The player Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace called “the most popular in franchise history” is back in town – officially.
Shane Battier took to a makeshift stage in the FedExForum lobby today with Wallace and newly acquired guard Ishmael Smith in front of a full compliment of media and Grizzlies sales staff, along with a public gallery boasting about 50 people.
“This is huge,” a ticket rep sitting in the media gallery said. “To this day I still get people telling me they would buy tickets again if Shane was here, and talking about how much they loved Shane.”
Well now, thanks to a trade announced yesterday in which the Grizzlies sent much-maligned center and former #2 pick Hasheem Thabeet, permanent bench warmer DeMarre Carroll and a lottery-protected first round pick to Houston for Battier and guard Ishmael Smith, those fans have their favorite Grizzly back in town.
The approval was obvious. Wallace has, at other times, tried to force excitement into press conferences (“We brought Xavier Henry back to Memphis!”), but this time none was necessary. The love was all around.
The love wasn’t lost on Battier. The 6-8 forward was greeted to raucous applause when he entered, and many in the media gallery, including Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and his ever-present sidekick Kevin Kane, stood up to welcome him.
“Shane have you been here before?” Grizzlies TV announcer Pete Pranica asked sarcastically.
Battier had some sarcasm himself, saying he was glad to be able to continue wearing his trademark number 31, although he was worried that “Darko may have retired the jersey.”
Wharton kept up the humor, poking fun at the regime change that has taken place since Battier last donned a Grizzlies uniform, and the crowd was eager to laugh and clap at anything Battier had to say.
But when it came to basketball, wit was more reserved.
“It’s rare to get a second chance in life, and especially in the NBA,” Battier said. “I’m just trying to make the most of this opportunity and bring some playoff success here to Memphis.”
Outside of the crowd clamoring, the mayor beaming and the city just, in general being overly gleeful about the return of Battier the person, Battier the player brings a lot to a team clawing for its first playoff win, especially now that franchise forward Rudy Gay will miss at least three more weeks with a shoulder injury.
In the two games without Gay, coach Lionel Hollins has used an abundance of talent at the shooting guard position to fill in the gap, but it left the team’s lineup lacking in size.
“We needed a true small forward and Shane was the best guy to get,” Wallace said. “We would have done this trade whether Rudy had been healthy or not.”
In addition to adding size, Battier brings excellent perimeter defense and offense to the team, two things which have been sorely lacking. Teams like Chicago, Golden State, and Battier’s former team, Houston, have exploited the Grizzlies’ difficulty covering the perimeter and inability to score from the perimeter for big wins.
“This team already has strengths, they score a lot of points in the paint,” Battier said. “But we have to have guys who can stretch the floor. I’m going to do the same thing I did here five years ago – stretch the floor and make guys pay for double-teaming Zach.”
Battier will likely be the go-to player at the small forward position until Rudy Gay’s return, but will just as likely be filling in for Gay when the Grizzlies franchise player returns.
This is interesting as Battier was originally traded to Houston so the Grizzlies could acquire Gay. While Battier admits to “maybe preparing a little harder and practicing a little more” for games against the Grizzlies, he says there is no delusion as to his role on this team.
“It’s Rudy’s team,” he said, “He’s the franchise guy. I’m just here to keep the boat afloat while he’s out and help the team push forward when he comes back.”
The push forward (read: playoffs) is the focus. Battier won playoff games in Houston. Even won a series. Never happened in Memphis, and that’s what has Battier talking about second chances.
“We wanted to win a playoff game so bad for the fans, especially one at home,” he said. “We want them to taste what that feels like. Maybe even to win a series. Playoff basketball is the next level.”
And that’s what Battier is here for. Battier’s stay could last the rest of his career, or it could last just a few months as his contract expires at the end of this season. Both Battier and Wallace were tight lipped about Battier’s future with the team.
“It’s like that old Redskins coach used to say, ‘the future is now.’ And that’s how we looked at this.”
That must have been Wallace’s attitude going into the trade. Wallace had been talking with the Rockets about Battier for months, but was reluctant to make the deal happen immediately because the Rockets would not budge on the Grizzlies including a protected lottery pick.
At the final hour, Wallace and Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley decided to go ahead and give up the pick, which is lottery protected but cannot be used before 2013, and bring Battier home. Since then it’s been unicorns and rainbows, at least from the fans.
Lost in all the love for Battier is guard Ishmael Smith, who was also acquired in the deal. Smith, who worked out for the Grizzlies several times last summer, becomes the fourth point guard on the Grizzlies on the Grizzlies roster, part of yet another logjam in the Grizzlies back court.
Smith was polite as he played Robin to Battier’s Batman, but noted that for him, the most exciting part of coming to Memphis was another blast from the past: Jason Williams.
“I’m going to have to work hard to earn any minutes, but the big thing will be learning from [Williams],” he said. “I’ve been a fan of his for a long time.”
The connection Williams and Battier share, as both members of the Grizzlies last playoff team and now this team, is lost on no one. A picture of the two in the old Grizzlies uniforms sat next to the stage, and Battier when approached by the media hordes after his public talk, made the Blues Brothers reference that many have made since news of the trade became official:
“We’re getting the band back together!”
Fans are happy to see both Battier and Williams back, it gives them a connection to this team and to these players. Williams has, so far, been a positive to the franchise. Logic dictates that Battier will also give quite a boost.
And with all these shorelines and second chances floating around, perhaps Memphis and the Grizzlies will be the ones to finally have a happy ending.
Pick up the current issue of Memphisport to see our 9 question interview with Battier to learn about his aspirations as an NBA general manager. The magazine is available for free at Kroger, Huey’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, the Flying Saucer and other participating locations around the Mid-South.
Story photos by Justin Ford.