Marc Gasol And The High Price Of Loyalty In The Modern NBA

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Grizzlies fans have trouble letting go of things. It’s partly because they don’t have a long and storied franchise with decades worth of shiny historical artifacts that we can take down off the mantle and polish wistfully during leaner times. There’s only been one true great era in Memphis, the slow, methodical disassembly of which has turned out more painful than if they would’ve just blown the whole thing up entirely when they had the chance.

The organization can’t bear all the blame for that. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the last remnants of the Grit-N-Grind era left sifting through the rubble of this season, have both been loyal soldiers, arguably to a fault. Each had an opportunity to leave Memphis in free agency in recent years; neither even considered it. They wanted to stay with the only team they’d ever known. That’s a rare and precious gift in today’s NBA.

It’s also inescapably naive and probably self-defeating, given the way the league works now. The days of players spending their entire careers with one franchise is becoming a distant memory, and there’s a valid argument to be made that increased player agency is the sign of healthy league.

Still, regardless of how the remainder of his career pans out, Gasol will go down as the greatest Grizzlies player of all-time. He’s been there since he was a teenager, playing his high school ball at Lausanne Collegiate School while big brother Pau was carving a path for himself in the NBA ranks. Perhaps that, his being a Memphian from before he ever suited up for the franchise, is why the city has embraced him as one of its own from the very beginning.

It certainly helps that he possessed a blue-collar style, a hard-nosed approach that was predicated on ambition to work harder and play tougher and smarter than his opponents on a nightly basis, regardless of the fact that he was usually out-classed in terms of pure athleticism. In that, he managed to embody the spirit of Memphis.

There was no artifice or pretense to it, Marc Gasol just wanted to put on his hardhat and go to work every single night, and the city adored him for it.

To be fair, it wasn’t always pretty, even if Gasol was a highly-skilled big man capable of mixing finesse in with his raw power. The Grizzlies clung stubbornly to an anachronistic style in the face of the three-point revolution, and watching them ground down opponents in 80-point playoff games was only palatable for Memphis natives who cherished our status as league outliers. While the rest of the NBA embraced a new, modern style of basketball, Memphis wanted to turn games into rock fights.

And oh boy, was it a glorious time for Grizzlies fans, watching the big, hirsute, lumbering Gasol leading the way as they created nightmares for their Western Conference opponents and carried the mantle as the team nobody wanted to face once the postseason came around. Just ask the Thunder, the Clippers, and even the Warriors. In battles between old school and new, the Gasol-led Grizzlies would find ways to punch opponents in the mouth, catch them off-guard, and win.

The individual accolades were there for Gasol as well. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and was a perennial candidate for that award for nearly half a decade, as well as a three-time All-Star and an All-NBA first team selection in 2015. Now far removed from those honorifics as he hits his mid-30s and is decidedly on the other side of his prime, Gasol has a chance to play for a championship in Toronto, and you can bet Grizzlies fans everywhere will have their allegiances on loan to the Northern provinces once the spring rolls around.

When he returns to FedEx Forum, he’ll see his jersey up there in the rafters next to Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, and eventually Conley, who stuck around at the deadline despite rumblings his tenure with the franchise would come to an end, too. But unlike a host of other stars who’ve departed their teams for the siren song of bigger markets and championship pursuits, there’ll be nothing but cheers and standing ovations for Gasol, whose undying loyalty to the city of Memphis was a breath of fresh air, even if he had to trade in some of the best years of his prime because of it.