A Huge Question In Memphis

By Scott Cacciola
Updated: September 10, 2009

MEMPHIS — Chris Wilson knows this could be a colossal disaster.

As a longtime fan of the Grizzlies and a season-ticket holder, Wilson said he wonders if Allen Iverson will hinder the development of some of the team’s younger players.

What is his motivation? Will he become a distraction? And what the heck happened to owner Michael Heisley’s infamous “three-year plan”?

Despite his concerns, Wilson celebrated the news that Iverson, a 10-time NBA All-Star known as “The Answer,” had agreed to a one-year deal with the Grizzlies on Wednesday. Because in his mind, the Grizzlies have nothing to lose … except more games.

“Why not?” said Wilson, 25, who works for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and blogs for GrizzFans.com. “It’s A.I. You have to be excited about this.”

By bringing aboard Iverson, a high-scoring guard known as much for his clashes with coaches as his hard-nosed style, the Grizzlies are banking on an aging superstar to help mentor a young group of players.

But there also is little doubt that his presence will generate interest in a struggling franchise among its long-suffering fans, who appear supportive of the deal — despite its potential for problems.

“I think it’s a good, calculated risk and creates some buzz for a team that needs it,” said Steve McCleskey, 53, an attorney from East Memphis and a season-ticket holder. “It’s good for the city. It makes me look forward to the Grizzlies a little bit more.”

Consider: Several years ago, before Yao Ming emerged as a star with the Houston Rockets, Iverson’s jersey was the most popular seller in China. He was an international icon whose appeal surpassed that of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady or any other A-list NBA standout.

His jersey has been among the top five sellers in the league at all three of his NBA stops, with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Denver Nuggets and the Detroit Pistons. And even if he is not nearly as marketable as he once was, the Grizzlies should be able to capitalize on his star power.

“He’s not the kind of player who, if you put him on a team surrounded by other stars, would make much of an impact at this stage of his career,” said Marc Ganis, president and founder of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. “But because the Grizzlies are so lacking in talent and other identifiable stars, he gives them a person of stature to use as a focal point.”

So how do the Grizzlies plan to market Iverson? Team officials refused to comment Wednesday because Iverson had not officially signed, but the news was featured on national Web sites throughout the day.

When was the last time the Grizzlies got that sort of national play?

There is a curiosity factor at work: NBA fans will be interested to see how he fares here.

“I’m actually excited about it for Memphis,” Ganis said. “I think it’s got some real potential for the Grizzlies.”

The team ranked next-to-last in home attendance last season, drawing about 12,700 per game to FedExForum, which seats 18,000. Heisley has indicated that the deal had everything to do with basketball and nothing to do with marketing.

Iverson even addressed that issue during their meeting in Atlanta on Monday, according to NBA.com, which reported that Iverson asked Heisley if he wanted him merely to sell tickets.

But Iverson will help sell tickets, and it would be disingenuous to argue that the box office was not a factor.

Jonathan May, a 26-year-old attorney from Memphis who has season tickets with his wife, said he overheard co-workers at his firm talking about buying season tickets of their own after news of the deal broke.

“You can’t discount the financial impact,” May said. “I know everybody’s giving Heisley a hard time, but if we want the team to stay here, we need the team to make money. So if Iverson helps generate revenue, that obviously helps the team’s long-term standing.”

The NBA is big business, and the Grizzlies are just as concerned about the bottom line as they are about the 3-point line. In Iverson, they can only hope they found “The Answer” for both.