smiles, we gain ground. Every time Ja Morant does a 360 with Memphis on his chest, we look more fiercely in the face of our naysayers. Every time we see Dillon Brooks fly in spite of whatever darkness he left in that vinyl chair, we are given courage to fight our own demons. Even in the face of a Grizzlies defeat, we can walk away with messages about our place and space that feel like victories. 

Sometimes you might think people invest in sitting down low just so they can be caught on camera or smell the sweat or get an autograph, and I’m sure that’s true. We all have priorities. But for me, I like to be reminded in a thousand tiny ways that we are all broken humans who are looking for wins, both little and big. And in this game of basketball, hope springs eternal that our next shot will fall. Our next game will be a W. The next round will happen. 

And from the next generation, there will be poetry in the paint. 

StoryBoard features “The Yellow Chair ChronEchols” by writer Candace Echols. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the QuarantineCandace is a Midtown resident, wife, mother of five, and a Grizzlies fan. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair.

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