Memphis Grizzlies playing at the FedEx Forum

Grizzlies Playoffs: Sehnsucht, or Joy that Feels Like Longing

Germans have a word for those brief moments that prompt indescribable longing: Sehnsucht. Creatives point to music, art, and beauty as the spaces in which people feel this sensation most deeply, but I have a hypothesis I’d like to defend in this space: Sports are valid and underappreciated conductors of Sehnsucht. Hear me out. 

Authors and poets have pondered this longing for ages, but C.S. Lewis devoted a good bit of writing to it. He suggested that the moments when time stops, and we find ourselves swimming in the deepest pools of human joy are actually pointing to something greater than themselves. Lewis described Sehnsucht like this: 

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country…I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.”

To the modern Memphian, the Grizzlies have—at times—inspired moments of Sehnsucht, or joy that feels like longing, which extends to the depths of the human heart. 

At least, the depths of my human heart. 

I remember one of the first years we clinched a spot in the playoffs. I was sitting next to a complete stranger, a Black woman about my age, and as the buzzer sounded, she and I danced in the aisle with reckless abandon. That buzzer declared Memphis the victor—a victor on our way to bigger places and more beautiful things—and we had been waiting a long, long time for a declaration like that. In that moment, maybe 90 seconds total, she and I were unified on every front. We were sisters, friends, comrades in the best of ways. We had a history, and it had been completely rewritten into a story of merriment and delight; and now, we saw the world from the same vantage point. It was the stuff of heaven.

For people who have a hard time immersing themselves into the beauty of a rose or the delicate treat of birdsong, blood, sweat, and tears that lead to victory are another brand of Sehnsucht—a different avenue down which to travel to catch a glimpse of glory. We have a unique need to feel divine moments together, and the Grizzlies offer unexpected backdrops for Sehnsucht moments that only Memphians have sensory receptors for. The gravity of our history has primed us for the soaring nature of this beauty. It’s because of our pain that we can sense the pleasure.

It hasn’t mattered, actually, which players were on the court in these moments of victory. Maybe it was Mike or Mark; Tony or Z-Bo. Perhaps it was Rudy Gay or Shane Battier. Could have been Pau or Posey, maybe Stromile or J-Will, even. Perhaps it was Vince or Beno! Maybe it’s Ja or Jaren or Jitty. They are all vital to the story because it’s their blood, sweat, and tears that carry us to a “W.” What matters most, however, is the banner under which they play because it bears our name: Memphis. 

I remember hearing a British friend of mine say once, “I just don’t get basketball. What is the point in throwing a little ball through a hoop over and over and over again? Why is that fun?” Sometimes, as I sit watching the Grizz run laps up and down the court, aiming to throw that little ball into that little hoop over and over, I wonder to myself why it’s so mesmerizing. Did James Naismith realize what he was doing with those goofy Canadian peach baskets? Why do these enormously talented men throw their energies in this direction? What’s it to me if the Grizzlies win anyway? 

It’s a thin slice of heaven*—with you

And him. And her. And them. With all the people I drive next to on Poplar. With the people I picnic among at the Overton Park Shell. With those I worship at church with and the families my children attend school with. With the Girl Scouts who sell me Thin Mints** every year and the ladies who work the desk at the Main library. With that Crosstown post office employee who always wears the big smile on her face and the bookshop owners who fought for Novel. With that gentleman who has been collecting Kroger grocery carts from the Midtown parking lot in his shirt and tie since it was Seessel’s—back when they had those bakery-made lady fingers. You know who you are. 

That’s the point of the Grizzlies. Sure, there are other amazing things about them. Watching anyone perform athletically on that level is a reason to celebrate. Rendezvous pork nachos are something we can collectively brag about. Our superstars have brought a new team dynamic that is nearly intoxicating to watch. But the reason we come is not just for those things. 

We show up for the moments in which we catch a glimpse of what Memphis could be, and they point us toward heaven. Maybe God himself has seen our history and is in the process of redeeming it. Perhaps there will come a day when it will all be made completely right. When it arrives, I will dance next to my brothers and sisters with clear air, clean hearts, and a crystal history, and it will be because he rescued us out of this mess at his own inestimable expense. There are brief moments that being a Grizzlies fan points to a hope like that—the whiff of a totally new, Memphis-brand of joy—and we sense it a breath before the buzzer, when the ball kisses the net as it’s just passin’ through. Some call that basketball. 

I call it Sehnsucht. 

*Taken from A League of Their Own

**They’re even better in the freezer. 

Candace Echols is a Midtown resident, wife, and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine, and now writes a column for The Daily Memphian.

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