Thursday, February 28, 2013

Memphis Grizzlies’ owners: “We have a greater opportunity than ever before”

If you’re looking for a snapshot of what the Memphis Grizzlies’ future holds, just ask minority-share owner Duncan Williams. He’ll paint you a picture. 

“We’re going into [the Grizzlies’] 12th year [in Memphis], and I have a nine-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter,” Williams said on Tuesday. “And I can tell you, they don’t buy any jerseys except Grizzlies jerseys.” 

Williams’ anecdote highlights the two-fold impact of Memphis’ only professional sports team in a light-hearted but enlightening way. Since moving east from Vancouver in 2001, the Grizzlies organization has woven itself into the fabric of the Bluff City in a way that outshines traditional standbys like Ole Miss and Tennessee football, and even, in some ways, Memphis Tigers basketball.

“Being a sports fan and a longtime Memphian, I can’t think of any better thing to be involved in,” minority-share owner Edward Dobbs said.

On the court, the franchise has risen from the dregs of the NBA barrel to earn playoff appearances in each of the previous two seasons. Off the court, the organization and its charitable foundation were recognized internationally by Beyond Sport as “Sport Team of the Year” for 2012, a testament to the depth of the team’s commitment to serving its community.

Earning the honor of 'Sport Team of the Year' is not easily done—it took a lot of hard work, and at least one of the Grizzlies new minority-share owners recognized that much of that effort had already been put in before they came on the scene last November.

“We were very fortunate, in coming in as a new ownership group, that we had a team that had a real identity,” Jason Levien said. In addition to having a stake in the team, Levien is also the Grizzlies’ CEO.

“They called it ‘grit and grind’: it’s about winning, selflessness, putting the team first… Our motivation is about winning, about sustained success, about having the kind of players that make this community proud, having the kind of team that makes this community proud, and doing things on and off the court which reflect positively on Memphis. We think we’re headed in that direction, and we feel very excited about it.”

Williams, Dobbs, Levien and former Grizzlies guard Elliot Perry spoke to a lunchtime crowd of a few hundred on Tuesday at the Holiday Inn on Poplar Avenue. The New Memphis Institute, as part of their “Celebrate What’s Right” lecture series, sponsored the luncheon panel of minority-share owners. Grizzlies Charitable Foundation director Jenny Koltnow moderated the discussion, and AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde, another Grizzlies stake-holder, provided the opening remarks.

“We have a greater opportunity than ever before,” Hyde said of the team’s ability to have success and affect change in the city. “It is important to all of us to make sure every seat is filled—it’s important for our image, it’s important to the team to show your support. As business people or people involved in any part of our city, you can always buy tickets, whether you’re a basketball fan or not. Give them to customers, give them to friends, go yourself—I think you’ll find that it’s easy to get addicted to the Grizzlies.”

As Perry pointed out, the addiction is sometimes a two-way street for Grizzlies players.

“What is a little bit unusual about this team is, I played on many teams in the NBA, and the players [on those teams] were not this engaged in the community,” the former University of Memphis star said. “You would have one, maybe two players who realized how to use that platform, but we can go down the list of seven, eight, nine guys who are really engaged in this community.”

That community, by the way, is growing. Levien noted that the team has recently expanded its broadcast radius into Nashville and Little Rock in order to solidify the Grizzlies’ presence as “the team of the Mid-South.” Additionally, the gameday experience at FedExForum is also being improved in a variety of ways to make sure ticket sales can be maintained and (hopefully) increased.

“One thing we really want to do is create a more exciting [game] experience,” Levien said. “Folks come to the game for two-and-a-half hours, and we want to have a better dining experience [for them]. We spend a lot of hours talking about that – what food options there are, what kind of entertainment there is for kids and families that are coming to games. We’re spending time looking at all those things to improve the quality so that we can be an even bigger and better asset for the community.”

As far as progress on the court, Levien and Perry both feel that the Grizzlies have improved their stock through recent trades.

“We feel as though, with the moves we made in the past month, we’ve added substance here,” Levien said. “We got a player in Tayshaun Prince who won an NBA championship [with the Detroit Pistons in 2004]. We got a young player we’re very excited about, Ed Davis, who is a terrific guy to watch because he’s such a great athlete, a young guy who we think is on the way up in his career. He won an NCAA championship at the University of North Carolina [in 2009]. We got a very strong outside shooter, a guy who I think has a lot upside as well, in Austin Daye.”

“I’m very optimistic about the team,” Perry said. “It’s always hard when you trade a guy like Rudy Gay, given that he was such an instrumental part of the team. I think the sky is the limit for him and he really will flourish in Toronto, but ultimately I know that if anything happens here, we have a good enough team [to withstand that adversity].”

Asked about the long-term methods for keeping the team competitive, Levien emphasized the use of advanced statistics to evaluate the team, seizing on a trend which has quickly infiltrated the NBA after being incubated in Major League Baseball over the last two decades. Recently-hired vice president of basketball operations of John Hollinger is someone Levien considers “a founding father of basketball analytics” because of Hollinger's innovative work on hoops statistics while at ESPN, and his presence in the front office, along with new director of player personnel and basketball development Stu Lash, should be a boon to general manager Chris Wallace. Levien also mentioned the creation of a decision-making system which will help guard against the kind of ill-advised, panic-stricken transactions that are too often made right on the heels of a bad loss, a devastating player injury or an ugly statistical report.

Dobbs, one of the latest additions to the minority-share ownership group, said that his initial meeting with Levien was all he needed to hear to be sure the team was on the right track.

“When I first met with Jason, I was really struck by his vision of what the team was going to be, not only from the standpoint of wins and losses, but what the team was going to be in the community and to the fans and people coming to games,” Dobbs said. “When you put all of those things together, it was almost like I couldn’t say no [to having an ownership stake].”

“I’m thrilled to be part of it. It really is a dream come true.”

What are your thoughts on the Grizzlies' prospects this season and in coming years? In what ways have you seen them benefit the Memphis community? Feel free to comment below.

[Photo caption: Edward Dobbs, center, a minority-share owner in the Grizzlies, talks about his involvement in the team as part of the New Memphis Institute's "Celebrate What's Right" luncheon at the Holiday Inn on Poplar Avenue.]

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