Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Geoff Calkins on 20 Years of Memphis

He’s spent the past 20 years among the foremost voices in sports in Memphis.

Now Geoff Calkins is releasing a collection of his columns that act more as a chronicling of a city that has transitioned. Calkins is the lead sports columnist for the Commercial Appeal, hosts a sports talk radio show, and has been engaged in the many happenings in our city over the years.

“Every single column is a celebration of Memphis or Memphians… Yeah, it’s a sports book. But it’s a Memphis book.”

So what has he seen in the past 20 years and how does he think Memphis has changed? Check out his Q&A with us below.

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Choose901 sat down to chat about and many other questions. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Choose901: Tell me about your book. It chronicles some of the big sports stories you’ve written about, but alongside a bigger story about how Memphis has changed over the years. Is that right?

Geoff Calkins: I don’t think I set out to chronicle a changing trajectory of Memphis. I think it so happens that I wound up here 20 years ago when Memphis was at a low ebb in terms of sports but also other things, perhaps. It was right after the NFL decided not to come here. You heard all the time people wondering if Memphis was a bad sports town but you almost got the unfair sense that they might as well have been saying it was a bad town, you just dropped the sports. Then it became a metaphor, if we’re not good enough for the NFL, the Memphis Chicks even left us for Jackson. The arena league team came and then went. The clownishness of the sports scene seemed to reflect the fundamental morale issues of the city. It just so happens that this collection of columns captures 20 years of sports in the city which have helped to both remake and crystalize the image held particularly of Memphians of their own town.

Well, the first “I can’t believe this was in Memphis” thing, I think, was AutoZone Park. It was the first domino. I think the arrival of the Grizzlies can be traced to AutoZone Park.
memphis redbirds

Photo: Mallory Strawn

C901: The release party for the book is happening at AutoZone Park downtown. Any particular reason to do it there

GC: So, the Chicks leave Memphis for Jackson. Dean Jernigan decides to build a ballpark downtown. Everyone says he is crazy, why do you want to build it downtown? ‘No one goes downtown’ was the refrain. And he said we’re going to build it downtown. So then, there was a hole for a long time. People were laughing at the hole, they were laughing at themselves. And then out of this hole comes this ball park that was the first of the things that have been built that people, when they walked into them, didn’t believe they were in Memphis. You hear that less and less now because I don’t think people find it as surprising that something of quality was built in Memphis. You hear it much less now. You heard when Shelby Farms Park re-opened, ‘I can’t believe this is in Memphis.’ Well, the first “I can’t believe this was in Memphis” thing, I think, was AutoZone Park. It was the first domino. I think, the arrival of the Grizzlies can be traced to AutoZone Park. Heck, Mike Heisley (former Grizzlies owner)  when he visited here, he wandered over to Third and Union to see what the city was like. One of the reasons he brought the team here is because he thought it would be a vibrant place to put a team. Clearly it’s not all about sports. And clearly there are much more important things than sports. Most of the good things that have happened in Memphis have nothing to do with sports. Whether it’s the (Shelby Farms) Greenline or Overton Square or the Harahan Bridge or whatever else.

C901: So, why do we have these amazing projects now? What has allowed for that to happen?

GC: Some of it is that they are largely private or they are public-private partnerships. FedExForum was a tremendous public effort in addition to private effort to get it here. I think mayor Rout and Mayor Herenton and Tom Jones and everyone who was involved in that effort… the public part of it was critical because they took a beating. One of the columns in the book is Morris Fair who’s a fiscal conservative who voted for and was voted out of office because of it. It took political courage, political vision, stubbornness. Some people say it was jammed through but that group and the Grizzlies made sure it was quality.

C901: You’re not from Memphis originally. How has that informed your perspective on these stories and Memphis generally?

GC: For me it’s a little bit like… because I went to law school and was a lawyer. The beautiful thing about it is I know what it’s like to be a lawyer and I never have to have pangs about what would it be like to be a lawyer because I’ve experienced it. I’ve spent at least a year in Buffalo, Boston, Manhattan, Miami, Anniston, Alabama, Melbourne, Australia and Washington, D.C. Having lived in all those places, it makes it very easy for me to appreciate Memphis. Whereas perhaps for some people who live in Memphis,.. and there’s a dwindling number who look at Memphis and criticize it all the time… but for those who do, go live somewhere else for a while and I think you’ll appreciate the charms of Memphis. For example, if you ever complain about traffic in Memphis, you’ve never lived anywhere else. If you are doing okay in Memphis, it’s an easy place to live. It also makes you realize how nice the people in Memphis are.

Another thing I think is captured in the book a little bit: the pleasure of contributing to a community and the rewards of contributing to a community and having an impact on a community and mattering are really much easier to achieve here. The privilege of being a Memphian is that you are needed. If you show even the slightest inclination to embrace Memphis or want to do good things in Memphis you are embraced right back. Pretty soon someone will introduce you to these 5 other people and they’ll introduce you to 5 others and you’ll have this whole community of people working together to make Memphis better and that’s not always true everywhere else. When I lived in Miami right before Memphis, there were a lot of people who weren’t invested in Fort Lauderdale or Miami. They were there for the sunshine or whatever. The place didn’t matter to them. Even in Boston or New York, largely if you lived in New York it’s because of all the things you can take from New York. I can go to do this, I can go to broadway. But you’re not going to have an impact. Whereas here, I really do think people matter and you don’t have to be a bigshot to matter. In Memphis, the purpose is obvious, just look around, there a million purposes here. Part of the book is about lots of people who have in their own way… I’ve written about the big events and happenings in Memphis, but for me it’s about the big characters of Memphis and their ability to have an impact and change the trajectory of Memphis.

C901: How have you experienced Choose901 in the midst of all of this change over the years?

GC: Choose901 in that way is like the Grizzlies, it crystalizes what was already happening. Choose901, I Love Memphis, Believe Memphis, they are all manifestations of the new and much more positive approach that Memphians have toward Memphis. I think that whole Memphis has an inferiority complex thing, that used to be true, people still say it, but I don’t think that’s true any longer. It’s not true any longer because of things like the Grizzlies, institutions like Choose901, blogs like I Love Memphis. I have a kid now who just started at Northwestern in Chicago right now and he’s thrilled to be from Memphis. He asked his mother to sew together three growl towels and hung it up in his dorm room in Chicago. I think there is a pride in place. It’s not a blind naive pride but it has started to push out of the way a lot of the negativity. You still see the letters to the editor about “I can’t wait to get out of here” but less and less do you see that. More and more you think, what can I do to make Memphis even better.

C901: The big question that many of these things you’ve talked begs to ask is: where does Memphis go from here?

GC: I mean, in the end what you hope, Charlie (McVean) talked about it with the (Harahan) bridge. The point wasn’t to build a bridge. The point was to build a bridge to bring people here, to keep people here, to create jobs here. In the end, the tragedy of Memphis is still how many people grow up in poverty and how many people have no shot at getting out of poverty, and the schools’ impact on the broader community. In a way, the bridge is fantastic, the Grizzlies are fantastic, but the value of those things is if they enrich the community such that more people have more chance to have a better life. I don’t know what the connection is exactly but I think there is a connection. One of the ways that’s funny— the last two years I’ve MC’ed TEDx in Memphis. The first one was brought to Memphis because a kid at MUS decided we should have a TEDx in Memphis. That’s impact and that’s the freedom of being Memphis. You can do things like that.

C901: It seems like that’s the story right now in Memphis, that people are really interested not just in whatever your dream or idea might be, but how they can help you and support in getting it done.

GC: I was talking to someone recently (Hardy Farrow of LITE) and his point was it’s easy for him to get stuff done. If he had grown up somewhere else, had gone to Melrose, would it be so easy for him? I think that’s part of the challenge, but he’s doing a great service. I came to Memphis, I’d seen “The Firm,” and I thought it was going to be this hierarchical, chilly place of boundaries that I’ve found to be absolutely absent. Sometimes I’ve wondered is it because of my job, and therefore somewhat recognizable, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because of the place. And I think, we need talented people too much to be stuffy, to be picky about whether you’re from Memphis or from somewhere else. If you have a good idea, let’s roll it, let’s see how far we can take it.

Learn more about Geoff Calkins and read more about the book on the website.

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