Memphis wins big: Grizzlies players bring support to community

Since coming to the Bluff City in 2001, the Memphis Grizzlies and their players have played an integral role in giving back in the community, whether through individual efforts or support of larger initiatives.

 
When Tony Allen steps to the microphone on March 29 to sing karaoke, it won’t be because he’s a closeted fan of singing songs that are best left to solo drives in a car or the shower.

Sure, he possibly enjoys looking a little silly singing on a stage. But more than the karaoke, the Memphis Grizzlies guard participates in and hosts “Tony Allen Karaoke Night” benefiting Juvenile Intervention and Faith-Based Follow-Up (JIFF) as a way to give back to the community and put a few smiles on the face of everyone in attendance.

Because, really, who can’t smile watching the evening’s winner sing with Allen to conclude the fun?

Outside Memphis, the Grizzlies stand for Grit ‘n’ Grind, a defensive-minded philosophy that wears out opponents. One of the toughest outs in the NBA playoffs season after season, the Grizzlies also have been one of the most consistent teams over the past six seasons.

In Memphis, the Grizzlies stand for all of that on-court consistency – even during this injury-plagued season. But more than that, the Grizzlies have created a point of pride the city gets behind, and part of that comes through the community work of the individual players and the Grizzlies Foundation.

Rick Shadyac Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, said his organization’s relationship with the NBA team can’t be defined with just words or player appearances. He said he believes the players get as much out of the relationship as the hospital, its staff and patients and families do.

“As the Grizzlies players become more and more part of our community – and they are an incredible anchor – when I talk to some of the Grizzlies players they tell me they get just as much out of (hospital visits),” Shadyac said. “It gives them an opportunity to visit with some kids who are going through some tough stuff.”

NBA Cares for Hoops for St. Jude Week takes place through March 27. The effort to raise awareness and support for the hospital’s lifesaving mission has been embraced by the league, its teams, players, broadcasters and fans. The week shines a light of awareness with online, social media and in-game promotions, as well as league coaches wearing St. Jude lapels, a practice that has occurred in Memphis starting with the leadership of former coach Lionel Hollins and continuing under the current direction of Dave Joerger.

But more than lapel pins and national TV spots, a group of Hoops for St. Jude Week ambassadors lead the effort: David Lee of the Dallas Mavericks, Greg Monroe of the Milwaukee Bucks, Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, and Mike Conley and Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Yes, Marc Gasol and Conley make up one-third of the NBA’s ambassadors for the league’s support of St. Jude this week. And as an organization, the Grizzlies actually adopted St. Jude for the entire month of March. But for Conley and Gasol, ask around the Memphis community and it only makes sense the franchise cornerstones are involved.

In some ways, the players are private about their community efforts. That doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed. Jeremy Park is president of the Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club, and he’s experienced first-hand the players’ dedication, particularly Conley and his Shoe-Up! with Mike Conley” campaign during January’s Samaritan’s Feet event with the Grizzlies Foundation.

“A 6-year-old boy said, ‘Is Mike Conley really here? Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s here,’” Park recalled about the event that saw Conley, the Grizzlies Foundation and other volunteers spend time washing the feet of 200 in-need children before giving them all new shoes. “This kid was on cloud nine. I followed him to the gym and he’s playing one on one against Mike Conley. The smile on the child was endless. That’s the part of the Grizzlies that people don’t see, necessarily. You see them on the court but don’t see them in person. They’re humbling themselves and making a difference.”

The Memphis Grizzlies Foundation is a nonprofit organization that uses sport to transform lives, particularly those of children living at risk in the community. Since 2001, the foundation has invested more than $40 million in three focus areas: K-12 education programming, high-impact health and fitness initiatives, and expanded platforms for youth mentoring.

And then there is the efforts of the players, some of which is conducted via individual foundations and some that comes as part of team-wide efforts.

Shadyac is thankful to have the Grizzlies in town. There is the work the local NBA team does with the children’s research hospital; during the late Richard Shadyac Sr.’s tenure at ALSAC, the Grizzlies relocated from Vancouver. He struck a deal with then-owner Michael Heisley to build the Memphis Grizzlies House. The team pledged $5 million toward the construction of the house in 2002, which serves as a free, short-term housing facility for children undergoing treatment at St. Jude.

“They wanted to do something different,” Shadyac said of the relationship. “We have a great partnership with them. What I see is them getting involved in a broader way.”

The team hosts a tip-off luncheon every year that benefits the hospital. Of course the children and their families appreciate the frequent visits by players, which has grown to include every NBA team from time to time.

But it’s Gasol and Conley who continue to stand above the rest.

“We’re especially blessed to have the support of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, who are two of our most dedicated ambassadors,” Shadyac said. “These guys spend hours at the hospital interacting with kids in genuine and authentic ways. These are intimate conversations these two choose to have with kids who look up to them. It’s not just photo opportunities and appearances. It reminds these kids they are kids. And for the kids to be able to spend time with people they see on TV is an incredible experience for them. (The children) talk about it all the time.”

And that brings it back to the Samaritan’s Feet program. Memphis is a city stricken by poverty. Countless children in the community are malnourished, under-clothed and, yes, don’t have shoes. In fact, Park said, he’s witnessed children come to the event wearing only flip flops because that’s the only shoes the family can afford.

Even for just a couple of hours, for some 200 children to have their feet washed by volunteers and NBA players, not to mention get a healthy snack, some play time on the team’s practice court, and new socks and shoes, well, the small gesture matters.

But it’s more than just giving children fun, hope and new shoes while interacting with players such as Conley and Allen. This year a child expressed an interest in being a police officer when he grows up. He sat across from a Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy, who went on to help the child get into a law enforcement explorer program.

Another child said her dream was to attend an NBA game. The family that owns Memphis’ Napa Café volunteered at the event that day. They tracked down the child and her parents, taking them to a game where they were hosted in a suite at FedExForum.

“I go back to personally money is a great resource but it doesn’t solve problems,” Park said. “Money doesn’t do it, people do. It’s one thing to put money in but another thing to be physically engaged. To see the Grizzlies players physically engaged, and I mean Tony Allen doing karaoke for JIFF or (Zach Randolph) taking kids to retail stores and buying them presents. They are actually there themselves playing with kids and having fun with the families. That stuff is priceless.

“Yes, they’re giving gifts, but when you look back on the legacy of players it very much is the personal engagement. They themselves hug the child. That’s the stuff people will remember forever, but it’s also that someone who didn’t have to believe in the child and someone who is famous in our city took the time to care about them and ask about their problems and genuinely care.”

Yes, there are many things the Memphis Grizzlies and the Grizzlies Foundation have done in the team’s 15 years in the city. But caring for the community, its children and those who are less fortunate might just be the most important thing about having the NBA in the Bluff City.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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