Dear Coach Fizdale,

Prior to your arrival in Memphis, my relationship with our NBA franchise was complicated. It was a basketball scholarship to LeMoyne-Owen College that brought me to Memphis almost 20 years ago. Basketball helped me become the person I am. I love the game.

Grizzlies Coach David Fizdale

And when the Grizzlies arrived in 2001 from Vancouver, I was excited. But I thought they were kind of soft and their play inconsistent with the type of play I had been cultivated under during my tenure at that beloved HBCU on Walker Avenue. It was as if the identities of the city and the team were incompatible.

The team’s identity started to shift when Lionel Hollins took the reins in 2009. And when the tagline of “Grit and Grind” became the Memphis mantra under the likes of Tony Allen, Zach “Z-Bo” Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley, I was almost sold. But there was still something cosmetic about how city engaged this identity.

Several years ago, I was headed to one of the games when a young white brother, eager to dart through the doors of the FedEx Forum or possibly caught up in euphoria consistent with white privilege, violated my personal space. After bumping me like Gasol bumps those big bodies in the paint when sweeping in for a sky hook, the young brother noticed my annoyance and said, “Go Grizzlies.” 
 His statement was an attempt to cover his rudeness and lack of spatial awareness. He also stereotyped me as a fan. I guess I exude grit and grind in my skin, right? Was a hearty “Go Grizzlies” supposed to make everything alright?
 Around that same time, Dr. Zandria Robinson, a sociologist, dropped a gem discussing how the franchise was engaged in cultural appropriation and “obliteration” through (among other things) chants in the forum such as “whoop that trick.” I surmised that the city was using the franchise as another means to mask our social inequities such as racism and poverty.

Tami Sawyer, a Memphis activist, greets activist and author Angela Davis at the Mid-South Peace and Justice fundraiser in January.

Then at a Mid-South Peace and Justice fundraiser in January, activist Tami Sawyer introduced the legendary activist Angela Davis to Memphis by describing how we “celebrate the grit and grind of black bodies on the hardwood” but not the grit and grind of those who work 40-hour weeks but still don’t make livable wages. My internal buzzer sounded. I recalled the ways in which the franchise has been presented as evidence that we were progressing, not just in matters of athletics and entertainment, but in weightier matters — race, economics and justice.
 With each year that passed after Hollins’ departure in 2013, my conflict with the franchise intensified. I never thought I would be a full-fledged Grizz fan.
 Then you showed up on May 29, 2016.

Coach is a term of endearment to me. Some of the people who have had the most impact on my life have been my coaches (my freshman coach Lou Harvey, my junior college coach Doug Schaffer, and my coaches at LOC Curtis Hollowell and the legendary Jerry Johnson). 
 But you, Coach, have inspired me in a way that opened the portal of fandom to this local franchise. You have made me a certified Grizz fan.

Those of us on the front lines, working to improve the quality and conditions of our city, are not naïve. We don’t think you are a savior or even an MVP. We believe that in order for the soul of our city to be redeemed, we need teamwork. As University of Memphis Professor Dr. Elena Delavega detailed in her 2017 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, we need #SharedRiskforSharedProsperity. We need everyone doing their part and not passing the buck of responsibility to others. You have been doing just that — your part.

I want to thank you publicly for using your position of influence and not shying away from the critical issues in our community. In your interview with MLK50 editor and publisher Wendi Thomas you drove aggressively, like Conley, towards the goal of “peace and justice.”

You addressed racism and bigotry in our climate and the country and pledged your commitment to be “actively involved” in resolving our issues. You have shown clear leadership.

Your voice has been a sincere articulation of what a righteous vision for the city should look like — a space that hears the cries of its marginalized citizens and meets our social and political challenges with truth and justice.

You have set a righteous standard for leadership and other coaches and athletes should follow your lead. The national conversation and controversy surrounding NFL athletes kneeling to protest police brutality has amplified the tension between sports and politics. You articulated your commitment to stand with your players if they chose to kneel during the national anthem. This shows that you are focused on truth and not trivia. 
 You affirmed our movement to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis confederate statues in Memphis by saying, “#TakeEmDown901.” You are offering us an opportunity to coalesce around the communal elements of education, entertainment, economic justice and social ethics.

YouTube video

I mean, you had the courage and conviction, in your first year as a head coach, to challenge the NBA referees when they tried to “rook us.” That spoke volumes to me as an activist and preacher. You inherited a city with 26 percent of its citizens and 45 percent of its children living in poverty. (To borrow your phrase, “Take that for data.”) 
 Your choice to pick principles over popularity reminds me that our voices still matter when we speak the truth in love. 
 Your leadership is akin to the great prophet who was slain in our beloved city. Dr. King said a leader is “not one who searches for consensus, but is a molder of consensus.” 
 Thank you for molding us. Thank you for molding me.

Rev. Earle J. Fisher is the Senior Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis and the co-founder of the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition.

Fisher is also a PhD student in the Communications Department at the University of Memphis and the president of the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corporation.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.