by Adam Figman / photos by Atiba Jefferson

True story: Rudy Gay looked me square in the eye and told me he didn’t like me.

It was the last day of my trip to Memphis—a four-day voyage I took to hang out with some Grizzlies and write SLAM 165’s cover story—and I was fresh out of clean clothes of any sort. With few options, I made do with the closest thing to half-clean I could find, a slightly stained adidas sweater hidden somewhere in the back corner of my travel bag that I’d forgotten was in there in the first place. Looked fine, though I had no choice but to rock it with a pair of black/cement Jordan IIIs (gasp!), the only pair of sneaks I had brought with me to Tennessee.

This didn’t bode well with Gay, a Nike endorsee and Jordan lover since he was a young kid growing up in Baltimore. “How you gon’ do that to Mike?” he asked while sizing me up in his team’s locker room after the Grizzlies completed a 90-78 home victory over the Detroit Pistons. “And I thought I liked you.”

Gay smiled widely enough that it was clear he was joking, which is good, because I’d rather not be in the business of making very tall humans mad at me. (Especially humans like Gay, a genuinely nice guy.) I noted that unlike him, I had to pack light because I didn’t have any rookies to carry my oversized bags, a claim he swiftly rebutted: “Me neither! Ours is in Reno.” (First-year player Tony Wroten Jr was gaining some D-League experience with the Reno Bighorns at the time.) Good point.

Anyway, I bring up that harmless little back-and-forth to say this:

Sorry, bud, but any feelings of dislike, even of the most playful variety, ain’t mutual. And that goes for your squad, too.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who holds any kind of disdain for the Memphis Grizzlies whatsoever. How could you? They play with a grittiness symbolic of the city they represent. They’re led by a strong coach in Lionel Hollins, a man who created a positive culture within the organization from scratch, something dozens of sideline stalkers around the League are currently attempting (and failing, mostly) to accomplish. And check out this starting lineup, which also happens to feature the five dudes on our newest cover:

At the point you’ve got Mike Conley, a quiet, good-natured 25-year-old who has slowly morphed into a rock of a leader over the past few years. Conley’s biggest struggle has been evolving from the shy type who’d rather do his own thing into the floor leader who feels comfortable bossing his tough-minded colleagues around the court. “I’m trying to get him to have two personalities,” said Henry Bibby, a Grizzlies assistant. “One, when he walks on the floor, he’s really that asshole type of guy that will tell everybody where to go and what to do, and then when he walks off the floor [he's] that nice guy again.”

On the wing is Gay—fucking Rudy Gay, man—a silky smooth scorer who, as that one screaming Canadian certainly knew, you wouldn’t want holding the rock while facing up against your favorite team as the clock ticks toward the final buzzer. Gay has been with Memphis since he was drafted in 2006, and he’s seen the franchise at its post-Vancouver lowest. “I’ve seen the bottom and I don’t wanna go back,” he told me while walking through the FedExForum the day after the SLAM photo shoot. “It made me who I am as a man, as a basketball player. It taught me how to play through it. Some people, that defines their careers. Being losers. I never want that to be me.”

In the low- and high- post, more or less interchangeably, are Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Hard not to love Z-Bo: after some time spent in Portland generally known more for off-the-court escapades than on-the-court production, then a couple years in L.A. and New York where he never really found his footing in any sense, Randolph finally has a real, steady home in Memphis, and a fan base that’s embraced him accordingly. Gasol, meanwhile, has had a real home in Memphis since he was 16—his family has been living in the Bluff City since his older brother was drafted by the organization in 2001, and his jersey is retired at the Laussanne Collegiate School, a prep school about 20 miles east of the Grizzlies’ home arena. “I’ve seen the whole process from day one ‘til today,” Gasol said during an interview immediately following the cover shoot. “I’ve loved it. The fact that my family has been here the whole time—we really feel like this is our home.”

The two big men have formed a Bash Brothers-like bond with one another. In mid-November Randolph and Thunder center Kendrick Perkins exchanged some unfriendly words on the court, and Z-Bo later said the incident began because Perk had been yapping at Gasol. Not exactly: “[Perkins] wasn’t talking to me,” laughed the Spanish 7-footer. “But that’s how we feel: I know Zach has my back, and I have his back. We have a special bond. We work together.”

And then there’s Tony Allen, the unexpected Face of the Franchise, who plays the incalculably vital role of the defensive-minded wing whose nightly assignment is to lock down the opposition’s best scorer. “You look at our core group of guys, and that’s the one thing we’re missing—a guy like myself, a tough-nosed defender who gets after it,” he said.

Allen didn’t see much playing time when he originally arrived in Memphis in 2010, but after a knee injury sent then-rookie Xavier Henry to the bench, the Chicago native slid into the starting role and the team’s #GritNGrind identity—founded, officially, right here—was established shortly thereafter, with TA’s fingerprints all over it. “Grit ‘N Grind is basically clawing, scratching, biting if you have to, whatever it takes to win,” Allen explained. “Going out there to compete, giving it your all to win the battle. I think each guy in the starting lineup has that same mentality, and it shows night in and night out when we play.” Allen’s face is on Grizzlies billboards around the city; his voice is often the loudest one in the locker room; and the group plays with a noticeably different, nastier energy when he’s on the floor than when he’s not.

(On my last day in Memphis, I walked past Tony in a hallway a few hundred feet from the FedExForum practice court. He reminded me to tell the world that he’s “down with the media, and like the funniest dude on the team!” It didn’t fit into the final cut of the story in the magazine, but there you go, TA.)

So, yeah: fun team. We decided to put these five on the cover in November, when they were (at press time) arguably the best in the League. Now, less so. At the moment they sit at 19-9, fourth in the West, having won a just-decent five of their last 10 tilts. Long season, it happens. But the Grizzlies are still very much in the mix, and we’re here to tell you they’re probably a little more in the mix than you realize. They play in a small market, they don’t spend a ton of time on national TV, and they don’t have a single superstar—all of the superstar duties, from all-around leadership to lock-down defense to clutch buckets, are split evenly amongst the members of the starting lineup—so it’s easy to overlook the still-very-legitimate fact that this could be the unit that makes it out of the West. Maybe this cover (and cover story, which is much more expansive than this post; you’ll need to pick up the issue to read the full piece) will help you take them a little bit more seriously.

And if not, that’s cool. Just don’t bothering trying to actively dislike the Grizzlies as you pull for their competition. Not possible.

Ed’s Note: Our boss wanted to pair this cover with the Knicks, but a-we had just done that awesome Carmelo cover, and b-we wanted to truly give the Grizzlies a national cover. And now look: The Knicks are playing much worse than the Grizz over the last two weeks. The Clippers? Let’s just say they’re repped nicely in this issue with a DeAndre Jordan feature and something bigger with them is in the works. Besides Adam’s amusing cover story on the Grizz and the DeAndre piece, this issue has nicely timed stories on Kobe Bryant, Luol Deng, DeMar DeRozan, OJ Mayo and much, much more good stuff. Look for it on newsstands in NYC this weekend and nationally—and/or online—next week.—Ben Osborne

#Memphis Grizzlies SLAM 165 Cover