You may not know her name, but if you’re at FedExForum and you hear Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga” begin, you likely start looking for her face. And her flailing arms. And the completely genuine, unmitigated joy that takes over this Mississippi judge’s body when she transforms from an officer of the court to Bongo Lady. Officially named NBA TV’s Fan of the Year, Malenda Harris Meacham has translated her passion for the Memphis Grizzlies into an alter ego beloved by the city. But even when she’s not courtside, this family law attorney, animal advocate and mother of UCLA students Hannah, 19, and Hayden, 21, still has plenty to keep her moving.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Memphis. My mother worked for the phone company, and we lived in Hernando until I was 5 years old, and then she got transferred and we moved to Tupelo, and that’s where I grew up. I have one half-brother and one half-sister. They’re here, and we’re very close.
What influenced you to go into law?
Actually, my mother. She was a single mother and seemed to be taken advantage of at every corner — employment discrimination, things of that nature. So I decided what I wanted to do was help people like my mom who had a hard time.
What are the challenges and unexpected joys of handling family law cases?
It’s, to me, the hardest, because emotions are higher than in any other situation. People never think that they’re wrong, and so they can be very volatile. I’ve had my life threatened multiple times. You just have to realize that you’re doing what’s best.
The good side of it is when you do something for the children. That’s when you feel good, when you get a child out of a bad situation, or make two people work out their differences for the benefit of the kids. It’s always the children who are my driving force.
As a judge, you are impartial in your decisions, but do you feel like being a single mother has an impact on your perspective?
Yes, on child support, for instance. So many people want to complain about having to pay, but raising children is so expensive. I’m always like, “Do you have any idea?” I can remember when my son was 10 years old, he was eating me out of house and home in a growth spurt.
Did you have female mentors while studying law?
Not so many. It was a predominantly male field. My mom was my biggest mentor of all — a single mom without a college education who preached to me every day that the way out or through everything was education. She pushed me until I made something of myself. She told me repeatedly to never rely on a man for a living, to be able to make my own.
You’re seeing a lot more women out there now. Honestly, that is one of the things I try to do, is be a mentor, because I think more women need to be in that role.
So how was Bongo Lady born?
It was the new crowd cam, and it came on and I was with my son, who is very shy and embarrassed so easily, particularly at that age. I just thought it was funny and was sitting in the seat kind of threatening to stand up, and he was just like, “Stop, stop.” Then the camera picked it up, and so of course I had to go ham. He was just mortified, which is really what made it so funny. Bongo Lady would not have been funny without Embarrassed Son.
How has your relationship with the team evolved since taking on this Super Fan element?
There are so many super fans, I just get to stand out because I make more a fool of myself than others. The person who loved it the most, I think, was Tony Allen. It’s hard for Bongo Lady to exist without Tony Allen.
What has been your greatest experience as Bongo Lady?
The New York Times article was just the best. It opened up “Good Morning, America,” and getting to represent Grizz Nation on national television was such an honor. But honestly, I think, when Tony Allen gave me autographed bongos and just talking to him, that was probably my most special moment.
What are some of your personal favorite game moments?
My most favorite is Z-Bo choking Blake Griffin. The fact that, in the post-game presser, he said, “I just fell, I was trying to get up,” and then he kind of goes, heh heh heh. He was choking Blake Griffin!
Who are you finding fun to watch on the team right now?
Big Spain. Marc is fun. But I love watching Dillon Brooks. Being a rookie, he’s doing great. He’s very impressive to watch. He’s like, “I’m doing my job; I don’t care who you are.” He’s just got that tenacity.
Do you play any sports yourself?
I like to try. Not anything regularly. I really want to start doing kickball. I’m too old for roller derby, but that would be fun. Yoga is my thing.
You’ve got yourself a menagerie of pets out here. What’s your pet situation?
I’m what’s called a foster failure. We have five cats now; we were up to eight at one point. People dump cats at my office, and so I bring those home and am never successful in finding them a home. We call it Camp Meacham here, the EIEIO Ranch. Two of my four dogs are foster failures that were rescues from a Chihuahua puppy mill in Missouri.
I’m always that person who’s catching the dog on the side of the road and taking it to the vet. That’s just a big part of who I am. I had a three-legged St. Bernard that they were going to put down at the shelter, and someone knew me and said, “Call Malenda. She’ll take him.” And I did, and he lived a good, long life. [Author’s note: There was also a rescued quarter horse and belligerent miniature horse on the property.]
What’s your best piece of advice?
My favorite one is dance like no one is watching. I try to tell my kids, enjoy the moment, seize the day. Be yourself. See where it can get you!
What three things can you not live without?
My pets, music and definitely the Grizzlies.
Thanks, Malenda! To follow the bongo exploits of this attorney and judge, follow her on Twitter at @GrizzBongoLady.
Thank you to Mary Kate Steele for today’s awesome photos of Malenda.
Meet more amazing Memphis women in our FACES archives. Click here, and prepare to be inspired!