Thursday, October 29, 2015

How to Be a New York Basketball Fan In Memphis -- 2015-16 Edition

This Saturday, Halloween night, the Brooklyn Nets will travel to play the Memphis Grizzlies. The Knicks will go down there on January 16.

Before You Go. Memphis is in the South. Not the Deep South, but the Mid-South. In fact, their old arena was named the Mid-South Coliseum. However, Tennessee rejoined the Union a long time ago, and you won't need to bring a passport or change your money.

If you were going to a baseball game, or an early-season football game, the heat might be an issue. But this will be at the end of October, so even outside the arena, heat won't be a factor. What will be a factor is rain: The website of Memphis' main newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, is predicting thunderstorms. (Have fun trick-or-treating, kids.) As for temperatures, they're talking mid-60s for daylight and mid-50s for night.

Memphis, like most (but not all) of Tennessee, is in the Central Time Zone, an hour behind us. Adjust your timepieces accordingly.

Tickets. The Grizzlies averaged 17,329 fans per home game last season, over 95 percent of capacity, a little low considering that the Griz finished only 1 game short of a Division title. and that they're the only major league sports team in town. Tickets could well be available.

Seats in the lower level, the 100 sections, go for $102 between the baskets and $65 behind them. Seats in the upper level, the 200 sections, go for $44 and $27.

Getting There. It's 1,100 miles from Midtown Manhattan to Memphis. So your first instinct would be to fly. This looks like a good idea, since a round-trip flight could cost under $600. The downside: Changing planes in Charlotte. Memphis International Airport is 10 miles south of downtown, and the Number 20 bus can get you to downtown in under 40 minutes.

Greyhound can get you from New York to Memphis in a little under 30 hours, for $389 round-trip, $306 with advanced purchase, although you'd have to change buses in Richmond. The Greyhound station is at 203 Union Avenue.

Amtrak is a bit more complicated: There's no direct route from New York. You'd have to take the Lake Shore Limited out of Penn Station at 3:40 PM this afternoon, arrive in Chicago at 9:45 AM, stay over there until 8:05 PM, and take the City of New Orleans (the current version replaces the Illinois Central Railroad's Panama Limited "Night Train," instead of the old version made famous by the Steve Goodman/Arlo Guthrie song), arriving in Memphis at 6:27 AM on the morning of the game. And, according to Amtrak's website, this offer isn't available anyway. So the train, on this occasion, is out. At any rate, the address for Memphis Central Station is 545 S. Main Street.

If you do drive, it's far enough that you should get someone to go with you, to trade off, especially if one can sleep while the other drives. Get into New Jersey, take Interstate 78 West into Pennsylvania. At Harrisburg, get on Interstate 81 South, and take that down through Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, into Tennessee, where it flows into Interstate 40 West. Take that all the way across Tennessee. Exit 1 is for downtown.

If all goes well, you should spend a little over an hour in New Jersey, 2 hours and 45 minutes in Pennsylvania, 15 minutes in Maryland, half an hour in West Virginia, 6 and a half hours in Virginia, and 8 hours and 15 minutes in Tennessee, for a total of 19 hours and 15 minutes. Given rest stops in Pennsylvania, one at each end of Virginia, and 3 in Tennessee, and we're talking about a trip of at least 26 hours -- each way.

Once In the City. Founded in 1819, and named for the ancient capital city of Egypt, Memphis is in the southwestern corner of Tennessee, across the Mississippi River from Arkansas. Downtown is 13 miles from the Mississippi State Line. So, like New York, it has a "Tri-State Area." These States led to one of the names of its ABA team, the Tams: TAM, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi.

Memphis is the largest city in Tennessee, with over 650,000 people, and a metropolitan area of over 1.3 million. That sounds like a lot, but it's actually the 3rd-smallest market in the NBA, ahead of only Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City. It would be easily the smallest in MLB, the smallest in the NFL except for Buffalo, and would rank ahead of only 5 NHL cities, all of them except for Buffalo in Canada.

The sales tax in Tennessee is 7 percent, and within Shelby County, including Memphis, 9.25 percent, even higher than New York's. Address numbers on east-west streets increase away from the River, and Madison Avenue separates north from south. The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) runs buses and light-rail "trolleys," with a base fare of $1.75, plus 80 cents for each additional zone.
Going In. Federal Express was founded in Memphis, and aside from music companies is the corporation most associated with the city, which has certainly been helped by having bought the naming rights to the main sports arena. The official address of the FedEx Forum is 191 Beale Street, at S. 4th Street.

If you're driving, parking is to the southwest of the arena, at B.B. King Blvd. and Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue, and can be had for as little as $10.  If you're walking in from a downtown hotel, you'll most likely be going in from the north or the west.
The arena opened in 2004, and has been home to the Grizzlies and the University of Memphis (formerly Memphis State University) Tigers basketball team ever since. The Nashville Predators hosted a preseason game there in 2006, and it hosts concerts, boxing and wrestling. The court is laid out east-to-west.
Food. Memphis has a reputation as a city of fine Southern food, particularly barbecue. However, the Grizzlies' focus seems to be on Club Level restaurants, for the well-heeled customer: The Horseshoe Lounge, the Bud Light Bar, the Draft Room and the Blue Note Lounge. You may well be better off eating before and after the game.

Team History Displays. The Vancouver Grizzlies began as an NBA expansion team in 1995 -- only the Charlotte Bobcats/new Hornets are a newer team -- and moved to Memphis in 2001, not making the Playoffs until 2004.

So there isn't much history there. They've never won a title even at the Division level (although they've finished 2nd in 3 out of the last 4 seasons, and won a Playoff series in 3 of the last 5), have no banners for such titles, don't hang a banner for their 1 visit to the Western Conference Finals (in 2013, where they got swept by San Antonio), have no retired numbers, and only 1 person associated with the team has been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame: Hubie Brown, former Knicks head coach, who held the same post with the Grizzlies from 2002 to 2005.

The only banners in the arena belong to the University of Memphis basketball team, winning the old Metro Conference in 1982, '84, '85 and '87; winning Conference USA in 2006, '07, '08, '09, '11, '12 and '13; and reaching the NCAA Final Four in 1973, '85 and 2008. However, their 1985 Final Four berth and their 2008 C-USA title and Final Four berth were vacated by NCAA sanctions.

The Memphis Tigers also have 9 retired numbers: From the 1950s, 13, Forest Arnold, and 22, Win Wilfong; from the 1970s, 21, Larry Finch, 33, Ronnie Robinson, 35, Larry Kenon, and 44, John Gunn; from the 1980s, 24, Keith Lee, and 34, Elliott Perry; and from the 1990s, 25, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway.

Not mentioned in the rafters is the American Basketball Association team known as the Memphis Pros in 1970-71 and 1971-72, the Memphis Tams (For the 3 States Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi) in 1972-73 and 1973-74, and the Memphis Sounds in 1974-75. They made the Playoffs only in their first and last seasons, and their stars included future New York Nets stars Wendell Ladner and Larry Kenon, future broadcaster Steve "Snapper" Jones, and Darel Carrier, who was named to the ABA All-Time Team (but mainly for what he'd done with the Louisville-based Kentucky Colonels).

Stuff. The Grizzlies Den is located in the arena's Grand Lobby. Whether they sell hats with bear ears on them, I don't know. Smaller souvenir stands are located all around the arena.

As one of the NBA's newer teams, there are no NBA Finals DVD packages for the Grizzlies, and books about them are few and far between.

During the Game. Memphis people don't like Nashville people. That's about as far as rivalries go there. So as long as you don't make any wiseguy remarks about this being a North vs. South game, you shouldn't face anything beyond the usual nonviolent "My team rocks, your team sucks" talk.

A November 13, 2014 article on DailyRotoHelp ranked the NBA teams' fan bases, and listed the Grizzlies' fans as 22nd. The team has only been around for 15 years, and has reached the Conference Finals exactly once. Their number of Hall of Fame players is exactly none. So there's been little about which for them to get excited about, or for which to generate any atmosphere.

The Grizzlies' mascot is Grizz the Bear, and he won NBA Mascot of the Year in 2011. They don't have a regular National Anthem singer, instead holding auditions. As you might guess in a great music city like Memphis, the Grizzlies have been renowned for their in-game music. DJ Paul, with the town's "Bluff City" nickname in mind, recorded "We Don't Bluff (Memphis Grizzlies Theme)," while another rapper, calling himself Al Kapone, recorded "Whoop That Trick (Grizz Grindhouse Version)."
After the Game. If there was an NBA team in Nashville, Memphis fans wouldn't like them. But they're fine with pretty much everybody else, including their putative geographic rivals in Atlanta, New Orleans and Dallas. Knicks and Nets fans shouldn't get any hassling, as long as they didn't bring it on.

Beale Street, the "capital" of the blues, is not only home to the FedEx Forum but several places to go after the game, including The Hard Rock Cafe at 126, the Blues City Cafe at 138, B.B. King's at 143 (you may be familiar with the New York version on 42nd Street), Rum Boogie Cafe at 182, Silky O'Sullivan's at 183, Coyote Ugly at 326. But I can find no reference

I can find no notations of any bars where fans of New York sports teams are known to gather.

If your game in Memphis is during the European soccer season (which this one is), the likeliest place to watch your favorite club is The Brass Door, 152 Madison Avenue, downtown.

Sidelights. Memphis has its problems, including crime and racial resentments. But, in spite of having only an NBA team, never an MLB team, and never an NFL team except for 1 season, there's still plenty to see there, from the sacred to the gloriously profane.

* Memphis Pyramid. The first arena to lure a major league team to Memphis played on the theme of the origin of the city's name, designed in the shape of an Egyptian-style pyramid. The 20,142-seat arena opened in 1991, and its troubles began immediately: The arena flooded because of poorly-designed drainage.

The Memphis Tigers moved right in for the 1991-92 season, and the arena attracted the moving Vancouver Grizzlies in 2001. It also hosted the 2002 fight in which Lennox Lewis ended the legend of Mike Tyson.

But, even though it was designed with basketball in mind, they apparently hadn't lived up to the NBA's standards, and the Grizzlies only intended to use it as a stopgap arena. At the age of just 13, both the Grizzlies and the Tigers moved to the new FedEx Forum, and the Pyramid's future was in doubt.

This past April, Bass Pro Shops moved into a renovated Pyramid, and opened a megastore there. 1 Bass Pro Drive, at Front Street & Willis Avenue, a mile and a half north of downtown (so the location also wasn't very good). Number 20 bus from downtown.

* Memphis' sports complex. For many years, this location included the Mid-South Fairgrounds, a minor-league ballpark, a football stadium and a sports arena, with Christian Brothers University just to the north. The Fairgrounds and the ballpark are gone, and the arena is closed, but the stadium is still in operation.

Built in 1963 and seating 10,085 people, the Mid-South Coliseum was best known as the home of the city's American Basketball Association franchise, known as the Memphis Pros in their 1st season in town, 1971-72; the Memphis Tams after being bought by Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley, 1972-74; and the Memphis Sounds in their last season, 1974-75, after Finley sold them. They moved to Baltimore to become the Claws, but, still feeling the effects of Finley's mismanagement, folded before ever playing a game in Charm City. The closest they got to a title was 1975 East Division Finals.
Memphis never again got close to attracting an NBA team until after the Pyramid was built, which rendered the Coliseum pretty much obsolete, with half as many seats and no modern amenities.

The Beatles played 2 shows there on August 19, 1966, but the evening show was marred by a firecracker being thrown onstage, leading the bandmembers, concerned over threats due to John Lennon's controversial "We're more popular than Jesus" comment, to think it was a gunshot. (This was 2 years before Martin Luther King was killed in the city, but 3 years after John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, and the Beatles really didn't want to go to Dallas.)

Providing a list of places in Memphis where hometowner Elvis Presley sang would be exhaustive, but after 1961, his only Memphis appearances were at the Coliseum, on March 16 and 20, 1974 and March 20, 1976. In 1997, 20 years after his death, his old band and backup singers (nearly all of them still alive at that point) reunited for the first time at the Coliseum, and presented "Elvis In Concert," with them playing and singing in front of a huge screen showing him from performances such as the 1973 Hawaii concert and from the documentaries Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972). A 25th Anniversary show was done at the Pyramid in 2002, and, despite the deaths of some bandmembers, these shows continue to be put together.

The Mid-South Coliseum continued to hold concerts, and remained the South's premier pro wrestling venue (as it had been since the mid-1960s), until, operating at a loss of $1 million a year, it was closed in 2006, but it still stands.

Memphis has never had an NHL or a WHA team. The closest current NHL team is the Nashville Predators, 212 miles away, but the Memphis-Nashville rivalry may complicate rooting interests. The next-closest team is the St. Louis Blues, 283 miles away.

The Liberty Bowl game was played in Philadelphia from 1959 to 1963, and indoors at what's now Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in 1964, before moving to the brand-new Memphis Memorial Stadium in 1965. The stadium was renamed Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in 1976.
Currently seating 59,308 people, with a slope down to small end-zone seating sections similar to what the old Tampa Stadium "Big Sombrero" had, it's hosted the University of Memphis football team since it opened. It's also briefly been home to several pro football teams: The Memphis Southmen of the World Football League in 1974 and '75, the Memphis Showboats of the USFL in 1984 and '85, the Memphis Mad Dogs of the CFL's ill-advised American experiment in 1995, and the Memphis Maniax of the XFL in 2001. It also hosted the Memphis Rogues of the old North American Soccer League in 1978, '79 and '80.

Most notably, when the Houston Oilers moved in 1996, they intended to play the 1997 and 1998 seasons at the Liberty Bowl, as the Tennessee Oilers, before moving to their new stadium in Nashville, 215 miles to the east, in 1999 as the Tennessee Titans.

But, despite having beaten Nashville to hosting regular-season NFL games, the people of Memphis were not willing to see a team they saw as both a lame duck and belonging to the despised Nashville, which inspired jealousy both as a State capital and as a competitor for the title of Music City, U.S.A. (a name Nashville actually calls itself). Despite going a respectable 8-8 (a fine 6-2 at home), they ended up getting the NFL's smallest crowds -- aside from the 1987 "Scab Bowls" -- since the 1950s. They averaged only 28,028 fans per home game, bottoming out at 17,071 for an October 12 win over Cincinnati. In contrast, they averaged 57,376 on the road. In other words, their road average would nearly have filled the Liberty Bowl, but their home average wouldn't have filled the Pyramid.

So team owner Bud Adams got the message, and figured, if he was going to get less than 40,000 fans to come out anyway, he might as well move to Nashville a year early, and put the team in Vanderbilt University's 41,000-seat stadium for a year until what's now named Nissan Stadium opened. 

American Legion Field opened in 1963, seating 8,800 people, and the new Memphis Blues minor-league baseball team moved in for the 1968 season, and the name was changed to Blues Stadium. The Blues moved out, and the park was dark for 1977, but in 1978 a new version of the Memphis Chicks moved in, and were replaced by the Memphis Redbirds in 1998.

Both the Blues and the Chicks were Class AA teams, while the Redbirds have been a Class AAA team since they arrived. The Blues won Texas League Pennants in 1969 and 1973, just like their parent club at the time did in the National League, the Mets. Those were the only Pennants won at this ballpark.

After the 1977 season, the name of the ballpark was changed to Tim McCarver Stadium, after the native son catcher, then still active. Wanting a more modern facility, the Redbirds opened a new park in 2000, and McCarver Stadium was demolished in 2005. So not only did McCarver have the oddity of having a sports facility named after him while he was not only still alive, but still playing, but, like actress Helen Hayes and the 1st Broadway theater named for her, he actually outlived (and is still outliving at this writing) the ballpark named for him! A park with youth fields is now on the site.
Real grass in the outfield, artificial turf in the infield.

The complex is 5 miles southeast of downtown. The address for the Coliseum is 996 Early Maxwell Blvd., and that of the Bowl is 335 S. Hollywood Street. McCarver Stadium was at Early Maxwell Blvd. and Raymond Skinner Drive. Number 2 or 5 bus.

* AutoZone Park. Seating 14,384 people, this is one of the largest ballparks in the minor leagues. The Memphis Redbirds, a St. Louis Cardinals farm team, have played here since 2000. It also hosted the 1st 2 MLB Civil Rights Games, in 2007 and '08.
As part of the powerful Cardinal system, the Redbirds have won Pennants here in 2000 and 2009, making 12 Pennants for Memphis minor-league teams. 200 Union Street at S. B.B. King Blvd. (formerly 3rd Street), downtown.

* Site of Russwood Park. Memphis' 1st professional ballpark was built in 1896, and, still made mostly of wood, burned down on April 17, 1960, mere hours after a preseason exhibition game between the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.
The Memphis Chickasaws (or Chicks for short) won Pennants in the Class AA Southern Association in 1903, 1904, 1921, 1924, 1930, 1933, 1953 and 1955. Elvis sang there on the 4th of July 1956, and it hosted professional wrestling crowds of up to 18,000.
The bleachers after the fire

A post office is now on the site, adjacent to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. 910 Madison Avenue at Pauline Street, about a mile and a half east of downtown. Number 102 bus.

According to an April 2014 article in The New York Times, the Yankees are actually the most popular MLB team in Memphis and the immediate environs, while the closest team, the Cardinals (283 miles to the north) are right behind; but the further you get from central Memphis, the more the Cardinals are preferred.

According to an article in the September 2014 edition of The Atlantic, alone among Tennessee's Counties, Shelby County's favorite NFL team is not the closest team, the Nashville-based Tennessee Titans, 212 miles away, reflecting the anti-State capital bias, but the Dallas Cowboys. This is also true for the northwestern corner of Mississippi, close to Memphis, as the rest of the State sides with the New Orleans Saints. Arkansas, however, goes for the Cowboys almost in their entirety, except for the southernmost part, bordering Louisiana, where the Saints are preferred.

Don't count on Memphis ever getting an MLB team, or another NFL team in spite of the built-in rivalry with the Titans. Population-wise, they'd rank 31st in baseball; and 33rd in the NFL, in each case dead last, just as they are in the NBA (30th).

Memphis City FC began play this year, in the National Premier Soccer League, the 4th tier of American soccer. They play at the 2,500-seat Mike Rose Soccer Complex. 9000 E. Shelby Drive, 20 miles southeast of downtown. Public transit doesn't go there.
When Atlanta United takes the field for the start of the 2017 Major League Soccer season, they will be the closest MLS team to Memphis, 383 miles away. Until then, the closest will be Sporting Kansas City, 452 miles, slightly closer than FC Dallas, 454 miles.

* Museums. The FedEx Forum includes the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum. Beale Street, itself, is practically a living museum of music, especially the blues. The Sun Records studio, where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all became stars, has been turned into a museum. 706 Union Street at Marshall Avenue, at the eastern edge of downtown. Also in a former studio, and before that a movie theater, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is at 910 East Mclemore Avenue, 2 miles southeast of downtown. Number 4 bus.

But Memphis', and perhaps the entire South's, most important museum is The National Civil Rights Museum. It was established at the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while visiting Memphis to help striking black sanitation workers. 450 Mulberry Street, a couple of blocks from Memphis Central Station. Number 100 bus. The Mason Temple, where Dr. King gave his last speech -- "I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!" -- is at 930 Mason Street, a mile and a half south of downtown. Number 57 bus.

* Graceland. Memphis', and indeed Tennessee's, most famous structure isn't the FedEx Forum, or the Lorraine Motel, or Nashville's Ryman Auditorium/original Grand Ole Opry House, or the State House, or Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, or Neyland Stadium or the Thompson-Boling Center on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville. It's Elvis Presley's home, open to tours since his ex-wife and executor, Priscilla Presley, ordered it to fund the virtually bankrupt Elvis Presley Enterprises in 1982. (She had to wait until Elvis' father Vernon died, as he was still living there.)

Standing 8 miles south of downtown, a stone's throw from the airport and almost within walking distance of the Mississippi State Line, the name of the property was originally Graceland Farms. The site includes a house built in 1939, by Dr. Thomas Moore, whose wife Ruth was the niece of the farm's namesake, Grace Toof, who inherited it in 1894 from her father, Stephen C. Toof, who ran a commercial printing firm.

The Presley family's 1st home after Elvis got famous is at 1034 Audubon Avenue, but his fans soon visited in large enough numbers that it disturbed the neighbors. Elvis chose Graceland as his new home because it had enough land, nearly 14 acres, to isolate it from the street and other houses, so his fans wouldn't bother the neighbors. He bought it in March 1957 for $102,500 (about $868,000 in today's money), and, over the next 20 years, sank over $500,000 into building it to his tastes. (Save your jokes.)

3764 Elvis Presley Blvd., which U.S. Route 51 south of downtown had already been named while he was still alive. Any bus from downtown east to Madison Avenue, then Number 42 bus. The trip takes a little under an hour. The house at 1034 Audubon is 9 miles southeast of downtown, but it's still a private residence, so don't bother anyone. Number 57 bus.

The tallest building in Memphis has little imagination to its name, and, like many other buildings of the 1960s and '70s (in this case, 1965), not much imagination to its style, either. It's named simply 100 North Main, for its address. It's 433 feet tall: Never mind New York City, there are currently 21 buildings in New Jersey that are taller.

Before his daughter Miley became famous, I once joked that Billy Ray Cyrus should revive his career by starring in CSI: Memphis. After My Name Is Earl (not set in Memphis) ran its course, Jason Lee played a cop on Memphis Beat.

Many music-themed movies have used Memphis as both a setting and a film location, including the Johnny Cash story Walk the Line, the Jerry Lee Lewis story Great Balls of Fire, and the pimp-turned-rapper film Hustle and Flow. John Grisham used Memphis as a setting for some of his novels, and The Client, The Firm and The Rainmaker have been filmed there.


Memphis is more than history and music, as important as those things are. It's also the home of an NBA team that, while not yet very successful, has developed quite a following, and is now another good reason to visit this legendary city.

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