For a brief moment at Noble’s Beer Hall on Saturday afternoon, the 200-mile distance between Nashville and Memphis was nonexistent.
Nashville-area Memphis Grizzlies fans piled into the outdoor seating area at Noble’s to watch the No. 2-seed Grizzlies in their playoff opener against the No. 7-seed Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite a 130-117 loss in game one, spirits were still high.
The Grizzlies tied a franchise record with 56 wins this season, good enough for the second-best record in the entire NBA. The roster is full of young, hungry, exciting players like Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and Desmond Bane, who aren’t afraid to mix it up with the league’s top teams.
And they’re led by one of the most thrilling basketball players around in Ja Morant, a foe of Belmont while at Murray State, who is quickly becoming one of the faces of the league.
For members of the Nashville Grizzlies contingent looking for more Music City residents to hop on the bandwagon, the question is, if not now, with the most enthralling team in franchise history and a roster that is tied for the youngest in the league, will they ever jump on board?
“People just don’t follow the sport,” said Brent Ray, a day-one Memphis Grizzlies fan who moved to Nashville from west Tennessee in 2005. “Plus, there’s kind of a weird rivalry between Memphis and Nashville, so I think that has a big part of it too.”
The Nashville-Memphis rivalry is real, and most of it has to do with non-sports issues like barbecue. There are a few tension-filled sports topics, most notably the then-Tennessee Oilers having a pit stop season at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis before making the permanent move to Nashville.
“I think a lot of people around here look at the team as just a Memphis thing, and it’s not covered here because there’s just not enough interest. I’m hoping if they make a big run this year that maybe that’ll bring in some more. I hope so because it’s a great team and a great sport.”
In general, you will not find a lot of NBA fans in Nashville. Between the Nashville Predators and the NHL season taking place at the same time and football taking up most of the oxygen in the room otherwise, it’s hard for the Grizzlies to find a strong footing in the state capital.
“I don’t run into a lot of Grizzlies fans,” said Ian Dinkins, a lifelong Nashvillian. “Anybody I talk basketball with is usually a fan of a bigger team or they’re fans of a player but not necessarily the team itself. There’s not much of an NBA presence here.
“I think there’s a lack of interest. The Predators play in the same season, so it’s like you can pick hockey or you can pick basketball.”
Dinkins became a Grizzlies fan when he attended a playoff game early on during the franchise’s “Grit and Grind” era, the most successful stretch of seasons in the team’s history.
For seven seasons, led by the “Core Four” of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and the Grindfather himself, Tony Allen, Memphis never missed the playoffs, made the conference finals in 2013, and became the third 8-seed to ever knock off a 1-seed in 2011.
Many Nashville Grizzlies fans joined the club during that stretch. The fandom has steadily grown in the area ever since, coinciding with the influx of people from all over the country and the Grizzlies rebuild around Ja Morant. But there’s still room for growth.
“We have a Grizzlies license plate; you don't see many when you drive around town. We’ve only seen like two or three,” said Jerry Ray a longtime Grizzlies season ticket holder who moved to Nashville three years ago after spending decades in west Tennessee.
Jerry’s son Brent says his Memphis Grizzlies gear has been mistaken for everything from the Mt. Juliet Golden Bears to the Montana Grizzlies when walking around town.
“They didn't even know Memphis had a basketball team," he explained. "I’ve had people ask ‘oh are you a fan of the Montana Grizzlies?’ I’m in Nashville, maybe ask about the team in Tennessee before you jump to the Montana Grizzlies.”
The Grizzlies and Timberwolves will meet for game two on Tuesday night at 7:30. Memphis has the superior record; Minnesota is the inexperienced-but-hungry upstart, similar to last season’s Grizzlies squad.
Whether this year’s playoff berth leads to a long run for the Grizzlies or not is most likely a determining factor on whether Nashville ever fully embraces the state’s only NBA team for the time being.
Though, at least for the diehard Nashville Grizzlies fans, it's always "Grit and Grind" time whenever the ball hits the hardwood. You've just got to know where to look.