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CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE
Lee Jenkins
May 09, 2011
With a strong playoff showing, the Grizzlies, a band of castoffs assembled by a man who lived in his parents' basement into his 30s, are finally being embraced in Memphis
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May 09, 2011

Can't Help Falling In Love

With a strong playoff showing, the Grizzlies, a band of castoffs assembled by a man who lived in his parents' basement into his 30s, are finally being embraced in Memphis

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Memphis is a unique market and Wallace a different G.M. He attends high school football games on Friday nights, watches the news on an Israeli television station and is a member of a pro-Israel lobby even though he is not Jewish. Wallace's fascination with the country dates to the Six-Day War of 1967, which became the source of almost every essay he wrote at Buckhannon-Upshur High. Wallace could relate to anyone in a struggle. He named his 13-year-old son Truman, after the failed haberdasher and oil prospector turned U.S. president. Wallace would have been thrilled to be a G.M. at 32, the way Presti was, and build around Durant, the way Oklahoma City did. But he had to take another indirect route.

The Lakers furnished the Grizzlies with money, draft picks and cap space. The city gave them the freedom to acquire players who might have been judged and undervalued elsewhere. Randolph was the most prominent example. Joining him was center Marc Gasol, Pau's younger brother, who once weighed more than 330 pounds; power forward Darrell Arthur, nicknamed Shady, who was swapped three times on draft night; and guard Tony Allen, who two years ago with the Celtics required police protection around the bench for a playoff series in his hometown of Chicago. "We have a whole team full of guys who think that they've been snubbed and mistreated," says point guard Mike Conley.

Coach Lionel Hollins has protected them from each other—except for the time Allen punched Mayo over a card game on a flight—channeling their grudges into fast breaks and the relentless pursuit of 50-50 balls. Conley, 23, averaged career highs in points (13.7), assists (6.5) and steals (1.8) this season. Gasol is outscoring and outrebounding his brother in the playoffs. Allen's defense earned him a billboard on the side of the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, next to the FedExForum, which he renamed the Grindhouse. Remarkably, the Grizzlies are grinding along without second-leading scorer Rudy Gay, who has a subluxation in his left shoulder and hasn't played since February. "A small-market team can succeed without making all the perfect decisions," Conley says. "But you have to believe in your guys and stick with them. They did that here."

Memphis fancies itself the ultimate eighth seed—"An underdog city," says forward Shane Battier, "dating back to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King"—but most small markets feel the same way. What separates Memphis, in the pigskin-possessed South, is a preference for basketball. No city of its size produces more high school talent. The Tigers rank in the top 10 in the NCAA in attendance. But the Grizzlies could never tap the well. They went 0--12 in the playoffs, failing to showcase the league. "We had the kindling," says Wallace. "We just needed the match to light it."

Game 6 sold out in five minutes, and when Randolph walked into the locker room before warmups, he asked what it was like at Golden State in 2007. The '07 Warriors were the only other eighth-seed to win a seven-game series, and they also relied heavily on castoffs. They haven't made the playoffs again since. "That won't happen here," Randolph says. "This is just the start." Randolph, Conley and Gay have all signed long-term extensions in the past year. Gasol will become a restricted free agent after the season, and owner Michael Heisley says, "It's very important that we keep him."

Heisley and Wallace run the team in concert, an owner who worked two jobs to put himself through Georgetown and slept on park benches between shifts, with a G.M. who did not move out of his parents' house until he was 32. Wallace finally got a full-time NBA job in 1989 when Spoelstra, then the Nuggets' general manager, hired him as director of college scouting. But Spoelstra was forced out three months later, and Wallace was fired six months after that. He drove back to West Virginia with his new wife, Debby, certain he'd had the shortest career of any executive in NBA history. Two more years passed, of cranking out previews for the magazine and working at the ABCD camp in New Jersey, picking up college coaches in vans at the Newark airport. The Heat hired him as its coordinator of scouting services in 1993, for $25,000, and, after being promoted to Miami's director of player personnel, he would go on to be general manager of the Celtics before moving to the Grizzlies. His lasting contribution with Miami came when he was asked if he knew a potential video coordinator. He recommended Spoelstra's son, a bright point guard out of the University of Portland named Erik.

Wallace mentions this, over a final glass of sweet tea at the Soul Fish Café, to illustrate the funny hops a basketball life can take. Now, Erik Spoelstra gives instructions to LeBron James in Miami while Wallace whispers platitudes to Randolph in Memphis. They are on opposite ends of the NBA's class struggle—one side printing money, the other hemorrhaging it, one side with a head start, the other forever playing catch-up. Judging by TV markets, attendance figures and draft choices, the Grizzlies should have been finished two weeks ago. But here they are, hustling and grinding and belly-dancing down Beale Street, Memphis Players each and every one.

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For complete playoff coverage from Lee Jenkins and Ian Thomsen, go to SI.com/nba

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