Tuesday, November 15, 2005



Published: November 14, 2005, New York Times

THERE are no grizzly bears in Memphis, but there are Grizzlies, a National Basketball Association team that moved from Vancouver four years ago in search of a hoops-crazy city. Besides a more devoted fan base, the city of ribs and Elvis appealed to the team's owners because it offered prime opportunities to indulge one of their off-court passions - major charitable contributions.

"The whole idea of having an N.B.A. or N.F.L. franchise is so you're able to greatly increase the impact of what you do," said Michael Heisley, the principal owner, a Chicago businessman who enlisted several prominent Memphians as investors and philanthropic mentors.

In those four years, the team has risen from a doormat to a playoff-level franchise on the court. And like 25 of the other 29 franchises in the N.B.A., the Grizzlies have a foundation that contributes to local causes. But the team is not just another team when it comes to philanthropy. The league said that the Grizzlies are firmly in the upper echelon. Through the foundation and other vehicles, the Grizzlies have raised more than $17 million in donations and pledges.

"The Grizzlies are at the center of what we do," said David Stern, the league's commissioner, who last month announced a $100 million leaguewide charitable initiative called N.B.A. Cares. "Many teams do what they do, but they're very focused. But there's a story like theirs in every city."

The most visible symbols of the Grizzlies' giving stand blocks apart downtown: the Grizzlies Academy, a public high school for teenagers who are two years behind grade level, and Grizzlies House, a short-term family residence on the campus of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The team's foundation has committed $1.5 million over four years to the school, which enables it to increase spending an extra $3,000 per student - for a social worker, overtime for tutoring, dinners twice a week and a summer camp orientation - beyond the $7,000 at other high schools. There are 72 students in the school, now in its third year.

"There's an educational crisis in Memphis, with a high dropout rate in the public schools," said Andy Dolich, the team's president of business operations. "We can't wave a magic wand, but we can help."Jane Walters, the school's principal, a former Tennessee commissioner of education, said the Grizzlies' help relieves her of fund-raising.

"The business community is fond of saying the answer isn't to throw money at problems, but targeted money makes a difference," Ms. Walters said. "I don't spend money on stuff. I spend it on teachers, so the classes are just 8, 9 or 10 kids each and they can get a lot of attention."
She said she was surprised by the team's desire to help finance the school, but recalled thinking: "I didn't have to work. I had nothing to lose. If I didn't like what they were doing, I'd walk."
But the relationship has worked. Test scores are improving, and enrollment will gradually increase to 120. "I have a hard time with people underestimating what these children are capable of," Ms. Walters said. "I care about them. They haunt me. If they're given just a little encouragement, it's amazing what they do."

One day in September, the school was host of an annual luncheon at which the Grizzlies presented $270,000 in grants to local charities. Students in school uniforms waited on the guests ("Oh, God," Ms. Walters said jokingly, "just imagine them pouring tea!"), while three others - Maushawn Anderson, Mia Gathing and Derrick Smith - sang Maushawn's hip-hop tribute to the executives of the organizations there, from the Memphis Child Advocacy Center and Streets Ministries to the Youth United Way:

I wanna thank you - for making us who we are and bringing us everything we need.
I wanna thank you - for the opportunity, we thank you all and it's plain to see.
I wanna thank you - for giving us another chance, we could have been out on the streets.

If it wasn't for you, there would be no me, and that's why I'm gonna ride for you, forevermore.
After hearing the song, Marc Willis, the director of Stax Music Academy, a charter school that uses music as the linchpin of educating children in grades 6 to 12, asked Ms. Walters if she'd like him to record it. "Of course," she said.

The school and a soul-music museum are on the site of the defunct Stax Records, the legendary studio where hits by Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding were produced. The Grizzlies have contributed $1.5 million to Soulsville USA, which runs the music academy and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.One element of sports-related charity that attracts Mr. Heisley and the Grizzlies is the public exposure it provides.

"We've got to be a moving spirit in the community," he said. "But why else would I lose money if I didn't think the team did something for the community and your philanthropic efforts can be multiplied?"Most of the team's contributions come from the Longleaf Foundation, which was created by a Memphis mutual fund management company, whose president, Staley Cates, is a minority owner of the team.

Of the $1.6 million contributions raised by the team's foundation last year, $1,251,500 came from Longleaf, the charitable arm of the Longleaf Partners Funds, and $350,000 came from the Hope Christian Community Foundation. Mr. Heisley's company, which is involved in an array of products ranging from steel wire to convenience foods, pitched in $3,686. No money was provided directly by the team, although it does pitch in with player appearances, tickets, golf tournaments and in-kind contributions.

There are two reasons for this arrangement. First, Mr. Cates said that Longleaf's money goes further by being routed through the Grizzlies than if it were associated with the firm's lesser-known name."If you just gave M.A.M. an individual check," he said, referring to Memphis Athletic Ministries, which got $500,000 for the Grizzlies Athletic Center in 2003, "that's great for M.A.M., but the next day, nobody's ever heard of M.A.M. It needs a lot of money, and it needs big public exposure."

Second, the Grizzlies are losing tens of millions of dollars annually.
"If we break even or get close, then I can do a lot more," Mr. Heisley said.
The team is contributing $5 million over 10 years toward the $10 million Grizzlies House, where families can stay after a child's disease has been diagnosed.

The residence looks like a midprice hotel, with 100 rooms and suites. The dining room tables are designed with a basketball motif, and the walls are decorated with oversize photographs of players who have visited the patients and their families, like Shane Battier and Jason Williams, the immensely popular former guard who was traded recently.

Harris Jones, a former high school football star who was treated for leukemia at St. Jude several years ago and is now its sports marketing representative, recalled how he and his family stayed at a hotel before Grizzlies House was built. "This, though, is so on the campus," Mr. Harris said. "And it's not just that the Grizzlies name is on it, it's what they do, with the players being here so often. That makes it special."

Mr. Battier and Mike Miller, another Grizzlies player, understand the need for the only major professional team in Memphis to be so involved in the community."It's what you do, as a citizen," Mr. Battier said. "Forget that I play basketball. It's my duty to help, brother, with my time, money and energy."

He and Mr. Miller were helping to conduct a children's basketball clinic at the Grizzlies Athletic Center, a public gymnasium several miles from downtown, teaching shooting techniques and encouraging participants to be team players before sprawling out on the hardwood, acting half their age.

"Guys come to this team wanting to do this," Mr. Miller said. "It's not a burden. It's a reward."

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