When the Memphis Grizzlies have a home game at FedExForum, fans have high expectations for what they will see. Sure, last year’s Western Conference finalists have set a high bar for their play on the court. But it’s not the play of the team that is on Jason Potter’s mind.
Potter is director of promotions and event presentation for the Memphis Grizzlies. He and his crew are responsible for all the madness that occurs in the Grindhouse that’s not produced by the players. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a midweek game against the mighty Miami Heat or a Friday night affair against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. Sure, the expectations are possibly a little higher when the defending NBA champs come to town. It’s only natural that Grizz will climb a massive ladder at midcourt in honor of the late wrestler Ultimate Warrior.
But just because one of the worst teams in the league is visiting – such as Philadelphia on Friday – that doesn’t mean Grizz gets a night off. Call it the Joe DiMaggio effect.
The great DiMaggio once said something to the effect that he never took a night off because someone could be in the stands who had never seen him play before. It’s something Potter often thinks about.
“The quote, I use all the time,” Potter says. “That’s one we cite often. Joe D. We bring that up. We want to make sure no matter what, whether the team is mired in a slump or on a franchise-high (home) winning streak like they are now, you come out of (the game), independent of the basketball product on the floor, you take away a memorable experience. That’s our goal.”
Since the Grizzlies and their suffocating defensive madness entered the NBA conscience in 2011 when, as the No. 8 seed in the West, upset the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs, Memphis has stepped up its game in the arena, too.
Nicknamed the Grindhouse after the play of grit-and-grind maestro Tony Allen, FedExForum has become known throughout the league for its innovative music and creative moments. One game it might be local wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler piledriving a “fan” dressed in the opposing team’s jersey. Another time it’s fans singing in unison “Whoop That Clip” during last year’s first-round defeat of the Clippers to the tune of “Whoop That Trick” from the made-in Memphis flick “Hustle and Flow.”
When we attended the Grizzlies game against the Sixers, it was a unique situation. No, it wasn’t a premier team in town. But it was Friday, a game day that tends to have a higher attendance.
And with the Grizzlies in a tight playoff race, the action on the court was even more important than a usual 76ers game typically would be.
But none of those things really mattered to Potter’s crew.
“We look at it two ways. On a premium night and premium opponent I work my budget, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most entertaining,” Potter says. “As a principle, my team feels it’s important to treat each audience like, there are people at every game that it’s their first game. And as we build the elements out for a game we are very cognizant to make sure it passes the test to us. Is it entertainment? Is it something we would pay to see? And if it doesn’t then we go back to the drawing board. We want to make sure we give something fun and exciting every single game of the year, whether it’s the Heat or the Sixers. That’s fair to say.”
There’s a lot that goes into the entertainment side of a Grizzlies game. The Grizz Girls dance team, fun performances from the Grannies and Grandpas dancers, and crazy marketing bits on the big screen all play a role. But a couple of elements have taken center stage lately: the in-game music that has music aficionados wowed, and the uniquely Memphis moments.
Those music moments could be as simple as Future’s “Go Harder” piping in as Tony Allen is in one of his moods coming out of a timeout. As the song turns up, Tony’s head begins bobbing. And it’s typical that just moments later he will make an out-of-his-mind defensive stop. The fans come to expect that kind of musical moment that connects to the play as well as the unique musical heritage of Memphis.
“We try to make a Memphis moment you can connect to every night,” Potter says. “For instance, tonight was the first time we’ve tried this Memphis Showcase competition. There is a lot of great music talent in this city and we want to show that.
“We want you to feel like when you come to a game in Memphis – and you know I don’t think this is necessarily the same for every team – but when you come here we want you to feel like not only did you get an NBA-caliber experience but that you got a Memphis experience. We feel like those two things go hand in hand and we try to bring that to bear every game.”
And what about those special playoffs moments? Well, the Grizzles have been in the postseason the past three years. As of press time, they had a one-game lead over the Phoenix Suns for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs with two games remaining. Potter is confident the team will be in when the season is completed after the April 16 home game against the Dallas Mavericks. He’s also confident his team will be up to the challenge.
“Due to the success the team has had the last few years and due to the fun we’ve been able to have the last few years on the game ops side of things, I think there’s more attention to us in the playoffs and, ‘What are they going to do.’ We relish and revel in that pressure. … With this collection of players right now there seems to be a growing sense of tradition of what the fans expect.
“We’ll draw on the past of what we’ve done, yet the challenge is to keep it fresh. We can’t just roll out the greatest hits. I think there will be elements that fans will be disappointed if they don’t see, but fans will expect to see some new things, too. We have a heritage to draw on now. … What this collection of players has brought to us is ownership of that experience. This is not some thing we’re borrowing from the NBA. This is our playoff experience.”