At Smoothie King Center in New Orleans they serve frozen daiquiris, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta there is a barbershop, at FedExForum in Memphis they regularly play, from the Oscar winning film Hustle and Flow, “Whoop that Trick.”
Fortunately, all three teams are currently in the postseason. The No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies are preparing for their first-round matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Pelicans have play-in game matchups on Friday. Whenever the Grizzlies are in the postseason their crowd shows out, and last night both crowds in Atlanta and New Orleans brought the energy that they’re sometimes maligned for not having on a nightly basis.
For most teams it takes a postseason run for the fans to truly get into the spirit that makes the energy be felt through the television set, and hopefully the Pelicans and Hawks win their games on Friday, so for at least one playoff round, we can all have the treat of these three unique metropolitan areas bringing all the crunk for a few games.
The beauty of the NBA is that the games are more intimate. The players aren’t hidden from view by shoulder pads and ball caps, and arenas generally hold no more than 18,000 people. So it’s common to see Patrick Beverley riling the crowd up in Minnesota by jumping on the scorers’ table and flinging his jersey into the stands, or Joakim Noah running around the court high-fiving fans after a triple-overtime win. Legendary sports writer Frank Deford once described the NBA as having more sex appeal than the other sports, and I get where he was coming from. Because the fans are so much closer to the court, there’s only 10 players at a time and they don’t wear equipment, it gives viewers more of an opportunity to become attracted to the game because they can see everything. You get a full experience watching the games, and when watching the Pelicans, Hawks, and Grizzlies play at home, part of that experience is the culture.
Memphis is a unique city for several reasons. For one, its metropolitan area includes north Mississippi and west Arkansas. That’s a southern experience quite different from the rest of Tennessee over in the Smoky Mountains. In Memphis’ corner they have some Mississippi blues to go along with the barbecue and it’s also a city that, as Ja Morant said about his Grizzlies, “doesn’t dodge smoke, it runs up the chimney.” Bone Thugs & Harmony got to see that firsthand during their Verzuz battle against Three 6 Mafia. Never forget what the perception was of Zach Randolph’s career and personality when he first got to Memphis. He’s pretty much the honorary lifetime mayor of the city now.
When you first arrive in New Orleans, you’ll look around and ask yourself if you’re still in America. The French, Caribbean, and Spanish influences were all cooked up into fascinating gumbo that you can walk around all day and never be bored. It’s also a place where you can find a foam party at 3:30 p.m. and purchase your own second-line parade for $300 if the mood strikes you. It’s also more of a basketball town than you think. The Pelicans’ have averaged over 90 percent capacity for some years, and that’s with a team that has finished over .500 three times since 2010. Also, Mannie Fresh and Juvenile performed at halftime of the regular-season finale, and any team that gives their fans that kind of treat is alright with me.
Atlanta, this is a place where I saw a long peanut butter colored car roll down the street during Car and Bike show time of year, and printed on the side of the car were the words “peanut butter.” It’s the type of place that might have a DJ and a karaoke contest at a bar during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and dining outside means that a party bus blaring Migos might intrude into your conversation. This is a place that does things BIG, and the Hawks made sure to follow suit with the stadium renovations — there is an actual club in the arena as well as the barber shop. Atlanta has a reputation for not supporting its teams, but forgive the community for having other options when the teams are boring. However, go to a United soccer game, or a Hawks playoff game. You will see quickly that if you give the people something worth supporting, they’ll do it just as big as they do everything else.
Three great American cities, all different but they all embrace the same thing, fun. And even though last night’s play-in games in Atlanta and New Orleans weren’t nearly as compelling as the Timberwolves and Clippers game on Tuesday, the environment at both arenas was hype, and as always, felt very much like the cities both teams represent. So I’ll be rooting for all three teams to go as far they can, because I like NBA basketball, I like a good time, and I like the fact that these three teams embrace the culture of their cities and can have moments like an entire crowd yelling “Whoop that Trick!”