Inspiration and imitation. (Left: Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty; Right: Memphis Grizzlies)
When it comes to home-game giveaways for ticket-buyers, the Memphis Grizzlies generally play things pretty straight, with stuff like posters, hats and rally flags dominating their promotional calendar. They do know how to kick things up a notch, though, to come up with items that fit hand-in-glove with the unique, fantastic blue-collar identity the franchise has cultivated over the past few years; the most notable example of this, of course, is the "WE DON'T BLUFF" rally towel circulated before Game 6 of the Grizzlies' first-round playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers last season. This time, though, the Grizz have outdone themselves.
According to Darren Rovell of ESPN.com., the first 5,000 fans at FedExForum for Memphis' Feb. 21 matchup with those same playoff rival Clippers will become the lucky owners of "a clear sticker with the word 'GRIZZLIES' to go on their neck." Out of context, a team giving out throat-tattoo stickers would be delightfully batpoop and somewhat insane. In context, though, it's a pitch-perfect method of showing appreciation for the contributions of neck-tatted forward James Johnson, who came out of the D-League earlier this season to become an integral part of the turnaround that's steadied a shaky squad and put the Grizz back on the path to postseason contention.
A 2009 first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls, Johnson spent time with three teams over four seasons before landing with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League this season. Short on answers on the wing, the struggling Grizzlies called the 6-foot-9 forward up in mid-December, hoping that his combination of length, athleticism and defensive energy would provide a boost to a team that had slumped to start the season under new head coach Dave Joerger. The Grizzlies have gone 16-9 since Johnson's addition, outscoring opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, compared with just 2.4-per-100 when he sits during those 25 games; they've performed like a top-eight offense and a top-five defense with Johnson in the lineup to both body up versatile wing scorers, get his hands in passing lanes and block shots (especially on the perimeter, where he's rejected a league-high 15 3-pointers) and provide found-money points with his work as an off-ball cutter, transition attacker and offensive glass-crasher.
His style and effectiveness at times calls to mind a super-sized Tony Allen — not least of which because both have thrown kicks at Chris Paul's face — and you know how much Memphis adores its beloved "Grindfather." It comes as no surprise, then, that the team and its fans would fall in love open their arms wide for Johnson; this particular token of appreciation, though, is especially touching and heartfelt, as Rovell explains:
Johnson got a tattoo of the words "NAYMIN 3.9.13" on his neck last March. It was in honor of his son, Naymin, who was born six weeks early and was fighting for his life in intensive care.
"Life changed for me after that," Johnson said. "Life wasn't about only me anymore. After that day, the head on my shoulders was different from what it was before."
Naymin pulled through, and Johnson said his son will turn 11 months old on Saturday, already weighing 24 pounds.
"The tattoo he got wasn't a symbol of toughness," Grizzlies chief operating officer Jason Wexler said. "It was a transformational moment in his life, and that resonates with our fans and fits in with everything we are."
Given the increasing number of NBA players with throat artwork these days, as SB Nation's Seth Rosenthal notes, this seems like the kind of promotion that could work well in quite a few NBA cities. A Chris Andersen-themed "FREE BIRD" sticker-tat giveaway ought to be a slam dunk (basketball term) for the Miami Heat, since many fans have already shown a love of adopting Birdman's ink. And with J.R. Smith in the midst of by far his best stretch of play of the season, this would seem to be the best possible time for the New York Knicks to launch a "Young Money/SWISH" neck-sticker promotion, even if it might put a damper on the exclusivity of this gentleman's real-deal model.
Then again, this sort of recognition — the reasoning behind it, the execution, the image of 5,000 folks all rolling around and block-letter throat-repping — feels very specifically Memphis. It's an awesome idea, an awesome promotion and an awesome way to show love for a surprising people's champ. Great job, everyone.
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