January 9, 2018

Beal(e) Street

This past July, I wrote a post about my continuing quest to get to all 29 NBA cities and arenas (yes, there are 30 NBA teams; L.A. has two teams in one arena). Part of that post looked forward to the then-upcoming 2017-2018 NBA season and included my own personal NBA city top five destinations for the season. I wrote that post without really understanding what the schedule had in store for me because the season schedule hadn't been released yet.

The number two city on that list? Memphis, Tennessee, home of the Memphis Grizzlies and blues. And maybe a little bit of rock and roll and some pretty darned good barbeque. Or at least I hoped there would be all that when I took off last Friday to the banks of the Mississippi River for a couple of nights to watch the Wiz play the Grizz and see what else I could get up to.

I'd been to Memphis once before a little more than ten years ago on a bourbon and music trip that had me spend a couple of nights each in Memphis and Nashville followed by a few days visiting all seven (at least that was the count in 2007) bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Since that trip, I'd been back to Nashville and a couple of Kentucky's distilleries. Now it was time to get back to Memphis. I couldn't wait. Blues is one of my very favorite types of music to see live. Last time I was there I club-hopped one night before settling into some outdoor alley bar with some phenomenal piano blues that had me back there the next night as soon as they started playing.
Blind Mississippi Morris and band warming up.
So let's start with the non-basketball stuff and then we'll get to what happened at FedEx Forum on Friday night. Music first. Food second.

If you love music and you've never been to Beale Street in Memphis, I encourage you to go sometime soon and then go back maybe once or twice more. Think a much smaller but way better Bourbon Street if you know New Orleans at all. Or a little smaller Broadway if you've been to Nashville. Although from a musical level maybe Broadway is better because Nashville is the epicenter of the country music recording industry and it's big big business. Blues in Memphis or anywhere else for that matter? Not so big business, which is unfortunate for folks who prefer blues over country.

If you go, take some bills for tips because all four of the bands we saw this past weekend at B.B. King's Blues Club, Rum Boogie Café and Blues City Café were playing for tips and tips alone. The best two bands we saw were definitely Earl "The Pearl" Banks (unexpected Bullets tie-in there) and Blind Mississippi Morris. Any bluesman named "Blind" has to be good. There are historically a whole series of bluesmen with the blind moniker. And yes, they were all blind, as was Blind Mississippi Morris. Hard-driving guitar and harmonica based blues classics from both these bands was just what I was looking for alongside plenty of local Memphis beer when I was in town.
Last time I was in Memphis, I struggled with my food choices. I basically did no research into where I should go and ate nothing remarkable whatsoever. Foolishly, I accepted the recommendation of my hotel when I was looking for some barbeque and they sent me down to some very disappointing tamales and ribs on Beale Street.
Not so this time around. I checked out several "best of Memphis barbeque" lists before heading out of town. If you are looking for some serious smoked meat in reasonable walking distance of Beale Street, your choices are going to be kind of slim. Based on all the lists I reviewed, I came away with one: Central BBQ Downtown, which is about a 15 minute walk south down by the National Civil Rights Museum. After a half rack of ribs with some turnip greens and baked beans, this is definitely a place I'd go back to. The meat was flavorful and fall off the bone and I can highly recommend the spicy barbeque sauce on the side for some dipping.
Lunch Saturday was over at Central BBQ. Lunch Friday? Gus's Fried Chicken. I'm not a fried chicken guy at all but this was probably the best fried chicken I've had in my life. I've never had a batter so light and crispy that kept breast meat that juicy. It was absolutely phenomenal. I can't take credit for this find; I'm glad here that my friend Bryan is as concerned about eating good food while out of town as I am. Thanks, B!
But this is a basketball blog, right? Let's talk hoops.
In a season of trap games that have become so frequent that any game can become a trap game for this Wizards squad, a Friday night game against the injured and underperforming vs. expectations Grizzlies was the poster child for an unexpected road loss against a team far back in the standings.

It almost was. This was another game where the Wizards seemed to have things comfortably in hand in the third quarter before thinking they could just put the bench in the game in the fourth and kill some clock later in the fourth and walk out of there with an easy win. And die-hard Wizards fans know what happens when this team tries to do that: the ball sticks and we end up getting a rushed isolation shot by John Wall or Bradley Beal with a second or two left on the shot clock. With the bench not on their best game for the second straight contest, this game was the Wall and Beal show all the way. And by that I mean they were great in the first three and the problem in the last half of the fourth playing iso-ball.

Beyond watching the game and being a completest in terms of seeing the Wiz play the entire rest of the league on the road, one of the things I love about traveling to other NBA cities is seeing what it's like in other arenas. You can't really get a sense of what that's like watching a road game on TV. Besides the awesome viewpoint from pretty much straight away center on the Pinnacle (read: second) level of FedEx Forum in Memphis, there were a whole bunch of things worth noting about this arena.

First of all, I love the scoreboard. This may be the most awesome scoreboard in the NBA that I've seen so far. It's enormous, gorgeous and super bright. I also love the rounded corners which double as mini-stat boards, although I have to say I'd prefer to see names rather than faces by the stat lines. I can get our guys by the numbers but I don't watch enough other teams regularly enough to know them by their jersey numbers or faces.

Like most arenas in the NBA, FedEx is huge compared to our home sweet home Capital One Arena. This is mostly I believe because other cities haven much larger lots than the confined city blocks that make up the District of Columbia. The result is much larger concourses so the home team can load up on circulation space, have cafeteria style restaurants on the upper level or have their upper levels not overhang the seats below. All these seemed to be true in Memphis.

But the Grizzlies' home seemed to be bigger in another dimension (the up dimension) that caused an excessively quiet environment in the place. I know this is going to sound strange coming from a Wizards season ticket holder that's seen more than a few mid-week games against non-popular teams over at 601 F Street in the last dozen plus years, but I don't think I've ever been in a building as quiet as the one in Memphis. I'm serious. From our seats in the second level, we heard high five slaps as guys substituted, crystal clear directions from the refs during in bound plays and individual fan voices in the crowd again and again.

We even heard one fan yell to Marcin Gortat "You are not an actual wizard!" during a free throw attempt, which was both notable for its crystal clear audio quality in the building but also for its undeniable truth. I should note for the sake of completeness there were likely no actual wizards besides Marcin playing at all that night, just like there were no actual grizzlies playing on the court. Although...if there were grizzlies or wizards playing, it would have been way easier to spot the grizzlies than the wizards. Just saying.

Beyond the scoreboard and the church-like atmosphere, there were all manner of cool and quirky things to note about the game environment at FedEx Forum last Friday night. What, you might ask? How about the signage on the marquee (shown above) right inside the front door which I assume has to be changed by hand each game night? Or how about the pictures of musical artists with Memphis connections on the walls of the lower level concourse? Check out Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash (who both recorded on Memphis' Sun Records) either side of Sam and Dave (Memphis' Stax Records) above.

Not cool and quirky enough for you? How about people dressed up in toothbrush and toothpaste costumes to promote a local dentist's office? Or two mirror balls (that's two) hanging from the ceiling of the arena? Still not impressed? Ever seen a burger stand at an arena which counts down the number of burgers available to impress customers with the freshness? Might need to stock up. The photo below shows just 36 burgers left and that was before the game. The restroom signs were awesome too: singing girls with beehive hairdos for the women's room and singing boys with pompadour for the men's (hoping I got my hairstyles right). They just got a bit weird when they went family on us. Is the baby being tossed or does he really just have some amazing hops? 

Hurry! Just 36 burgers left 'til BC Burgers is sold out for the night!
Maybe the sign's not as quirky as I think but I think it's pretty interesting.
But despite all the burger countdowns and mirror balls and jumping babies and toothpaste mascots, the thing worth spending the most time on here is the wrestling. Nope, I'm drunk or anything. They had wrestling Friday night. Grind City Wrestling. I'll try to explain succinctly.

First the Grind City thing. The Memphis Grizzlies until this season were perennial playoff contenders. Their run of playoff appearances was fueled by hard work by hard working players. The words grit and grind became associated with their (mostly) superstar-less teams fighting and clawing for every win they could get. The team nicknamed Memphis Grind City.

Now let's try the wrestling thing.

When I was in junior high school and maybe just into high school, I used to watch pro wrestling or what would be later known as the World Wrestling Federation. Of course, pro wrestling is really nothing of the sort; it's all just theater. Back then this was not big business like it is now. We used to watch matches with the Magnificent Muraco or Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka taking on some local stiffs on network television on Saturday afternoon. I think I got about as far as the emergence of the Strongbow Brothers before realizing it was essentially a total waste of time.

Anyway...apparently after I stopped watching this stuff, Jerry "The King" Lawler was one of the wrestlers in Vince McMahon's stable. Jerry (now 68) is from Memphis and Friday night at the Grizzlies game was Jerry "The King" Lawler night, which featured the most elaborate halftime in game entertainment that I have ever seen, taking a story all the way from the beginning of the game with a marquee halftime wrestling match in an actual wrestling ring to pretty much the end of the third quarter. Almost every time out until the beginning of the fourth quarter featured a touchpoint to the story of how Lawler had the Grizzlyweight World Championship belt (yes, there was an actual belt) stolen from him and how the Grizzlies were going to get it back from him.

I'm guessing this is not the first time the Grizzlies have had some sort of wrestling night, although I don't know that for sure. If it's not, if this is truly a one time event, I have to admire the time, effort and money that the team put into this narrative. There is some true dedication involved here. There's no way this can be the only time they've done something like this. I mean they have an actual custom made belt and everything.

The story starts out with a "genuine tape" of a wrestling match between Lawler and some other dude (shown above; ironically considering how much I'm going to write here Lawler is not pictured in this post) in front of about 25 fans (maximum!) going at it until Jerry is robbed of his belt through foul play. Yes, I am too disinterested to look up who this other dude is. Anyway in the process of stealing the belt, he also hurt The King's shoulder, meaning he couldn't fight to get it back.

So...the Grizzlies brought in Tennessee's own Jeff Jarrett to fight for Lawler's belt and I guess his honor. But...as it turns out Jarrett is from Nashville, not Memphis, so after winning back the belt (in actual wrestling ring on the upper level of the arena) he keeps it for himself and taunts Lawler enough that despite the injured shoulder he fights anyway (again, in the actual wrestling ring on the upper level of the arena). Of course, after a rough start to the match, Lawler wins. But he doesn't. Because the referee was stunned by Jarrett and didn't see Lawler pin Jarrett. Ultimately through more foul play, Jarrett wins. What a bummer!!!

Yes, there's an actual wrestling ring inside FedEx Forum during a Grizzlies game.
Until...the Grizzlies mascot Grizz (ranked number 20 on my latest NBA Mascot Rank) wins it back from Jarrett in the third and final live wrestling match of the evening. Got all that? And this was during a basketball game, like between halfs and quarters and during time outs and stuff. Like I said, you have to admire the Grizzlies for their dedication to this show. Pretty amazing promotional department they got down there in Memphis, I have to say.

And I lied earlier: this is not the first time the Grizzlies have had wrestling night. Not sure how far back this goes (telling the truth this time) but they've definitely done this before.

So that's it. That's my report of my experience at my first ever Grizzlies game. That checks off my third NBA game in a Southwest Division arena and I now have 20 game experiences (with a few asterisks - see here and the post referenced at the top of this post) in the 30 NBA arenas. Long way to go. One more scheduled for this year then I think I'm home for the year. Detroit up next in a week and a half. Wizards home tomorrow against the Jazz. Go Wizards!!!

For some reason during the out of town scores update, the Grizzlies showed them beating themselves 100-4.

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