They took his balls; we'd like them back

November 1st, 2019

Before 1

(published in The Daily Memphian)

As I write this, Michael Dickerson (extra points if you know who that is) is nodding at me. So are Pau Gasol and Shane Battier. And Lorenzen Wright and Jason Williams and Stromile Swift. And, of course, Elvis is right the middle in his Grizzlies jersey, number 01. They are all enshrined in a case on my desk, a full set of the original Grizzly bobbleheads and one of my proudest possessions.

The bobbleheads were the idea of my friend, Andy Dolich, the first president of business operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, and the full set was a gift to me during season one.

He sent me an email the other day. This was the subject line: “I’ve lost my balls.”

You’ve got to open that.

When the Grizzlies came to town almost 20 years ago, all the major ad agencies in town went after them and threw heart and soul into the effort. Come on. This was the NBA and a literal game changer for Memphis. When we made the final two, I was as proud of my bunch as I’d ever been.

We went to the Grizzlies office for that presentation and watched the other finalist leave after making their pitch, looking happy, shaking various hands. Then somebody came out from somewhere and told us that management had been called into an emergency meeting and a conference call with ownership and we’d have to reschedule.

In other words, don’t call us, we’ll call you. I watched the air go out of my people like footballs in the Patriots locker room. After all the days and nights of work, all the strategy, all the creative energy, all the left and right brain strain – we were done.

So I called the office, shut down the agency, and had everybody reconvene for the balance of the day and into the evening in a bar. This loss deserved a wake. Some of those folks still remind me of what I said to close the party down as I stared at the bill, turned to the full room and shouted:

“What the f—k is a Grey Goose and who had seven of them?”

I was wrong; it was a party not a wake. The Grizzlies did call back after all, and they came to our place for the final pitch. We were awarded the account. That’s when I met Andy Dolich, and the next three years working for and with him were a blast.

We took a bad team in a dead building and asked the city to come watch them lose, to watch Pau pout and Jason throw no-look passes behind his back into the third row, to watch Shane be classy, Ren be lovable, and Stro do whatever it was that Stro did, and to fall in love. We tried everything – “Tix For Tats” comes to mind, a ticket giveaway tied to spectacular tattoo displays, Allen Iverson, and the 76ers game – and it was all wacky and wild and almost surreal. Andy got Memphis faster and better than any client I’ve ever had from somewhere else, understanding our pain and our joy, our stubbornness and genuineness, our sense of humor, and our enormous, breakable hearts.

I remember what he said when he hired me: “I took a call today from some random guy who told me, ‘You got the keep the emphis on Memphis.’ That’s what we’re going to do”

I also remember when under ownership pressure he fired me three years later, “I’ve got bad news and good news. Bad news is, you’re fired. Good news is, I’m buying lunch.” He later asked and took my advice about who to hire and they have the business still.

Andy came to Memphis along a path from his hometown of Brooklyn and on to management positions across minor and major league sports of virtually every description except Roller Derby, and I’m not sure about that one. He not only knew from promotion, he loved promotion. Like most clients in my experience, he wanted to write headlines. Like very few in my experience, he could.

Which brings me to the one about his balls that he wrote for that subject line.

When they were building FedExForum, they had to put up protective bollards of some kind around the plaza… you know, something heavy and concrete to keep cars from driving into the plaza or crazies getting too close with vans, etc. Andy came up with not only the idea of balls, but also of painted balls. Great big basketballs and baseballs. Tennis balls and billiard balls. Golf balls and soccer balls. Beachballs and volleyballs. And so it goes. And so it went all around the plaza. 

Now back in his beloved and adopted home of the San Francisco Bay area, imagine his surprise when a friend sent a photo of the big, boring, gray balls of concrete that sit there now like so many ceremonial cannonballs around a battlefield and just as somber.

“I called,” he said in his email. “They told me the painter died.”

Really? God forbid something should happen to whoever cleans the bathrooms in FedExForum. Evidently their team depth is lacking in certain positions.

Later exploration reveals that they’ve painted them gray in anticipation of selling them to sponsors. As I mentioned, Andy loves promotion but there’s a limit to what he’s willing to put a logo on.

It took a unique set of balls to open and run an NBA franchise in a small market. Let’s get them back.

I’m a Memphian, and I have an Andy Dolich bobblehead, too.

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