The new Meccas

The sports world is finding itself paying attention to two places it usually ignores: Montreal and Memphis.

By King Kaufman
Published April 26, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

What are the great sports capitals? New York, of course, with its nine entries in the four major team sports. Another dozen or so American cities -- Chicago, Denver, Dallas and Boston are a representative sample -- have some combination of teams in every major sport, rabid fans and at least occasional postseason success. A national publication (an in-joke, right here in the lead) even named my home city of St. Louis the best sports town in America a few years ago based on a formula that involved reading cat entrails and ignoring basketball.

But not this week, folks. This week the North American sporting world is revolving around Montreal and Memphis.

Montreal is the home of the perennially cellar-dwelling Expos, who were in danger of being eliminated this off-season. Memphis is the home of the perennially cellar-dwelling Grizzlies, who moved there from Vancouver, British Columbia, before this season, thus becoming the first major professional sports franchise in the history of a city that began trying to attract an NFL team when Joe Namath was a rookie and Elvis could still see his toes while standing up.

Not exactly the kinds of cities the North American sporting world spends a lot of time orbiting, but they're smokin' at the moment.

The Expos, Exhibit A in commissioner Bud Selig's argument for "contraction," the elimination of a couple of teams, because they can't draw flies, can't keep good players, can't possibly win against teams that play in bigger cities where the people actually care about baseball, are in first place in the National League East. They haven't been in first place this late in the season since 1996. This late in the season means one-eighth of the way through it. At the equivalent stage of my relationship with my wife, I didn't know her name yet. Still: first place!

The Expos were taken over during the winter by Major League Baseball, which bought the team from Jeffrey Loria so he could buy the Florida Marlins. Baseball was going to shutter the team, but a court decision in the Minnesota Twins case forced a delay in the contraction plans. And then, whoops: With MLB exec Frank Robinson managing them in a good-soldier move, the Expos are not just winning, they're playing thrilling baseball.

On Opening Day, Montreal overcame a 6-1 deficit in the eighth and ninth innings to beat Florida 7-6. On Wednesday the Expos fell behind Milwaukee by a run in the top of the fifth, tied it with a run in the bottom of the inning, did the same thing in the sixth, the same again in the 12th and won the game in the 15th. In between it's been all whiz-bang, all the time. Through Wednesday they'd won five straight, including the last three of a four-game series with the New York Mets, picked by some to win the division, and were 5-4 in one-run games, 2-1 in extra-inning games. Their star, Vladimir Guerrero, one of the game's most exciting players, was hitting .365 with 24 RBIs in 21 games. The Expos led the Mets by two games.

And, of course, while the rest of the continent rubs its collective hands together in glee at the thought of the Montrealers giving the lie to Selig's self-serving arguments for contraction by going all the way, baby, nobody in town is noticing. The Expos, who drew an anemic 7,935 fans a game last year, were averaging 8,513 per game through Wednesday, though if you throw out the Opening Day crowd of 34,351, that average falls to 6,165. On Tuesday, with the team fresh off three wins over the Mets -- two of them in front of crowds larger than 11,000! -- that put them on top of the division, the Expos drew 3,561 for the series opener against the Brewers.

That's because the Canadiens were playing a home playoff game against the Boston Bruins. Ah, les Habitants!

The Canadiens are the proudest franchise in hockey, but times have been tough lately. They've missed the playoffs four seasons in a row and barely qualified this year. But they pounded the No. 1 seed Boston Bruins 5-2 in Game 1 of their opening round series, had a stirring rally fall short in Game 2, and then, in their first home game, rallied from two goals down to win and take the series lead.

All this is thanks in part to center Saku Koivu, a wildly talented Finn who has been hobbled by injuries throughout his seven-year career, missed all but three games this season because of stomach cancer and has returned just in time to give his team a huge emotional lift, not to mention a goal and three assists, in the first three games of the playoffs. It doesn't take much to get Montreal excited about the Canadiens, but the Habs, a small, speedy team, are absolutely flying. Even after the Canadiens' series-tying loss Thursday, it must be a stone gas to be a sports fan in Montreal right now.

But it's nothing compared to being a sports fan in Memphis, where Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson are going to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world in June, Pau Gasol was just named the NBA Rookie of the Year and -- I have to steady myself against the desk as I write this -- Jerry West is on the verge of agreeing to run the Grizzlies.

Jerry freakin' West! In Memphis! The town that never did attract that NFL team, unless you count providing a foster home for the Tennessee Titans, then known as the Oilers, for a while. The town that had to settle for the WFL and the XFL and minor league baseball and hockey. The town that lost its Double A baseball team, the Chicks, to that sports hot spot, Jackson, Tenn. The town that, until recently, had no sporting event bigger than a bunch of ducks doing the 50-meter waddle through a hotel lobby twice a day.

But a town that's now good enough to attract serious interest from a guy who was one of the greatest players ever -- that's his silhouette in the NBA logo, giggling Memphians have been reminding each other this week -- and is arguably the greatest basketball executive ever, the architect of the great Lakers teams of the Magic Johnson and Shaq/Kobe eras.

Los Angeles' teams in the major sports' major leagues have played for the league championship more times (36) than Memphis' teams have won regular-season games (23). And that's to say nothing of the year-round golf in Southern California, where West has spent his entire adult life. Why would he make that move? Magic Johnson says it's because the guy needs to be running a basketball team. It's in his blood. He's only 63, after all. He must have a few more astonishing draft picks in him, a few more "give 'em the championship trophy now" trades up his sleeve.

But we all know the real reasons. First, Memphis is where it's at. Why, even the Memphis RiverKings are in the Central Hockey League finals. They play in the next county over, in Mississippi, but let's not split hairs. And second?

There's no basketball team in Montreal.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

MORE FROM King Kaufman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------