There’s something both touching and uncomfortable about seeing a grown man with so much emotional investment in a sports franchise and/or said franchise’s star player. Such was the case at the Palace of Auburn Hills the other night when a Tayshaun Prince fan ripped off his favorite player’s jersey after discovering that mere hours earlier Prince had been shipped out of town in a three-team blockbuster trade that sent Prince and Austin Daye to Memphis and Rudy Gay to Toronto (among other less significant moves).
The video is enough to make anyone cringe. The fan waits eagerly in his seat located strategically by the tunnel from which the players emerge before each game. He watches the procession of players in confusion as Prince fails to emerge, and his confusion quickly transforms to panic. Over the next few minutes, he frantically checks his phone for updates, phones a friend, and the slow realization that his worst fear has been confirmed. His favorite player has been traded away. Then, in a fit of frustration and futility, off comes the jersey.
The Prince trade signals the end of an era in Detroit: he was the last remaining member of the Pistons championship team from 2004, a team that made six consecutive Easter Conference Finals appearances and two straight NBA Finals appearances, losing a seven-game series to the San Antonio Spurs in the latter.
One gets the sense that the Prince jersey was only the latest in a long line of jerseys that this poor fan has personally retired from his wardrobe over the years, a list that includes the likes of Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, and Rip Hamilton.
I know because I too had to retire my Detroit Pistons Chauncey Billups jersey a few years ago when he was unceremoniously traded to the Denver Nuggets for an at the time still functional Allen Iverson, a trade that ultimately began Iverson’s long, slow descent into basketball obscurity. As someone who grew up in the Memphis area, the Pistons-Grizzlies-Raptors deal is a bittersweet one. As a long-time Tashaun Prince fan, it’s great to see him join the Grizzlies organization, but as a pragmatist, it goes without saying that his best years are behind him, and in the midst of all the trade murmurs the past few weeks, I’ve been vehemently against dealing Gay, despite the flexibility that it offers the team in cap space moving forward. As fans, we are asked to accept the fact that parochial team owners are obliged to make what they believe to be sound business decisions for the long-term health and growth of their organizations, even when weighed against the costs of an alienated fan-base and the now-diminishing potential for a deep playoff run.
Just as Prince’s departure signals the end of an era in the Motor City, the Rudy Gay trade ushers in yet another incarnation of the ever-shifting identity of the Memphis Grizzlies. Gay came to the team during the second incarnation of the Stromile Swift era in Memphis, a team as hollowed out and empty as the now-abandoned Pyramid arena in which they previously played their home games. And, from that point, it would be five years of floundering before the team found their way back into playoff contention with a young nucleus consisting of Gay, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley, Jr., under the no-nonsense leadership of head coach Lionel Hollins.
For the last few years, Memphis fans have embraced the blue-collar, grind-it-out style of the new-day Grizzlies in a way they never have before. In many ways, the current roster embodies the spirit of a town clambering to regain some of its former glory. The team, like the town, is hard-nosed, scrappy, rough around the edges, etc. And while most fans were left feeling frustrated by the trade, and while most experts believe that Grizzlies brass has effectively dealt their way out of championship contention for the immediate future, there’s no question that the current roster and coaching staff remain resolute in their endeavor.
However, the added wrinkle to this story is the fact coach Lionel Hollins, who is no small part responsible for the team’s success in recent seasons, is in the last year of his contract, coupled with the fact Hollins was less than pleased about the decision to move Gay mid-season. Advanced sports analytics have become fashionable in recent years, and Gay’s stat lines no doubt factored in to the decision to trade him, particularly with the Grizzlies new metrics-happy ownership. But as Hollins pointed out in a recent press conference, the Oakland As have never actually won a championship, despite their fairytale turnaround season, thanks to advanced sports analytics, that was chronicled in a certain popular film starring Brad Pitt.
Stats rarely tell the whole story, and with Gay now jettisoned to the flailing Raptors, Grizzlies fans are left speculating about what could have been had the owners resolved to keep the core intact for at least the remainder of the season. But that’s not all Grizzlies fans have to worry about. With rumors circling that, in addition to Gay, both Randolph and Gasol were being floated out there to potential suitors, who knows that the new trigger-happy owners might have in store, particularly if the team fails to make it past the second round of the playoffs again this year. The February trade deadline is still weeks ago, so don’t be surprised if we see another move or two, and hold onto your proverbial hats once the offseason begins in earnest.