An oral history of the Vancouver Grizzlies
The following is an oral history of the Vancouver Grizzlies, the NBA team that played on the west coast of Canada from 1995 to 2001. During their time in Vancouver, the Grizzlies had a record of 101 wins and 359 losses, the worst six-year span of any team in NBA history.
Rogers, now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Washington Wizards, couldn’t help but smile when he saw the reminder of the team that launched his pro basketball career in 1996. But he stopped short of tapping the young man on the shoulder and regaling him with stories of the brief, ignominious six-year history of the Vancouver Grizzlies.
“I didn’t say anything, I just admired the cap from afar, and thought, ‘Oh man, that’s funny,’” said Rogers.
“It was 20 years ago. Some of those kids who are wearing the gear probably weren’t even born when the team was there.”
For the players, coaches, executive and fans of the Vancouver Grizzlies, the team with the cartoon logo is more than a piece of ’90s kitsch. The Grizzlies, who played their first game in Vancouver nearly 20 years ago, are a source of some fond memories and plenty of frustration.
Frustration from players who couldn’t accept the constant losing.
Frustration from owners and management who felt restrictions imposed by the NBA prevented them from getting better.
And frustration from fans for years of losing and what appeared to be a group of rich American athletes who failed to fully embrace the city.
Then there were the two attempts to poach the Grizzlies and move them to another city, ultimately resulting in the team relocating to Memphis where they developed into what many consider a model NBA franchise.
Twenty years after their debut, some believe the Grizzlies experiment was always doomed to failure, but others wonder if the team was a victim of bad timing. The world has changed a lot in the last two decades. In an increasingly globalized world that seems to have gotten smaller thanks to the internet and social media, maybe the NBA, which has embraced its international audience, would thrive in a city north of the 49th parallel with historic ties to the Pacific Rim.
Vancouver’s NBA team may have been a bad idea from the start but maybe, like a piece of retro fashion that finally comes into vogue, it was just ahead of its time.
As the Grizzlies prepared to piece together a roster, they had to contend with restrictions put in by the NBA. Not only were they and the Toronto Raptors not allowed to receive the first overall pick in the NBA Draft for the first three years of their existence—they also weren’t allowed to spend to the salary cap in their first two seasons.
It was kind of my personal thing to have Vancouver come in at the same time as Toronto. Many people considered them an [underdog] originally, but they were able to rally their troops and come in at the same time. And I think timing is important, to have both east and west representation. – Jerry Colangelo, (Chairman of the NBA Board of Governors, 1995)
Squire Barnes, Global BC Sports Director: Nobody expected it. It was kind of a bolt from the blue. We knew Toronto was coming in, and then Arthur Griffiths had connections with the NBA, and he used those connections, mainly Jerry Colangelo, to get another tenant for his new building. Nobody was really thinking NBA. For years and years in Vancouver, people thought maybe we could get an MLB team. That was the pipe dream. The NBA? Nobody mentioned the NBA.
Arthur Griffiths, Owner (1994-1997): Some of the guys who were sitting around the expansion table were worried we were going to suddenly get two of the top three picks and surpass them and be better teams than they were. They were fearful that we were going to be better than they were in a hurry. And that’s a lottery system, it’s possible. But suddenly having Vancouver or Toronto better than New Jersey or Philly or the Clippers? That was one of [the concerns]. We paid the price, wrote the cheque, and ultimately we suffered.
WATCH: The team was originally called the Mounties, then changed to the Grizzlies.
Stu Jackson, President and General Manager (1994-2000): I was at U of W [University of Wisconsin]. We had just finished our second year there, and had gone to the NCAA tournament, and finished in the second round. At that time, over I guess that summer, we had a very good team coming back for the following year, but I got a call from Russ Granik at the NBA league office. They asked me if I’d be interested in starting a franchise in Canada. I recall I said, ‘Not really.’
Jackson: I met with Arthur in St. Louis, if I recall, because I was actually coaching a summer collegiate team with USA basketball and flew in. We had the opportunity to meet for a couple hours, and I have to say that after meeting with Arthur, I was very intrigued.
Steve Daniel, head statistician (1995-2001): I didn’t realize how much fun it would be. I didn’t know how much of a challenge it would be. The Grizzlies staff was so thin. We had like five people. We were always thin but with really good people.
That’s what surprised me at the beginning. We were not what I’d call prepared.
WATCH: Even before the team played its first game, there was a concern they wouldn’t be able to sell enough tickets
Lionel Hollins, assistant coach (1995-2000): I had come from the Phoenix Suns where in seven years we averaged 53 wins a year, so coming here and all the excitement over players that when I was in Phoenix we wouldn’t have given a second thought to, now we’re trying to develop them and hope they’re going to be quality players.
Brian Winters, head coach (1995-1997): Coaching is coaching, you just try and get a system of play that would get us to look like we were a reasonable NBA team that could compete, and obviously you knew at the end of the day you weren’t going to win a ton of games, and that’s what’s going to happen.
Noah Croom, assistant general manager (1995-2000): The system was designed to handcuff the expansion teams. It really goes back to Orlando coming in, getting two first overall picks, and owners being really upset, or at least unhappy that they’d sort of paid their dues and expansion teams were having this much success early.
Winters: We probably were [handcuffed], but ownership agreed to it. They wanted an expansion team, so they agreed to it. It was out of my hands, but it just makes it very difficult to build a franchise, it’s going to take a long time.
Griffiths: We got the opportunity to write a cheque like an equal partner, but we weren’t. We weren’t allowed to spend to the cap, we weren’t allowed to access the best players…in the draft, and in basketball that’s it.
Jackson: You don’t want to make excuses. The rules were what the rules were as set down by the NBA. That being said, I don’t think anyone would argue they were the most restrictive expansion rules to date. They went from easier to more difficult, and then went back to easier.
In their inaugural season, the Grizzlies were awarded the sixth overall pick in the 1995 NBA entry draft, which they used to select Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, a seven-foot centre out of Oklahoma State.
Jackson: Whenever you’re building a team, there’s an element of luck involved too, and unfortunately for us, and Toronto I might add, that was a bad year to have bad luck. In that draft, it was really at the time a five-player draft. You had Joe Smith, the No. 1 pick, and of the five picks, he probably had the lesser of the other four careers, but there was Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Kevin Garnett. All four went on to become NBA all-stars.
I look back on that first draft, I don’t know that after those five picks there was an all-star in the first round. That was bad luck, given the rules that were given to us.
Winters: [Big Country] was still a four-year college player, and he is a centre and our best centre. We tried to play off the post, play to his strength…he was a big strong kid and had a nice right jump hook and a nice touch around the basket. We had to play a certain way to use him. In this day and age, with the way the three-point line has developed, Bryant Reeves would really struggle, because there’s so much more pick-and-roll and movement from the post. But that’s who we had, so you play to your talent.
Jackson: You want to take the best player available, and we felt strongly in starting the franchise, getting a frontcourt player, a centre-type player to build around offensively, was high on our priority list. In our minds he was the best centre available.
“You can understand why they call him Big Country. He’s just a country kid at heart, he has simple things in mind, he likes to go fishing, he’s going to church on Sunday, he’s just a really down to earth guy. – Larry Riley, Grizzlies head scout, 1995
Milt Palacio, point guard (1999-2000): He was very quiet. He came to work, did his work. He was a great guy in the locker room, always encouraging the guys. He knew he always had the big franchise tag on his head.
Antonio Daniels, point guard (1997-1998): When you look at Country, exactly what you think he is, is what he is.
When you see Country, you think of a giant teddy bear–soft-spoken, just the nicest guy. That’s exactly what he was.
Country is the coolest guy. He never got too high, never got too low. He actually looks like his demeanour.
Daniel: He was good for one-year-and-a-half. In Boston, he went off [for 41 points] and he was really good for the next year and a bit. Then they signed him to a big contract with that big massive-sized cheque they had for him at the press conference. From that Boston game on, he was really good.
Then he kind of stopped taking care of himself and his back. The last vision I have of him was walking down the hallway in Memphis barely walking.
Jackson: He had the ability to score in the low post, he was an adequate passer…and he had good size and girth.
WATCH: Big Country in 1995
At the NBA expansion draft each team protected eight of its players with the Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors choosing among the leftovers. The Grizzlies selected talented but erratic New York Knicks point guard Greg Anthony with their first choice, but he and Blue Edwards were the only two of Vancouver’s 13 picks that would be with the team for more than a year.
Jackson: We felt over the long term, most of them would not be on our team after three years. We felt they would be gone, but we felt it was really important, starting out, that you surround young players…with veteran guys to support them.
Hollins: Expansion was what it was. We had some names but not necessarily great players and we didn’t have a foundation of players that were going to be stars in the future and we were just trying to get it started.
Winters: Those players were either older veterans who were towards the end of their careers, or younger players who teams drafted but didn’t like all that much.
Daniel: Guys like Lawrence Moten and the rest of them, every one of those players, it seemed, was a one-dimensional kind of player. They were really good guys, but really good guys don’t necessarily make you successful.
“I feel good about the whole situation. This city is hungry for basketball, and we’ve got a good mixture of youth and experience. Hopefully we’ll surprise some people.” – Byron Scott, 1995
The high water point in the history of the Vancouver Grizzlies came on Nov. 5, 1995. Two days after winning their first game on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers, they played the Minnesota Timberwolves at GM Place. In overtime, with time winding down, three-time NBA champion Byron Scott attempted a running floater and missed. But Chris King, in his 17th career NBA game, recovered the rebound and made a lay-up as time expired.
The Grizzlies then lost 19 straight games.
Hollins: It was a close game and we were down and Chris King makes a shot at the buzzer to win the game and we’re 2-0 and everybody’s excited.
Croom: It was great, that first home win, and overtime was very memorable.
My whole four years I was at Wake Forest, I never had something like that happen to me before. Always wanted it to happen, but never did. I guess my dream came true. -Chris King, forward, Nov. 5, 1995.
Rich Manning, centre (1995-1997): I still have a picture up on my wall. There was a photograph from the top level, when everyone screamed and yelled. That was amazing.
Croom: I remember that first game in Portland, when we beat the Trail Blazers, then came home and beat the Timberwolves in OT, and I think people thought this is going to be easy. Obviously, it wasn’t.
Hollins: We thought maybe we weren’t going to be as bad as most expansion teams and then we turn around and lose 19 straight. So we were as bad as most expansion teams.
Winters: We went through an 18 of 20-game losing streak, whatever it was, everybody’s wondering why. The NBA’s a tough place, nobody’s coming in to give you a free game. It’s highly competitive and we were simply an undertalented team.
Hollins: To have Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe [Bryant] come to town, people were very excited to see those stars come and play. From that perspective, that was something that was definitely exciting for the fans.
Manning: For a lot of fans, that was the first chance to have a real look at a team that was making history. I’m an assistant coach on my son’s high school team, and they ask if I played against Michael Jordan.
If the Grizzlies most memorable win was their first home game, their most memorable loss likely came during that 19-game losing streak. The date was November 30, and the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan were in town. While the Bulls were en route to an NBA championship and a record 72 wins in the regular season, the Grizzlies actually led by 12 with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. That’s when Darrick Martin, the Grizzlies back-up point guard, decided to trash talk Air Jordan.
Daniel: I saw Darrick Martin run by the [Bulls] bench, but didn’t hear what he said. But to see Jordan’s reaction when he came to the bench. I could see when he came up to the bench that he was shaking his head. Then there was [Scottie] Pippen and the rest of them. That’s not a team you want to do that to.
“Darrick Martin had been with Michael Jordan during the summer, he was one of the guys in the movie ‘Space Jam,’. Darrick thought they were kind of like friends because of the movie, because they had hung out during the summer and Darrick thought that meant he could talk trash. So — I have to clean it up, I can’t tell you what was said word-for-word — but Darrick started yelling, ‘Aw, Mike, it’s just not falling tonight, Mike!’ And he ran by their bench and yelled, ‘I told you we were going to beat you, Mike!’” – Antonio Harvey (2014, in an interview with Sporting News)
Winters: Very unfortunate [laughs]. I don’t know if those were the exact words, but he did say something to Michael Jordan, and the Bulls were somewhat on cruise control that night, and we were playing well. What I do remember is thinking Michael scored about 25 in the fourth quarter. [Editor’s note: Jordan scored 19 in the last six minutes]
Byron Scott was trying to guard him, and I thought, oh boy, this is a tough task, but Darrick did say something to him, and Michael came by our bench and wagged his finger and said to Darrick, ‘Don’t ever talk to me like that again’ after they had won the game. He got another win, and we got another loss.
1995-1996: 15-67, Average attendance 17,183
The next several seasons followed a similar script. Hope would run high heading into each season after the Grizzlies selected a promising college player in the NBA draft (but never with the top pick as league rules legislated). The Grizzlies would win just enough early-season games to give fans hope before dashing their dreams with double-digit losing streaks.
Building around Big Country in the middle, the Grizzlies selected 19-year-old Shareef Adbur-Rahim third overall in the 1996 NBA draft and he went on to become the team’s all-time leading scorer.
Palacio: [Shareef] was a monster. A four-man that could shoot it, had the touch, had the skill. When you’re playing on a team that was pretty much an expansion team, where all eyes are on you every single night, it was tough for Reef.
Daniels: Reef is just real quiet and the crazy thing about Shareef is to think about how good Shareef Abdur-Rahim would have been if his knees weren’t bad. Shareef was a talent but the fact that his body went out before he got an opportunity to reach his peak, it’s unfortunate.
Grant Long, forward, (1999-2002): I thought he was a phenomenal player, even a better person. This guy was a class-A guy from top to bottom. He was a guy who worked hard, great friend, a team player, always willing to learn. He came out of Cal early, and even though he was the marquee player in the Grizzlies, he was still willing to learn. He’d work out on one end of the gym, I’d be at the other, but by the time we’d finished, we’d be on the same end, talking, him trying to pick my brain, wondering how do you do this or play this game. He was still trying to learn, even though he was a superstar player, and I always admired that about him.
Daniel: He was really good, but he was kind of laid-back. The difference between a guy like him and [Kevin] Garnett was probably more passion than anything else. Shareef really wanted to be good, but he just lacked a little bit to get over the top.
While Abdur-Rahim was developing into a star in Vancouver, it was another player from the 1996 draft many fans not-so-secretly pined for. Steve Nash, who grew up in Victoria, was carving out a name for himself with the Phoenix Suns, and many hoped the team would trade for the point guard who had spent his entire basketball life exceeding expectations.
Fans were abuzz in GM Place on November 14, 1996 when Nash, in his first NBA start, racked up 17 points and 12 assists as the Suns fell to the Grizzlies 92-89.
Griffiths: Signing Steve would have set the fans ablaze. They would have been so excited to see Steve, especially at that stage of his career.
Jackson: We were looking for what we thought was the best value on the board at the time. Steve was a good player, obviously, in college, but in our minds and certainly most of the people’s minds in the NBA, [Nash] was not a lottery-type pick. That being said, one of the things you’re trying to achieve in the lottery is get an all-star player, which Steve more than became as he matured.
Croom: We actually tried to acquire [Nash] in subsequent years via trade. But I think the best thing that happened to Steve Nash was not coming to Vancouver. He has had a long and successful career, in part because he went to a market where there wasn’t a lot of pressure on him to play early, where he could learn under the tutelage of Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson.
He played 17 years in the NBA, and if he had come to Vancouver, he would have been playing 35, 40 minutes a night early in his career and I promise you he wouldn’t have been playing as long, and have had a successful career as he has had. I don’t think he alone could have changed our fortunes significantly. He was able to develop at his own pace…and it worked out great for him.
WATCH: Hopes were high for the Grizzlies to draft Nash in 1996
Halfway through their second season, with a record of 8-35, Stu Jackson fired head coach Brian Winters and took over coaching duties for the rest of the year. The next season, Jackson handed over the reins to former Orlando Magic coach Brian Hill.
Winters: In the second year we got younger. We got even younger than we were in the first year, which made things difficult. We drafted Shareef, but he was 19 years old, and yet he was going to be a starter and carry the team, and it just doesn’t work like that. A 19-year-old isn’t going to be able to carry the team, no matter how talented he is.
Jackson: At the time, we felt the team had become a little bit stale, we weren’t putting forth the effort on the floor that we felt we should be for a team in its second year. We didn’t get a sense that individual players were developing, at least at the rate we hoped that they would.
Winters: Stu came down the rest of the year, and quite frankly, he didn’t win any more games than I did.
Daniels: I always say if I could go back and change one thing, I wish I would have had the opportunity to sit out and watch my rookie season, so I could watch and learn to see what it takes to succeed at the NBA level.
George Lynch, forward (1996-1998): Each year you had a different coaching change, that makes it hard. When you have coaching changes and different philosophies, it’s easier with veteran players, but when you have young guys and each coach has a different philosophy…it can be tough.
Roy Rogers, centre (1996-1997): Fans take the losing hard. Players take the losing even harder. It’s not something we’re accustomed to, and it’s not something we like. But if you grow accustomed to or become comfortable with it, it’s the day you should hang it up. It’s one of those things that I don’t even know how to describe, but it’s just one of those things that eats at you, and you know, it affects your entire life. You go home and food just doesn’t taste the same. The food is always better when you’re winning.
Hollins: The style of play was that if the score was in the 80s we had a chance to win. We couldn’t score. We couldn’t make shots. We did OK defensively, but a lot of teams we were playing against had it in second gear for the first three-and-a-half quarters and then the last six minutes they would put it into fifth gear and they would win the game. We lost games every which way. We were beat by 51 points.
Daniels: I remember we won one of our first two games. I remember at that time doing an interview in the locker room and talking about the playoffs.
Then you lose 13 games in a row. You want to talk about reality setting in…it was miserable.
The team’s roster was filled almost entirely with American players and some struggled with the different lifestyle north of the 49th parallel.
While some complained that they couldn’t find ESPN on TV or Cap’n Crunch in the cereal aisle, many others remember the city fondly.
Jackson: For players, it wasn’t a cultural issue, it was more of a financial and lifestyle issue.
Lynch: It was beautiful when it wasn’t raining.
Mike Bibby, guard (1998-2001): When I was here it rained a lot. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s raining every day.’
Long: I say if I was in Vancouver for 100 days, it rained 80 of those days. But you didn’t notice it, it was still great! People were still walking their babies in strollers in the rain. I got to the point where I would bring my umbrella every time I went out, and said, ‘It’s not worth it.’ I washed my car, even though I knew it was going to rain, I saw people in Stanley Park even though it was raining, you just became oblivious to the rain. It was just a part of the culture and you got used to it.
Hollins: Vancouver was such a great city, different than any city in the US. Cosmopolitan, people from around the world, great restaurants.
George Lynch: The customs was a bit of an issue. We would have to stop in Washington, clear customs, and have to fly into Vancouver. You couldn’t really enjoy Vancouver as a player when you played there, because you were always playing and flying out to another city, and when the season ended, you had to leave. You always felt like you weren’t welcome because of that situation and you couldn’t really embrace Canada.
Mike Bibby: It was kind of scary being a kid and going to another country. I had to grow up real quick. I was 19, just turning 20, moving to another country with my own kids. I was scared in that aspect.
Manning: You had guys worried about OK, is Vancouver going to pay more money, so I cannot make my market value. Every player wants to be paid what they’re worth. If I’m being taxed much more, you’re going to expect to be paid that much more.
Hollins: I remember coming into the press room and every TV in the press room had hockey on. There was not one TV that had an NBA game on. That was weird. There was no ESPN in Canada. TSN showed a lot of curling. For us, it was an adjustment. Where in the U.S. basketball was number 1 when it was in season, now we’re here where hockey is number 1 and other sports like curling are also ahead of basketball.
Jackson: American players were very apprehensive about playing in a place they didn’t know a lot about. Shame on them, shame on Americans that that bias existed.
Long: But that’s just how people were. It was a wonderful experience for me and my family. I don’t think I used public transportation as much as I did when I was in Vancouver. It was a wonderful city, wonderful people.
Croom: A lot of the players were not very sophisticated and had not spent much time outside the US. It was difficult convincing them to come to Vancouver. The one thing I will say I have experienced since those years…is a lot of players miss coming to Vancouver, a lot of players lament the fact there’s not an NBA team in Vancouver. Once people were here for a while, a lot of players really liked it.
Rogers: I had an unbelievable time in Vancouver. It’s funny, about two years ago I was cleaning out an old storage closet at my parent’s house, and I found a Vancouver Canucks hockey jersey that was given to me when I went to one of the games, went to the locker room and met a couple of the guys and I still have one of the jerseys.
I’ll never forget that night–going to the game, going into the locker room, and getting a chance to meet Pavel Bure because I thought he was one heck of a hockey player.
If there was a bias against playing in Vancouver, then no one felt it more strongly than Steve Francis, the mercurial Maryland guard who the Grizzlies selected second overall in the 1999 NBA draft. Francis refused to sign with the Grizzlies, forcing a trade to the Houston Rockets that would cement Vancouver’s reputation as an NBA backwater.
Jackson: I felt strongly, and still do to this day, that he was the best value on the floor. As a general manager, you’re in charge of stewardship of the franchise for your owner, your goals are to add franchise value to the team. We selected Steve Francis understanding that he didn’t want to be there, he was not the first player that didn’t want to go to the team, but certainly he was very vocal about it, very visible about it.
Bibby: I think Vancouver drafted a point guard three or four years in a row. [Francis] felt he’s a point guard and they just drafted me. He probably thought ‘I don’t want to the play off-guard position.’
Daniel: As bad as he had been portrayed when he was here, just take that and multiply it by about three.
Jackson: We felt in time he would feel like most people did and fall in love with it. But that didn’t happen, and he was very vocal about it, it became a distraction for the franchise, and ultimately led to his trade.
Long: I never understood how a player who gets drafted in the NBA could say I’m not playing for that team. If I’m a general manager, I don’t want him on any team in the NBA. You’re not going to control my team that way by saying who you’re going to play with.
Griffiths: When we made picks, we made some bad ones. Francis was a terrible waste.
Jackson: As I look back on it, if I had to do it over again, I think I would have held his feet to the fire. We’re not [trading you]. But that’s hindsight, and our vision’s always clearer in hindsight.
1996-1997: 14-68, Average attendance 16,571
1997-1998: 19-63, Average attendance 16,108
1998-1999: 8-42, Average attendance 16,718
As the Vancouver Grizzlies continued to flounder, some people saw an opportunity. With attendance low and the Canadian dollar lower, a few American investors kicked the tires on an NBA franchise that was seen as something of a fixer-upper. Bill Laurie, the husband of Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Walton, said he planned on purchasing the team, with many strongly suspecting he planned to move the team to St. Louis.
The NBA nixed the deal and the team was set to stay in Vancouver for another season. The Grizzlies were then purchased by Michael Heisley, an Illinois-based businessman who was known for buying battered companies for dimes on the dollar. Heisley, who passed away last year, indicated he planned on building a winner in Vancouver—even going as far as to sing ‘O Canada’ at a home game—but relocated the team to Memphis for the 2001-2002 season.
Jackson: When you’re in the fight, you don’t focus in on…I wasn’t focused on the warning signs per se, but trying to build a good team.
Long: Bill Laurie comes to meet us, he says we’re gonna be this and this and this, and then a week or two passes and he’s not buying the team anymore.
Barnes: The NBA found that guy out. When he was on the floor in Vancouver, he had not officially bought the team and he was walking with Brian Hill on the floor, and one of our cameras…picked up Brian Hill asking Laurie, ‘Hey, what’s the arena like in St. Louis?’ Well, why would you be asking that if Bill Laurie wanted to keep them here? It was an open secret, and the NBA wasn’t going to take that.
VIDEO: On January 20, 2000 Bill Laurie announced he’s pulling out of the deal
The committee was unwilling to recommend approval of the deal as it had been structured, and it expressed concern to the parties that among other things, in light of Mr. Laurie’s interest in St. Louis, the remaining two-year prohibition on any relocation that had been contained in the original expansion might not provide the city of Vancouver and its fan adequate time to support the Grizzlies. -Russ Granik, NBA deputy commissioner.
On January 24, Orca Bay announces a new owner for the Grizzlies—Michael Heisley, an American businessman who said he is committed to keeping the team in Vancouver
We’re very optimistic that Vancouver will be a first-rate continuing NBA city. I think they’re getting a terrific owner, and I think he’s planning to work it, and I just see no reason why it shouldn’t be as successful as any other NBA franchise. If I had my druthers, if I could get the paperwork done, we would move Mr. Heisley’s application on an even faster track…We’re very optimistic that Vancouver will be a first-rate continuing NBA city. I think they’re getting a terrific owner, and I think he’s planning to work, and I just see no reason why it shouldn’t be as successful as any other NBA franchise. – David Stern, NBA commissioner, 2000
Long: We didn’t know if it was going to be moved, and then we heard that David Stern said whomever would buy the team can’t move it, and so we go, we’re staying here. David Stern has spoken, and when he says it, it’s pretty much written in stone.
Daniel: When Heisley bought the team, it was obvious that they had no intention of staying.
Jackson: When there were rumours about the ownership changeover, my concern at that point was whether someone who came in would want to keep the franchise in Vancouver. Unfortunately, my biggest fears came true.
Daniel: There was never any intention of keeping the team in Vancouver, based on the people who were around us and an initial meeting with that group, which was horrendous. It was the worst meeting I’d ever been to in my life.
When Heisley bought the team, he bought it with a group of people that included Dick Versace, Tom Penn, Chuck Daly and a few others. They invited seven key staffers to breakfast. They said, ‘Hey, come to breakfast at the Waterfront Hotel with us.’
We get there and there are seven of them in a room with seven seats and no seats for us. They had already been there an hour. They lined us up around the room and grilled us one at a time, standing in this room while they’re sitting with breakfast plates in front of them, and asked us what we did.
Now you’re nervous for your job. It was a perfect start for what they were trying to do. We all left there as a group in a fair amount of shock. We all went off and just went drinking. It was 11 o’clock in the morning. That’s how they introduced us to them.
Jackson: Certainly, the signs were there enough to make you suspect.
Barnes: I think people wanted to believe Michael Heisley was sincere. The NBA wanted to believe he was sincere. But he certainly was not. He was just like Bill Laurie, except he was sneakier and better at it than Bill Laurie, and by the time he made his play for Memphis, I almost think the NBA was worn down by that point.
VIDEO: While Michael Heisley said he was interested in keeping the team in Vancouver, there were signs early on that he may have had other designs
While there was plenty of drama off the court, the Grizzlies continued to struggle on it. The team started the 1999-2000 season with three wins and three losses, but then went on an 11-game losing streak, ending the two-and-a-half year tenure of head coach Brian Hill. He was replaced by Lionel Hollins, who had been with the team since its inception.
Long: Our team had gotten to the point where we didn’t have confidence in what we were doing. That’s not a reflection of the coach, but when you lose that many games, you start to question, ‘Are we doing it the right way?’
Lionel was one of the guys who was there, he understood the NBA, obviously being a former player himself, he was able to gravitate to a lot of the players and say this is what we’re going to go through, there’s going to be some adversity. He spoke the language we understood, and that helped the rest of the year.
The team improved somewhat under Hollins, and finished the year with a franchise record for wins. Unfortunately, that number was 22—last in the division—and attendance plummeted from an average of 16,718 the year before to 13,899, third lowest in the league.
Bibby: I think the changes didn’t affect us. I think the fans were affected and that affected us. We came out and did our job and nobody was in the stands.
We were losing a lot. I probably wouldn’t have come to the games either.
Long: The record was really not indicative of the talent that we had. We had Shareef, you had Mike Bibby, [Michael] Dickerson, Big Country. You had a very good core group of players. While they were young, they weren’t that young; they understood how to play and they were very talented players. To be in a stretch of losing 10, 12 in a row with those guys, it was startling. I can’t put my finger on why those things happened as a team.
Griffiths: We marketed the team well, we had a great vibe in the building, the show was great, but ultimately it still comes down to winning. We struggled to find the right players and chemistry.
Bibby: We weren’t as exciting as Toronto was. They had Vince Carter. We had guys who kind of played below the rim. It kind of hurt us too in terms of people coming out to games.
2001: After an offseason where Jackson and Hollins were replaced as general manager and head coach by Billy Knight and Sidney Lowe, the Grizzlies continued to struggle, and attendance continued to be near the bottom of the league. In February, Heisley claimed the team would lose $40 million that season, and received permission from the NBA to explore relocation.
While some were skeptical the team was losing that much, and others argued Heisley didn’t do enough to rally corporate and fan support, those close to the team agree that it was financially unsustainable.
Croom: It was unfortunate. The economy at the time was not very good. The dollar was 65 cents and it’s very difficult to make money when you’re taking in sponsorship dollars and ticket revenue in Canadian dollars and paying out salaries in US dollars. That situation could not persist, something had to give. I think that, more than anything, led to the departure. If the dollar was at par, things might have different. Attendance was good, the numbers were not bad, but in real dollars, they were not. In US dollars, it just couldn’t work economically.
Jackson: There were three issues. The lack of corporate support available in Vancouver the way it is in Toronto. The second concern was…the dollar and the exchange rate. That in and of itself puts you a little behind the eight-ball when you’re paying out your largest expense, player salaries, in US dollars. At the time, the [local broadcast scene] paled in comparison with what Toronto was getting. Those were three big-ticket items that cut into whether sustainability is even possible.
Hollins: I thought we were moving in a direction that maybe would take the franchise to a different level. Unfortunately, ownership changes and they came in with their own direction and they…pretty much gutted the staff and everybody else that was involved.
Daniel: Everything changes as soon as we got [to Memphis]. They developed a southern culture…They did everything that they didn’t do in Vancouver. That’s why I stayed. It became a first-class organization.
1999-2000: 22-60, Average attendance 13,899
2000-2001: 23-59, Average attendance 13,737
The Grizzlies’ experiment in Vancouver ended after six years of losing and a fair amount of finger-pointing. Some blamed management for poor personnel decisions Others blamed a challenging business climate. Many blamed players for failing to embrace the city.
With Abdur-Rahim and Bibby traded in the offseason after the team moved, and Reeves and guard Michael Dickerson soon forced to retire because of injuries, the split between the Vancouver and Memphis incarnations of the Grizzlies was fully complete.
Years later, most players and staff remember Vancouver fondly, and some wonder if, in an era of greatly increased globalization and connectivity, an NBA team might flourish in western Canada.
Griffiths: That’s a part of my life that I loved. I love the game, I loved the experience. To this day it’s one of the questions I get most often: will basketball come back? There’s a disappointment at the NBA and how they treated us. At the end of the day, there’s a fan base here that’s very solid.
Croom: I don’t see them coming back anytime soon. The owners are making so much money on the TV deal that kicks in this year, that there would be very little incentive to split that…with new owners.
Barnes: The Aquilinis [owners of the Vancouver Canucks], from what I heard, did make some overtures to the NBA a couple of years ago, wondering if there was a team available to move to Vancouver. The found out one of the problems…was when Orca Bay had both the Grizzlies and Canucks, if you went to a big-time sponsor and said, ‘Hey, you give a million bucks to the Canucks every year, would you like to sponsor the Grizzlies?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah, sure, give that million and cut it in half, and give $500,000 to the Grizzlies and $500,000 to the Canucks.’ The feeling among the Aquilini Group was, at the time, you kind of cannibalize your own market.
Jackson: If there’s an opportunity for a franchise to move, I suspect that Seattle would be the first on that list, but certainly Vancouver in future years following that would be under consideration on the same playing field as other US cities.
“I wish we hadn’t had the Vancouver experience. Great city, and we disappointed them and we disappointed ourselves…I don’t think we can go back. I think that was a great city, and I think we just didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.” – David Stern, on a 2008 ESPN podcast with Bill Simmons, discussing his biggest regret
WATCH: Shareef Abdur-Rahim returns to Vancouver for Grizzlies’ anniversary
Croom: No teams are going to be moving anytime soon. If there were an order to be established, I think Vancouver would be at the bottom of the list. I think Seattle would get one before Vancouver, Las Vegas potentially, Kansas City. I wouldn’t rule it out if the right owner came along who was prepared to make the investment. It’s not inconceivable, but I don’t see it happening in the short term. I think a market like a Seattle would increase the NBA’s pot much more than Vancouver.
Barnes: I think they came in sort of too soon. The NBA hadn’t quite bought in that European players could play in their league. I think that if that had been the case in the late ’90s, Vancouver could have gone and gotten some of those European players rather than some of the Americans that weren’t too keen on coming here.
Palacio: Now that things have caught up, you have the all the TV channels, the internet, it would be crazier now. Just like the Toronto Raptors are thriving now, the Grizzlies would be thriving now.
When you were in [Vancouver] people knew who you were, but when you left town, people said, ‘You play for the who?’
Back then it was tough. Now with social media, I think Vancouver would survive a lot better now than it did then.
Daniels: It doesn’t matter the market that you’re in now because with social media you can be a big name anywhere. So now the Lakers and New York and Chicago, when you’re talking about free agency, they don’t have much pull anymore. They don’t have much pull because you have Facebook, Instagram, you have all these outlets that players can use to build their brands.
Barnes: It’s like an illusion. It’s like it never really happened. It’s like the NBA wasn’t actually in Vancouver. It seems weird now to think we were actually part of the Association at one time. We were, and we were for a reasonable amount of time, but now it seems like it never really happened, and we’re just talking about some story we made up.
Hollins: People still say to me, ‘I was on the Grizzlies’ and I say, ‘When?’ because it’s hard to remember some of the people that came through there.
Winters: Other than the losing, everything else about it was good.
© 2015 Shaw Media