Driven to Extinction: the Vancouver Grizzlies Experiment

22 percent (21.956 actually; they didn’t earn the full 22). Over the course of six seasons (including the strike-shortened 1998-99 season), the Vancouver Grizzlies NBA franchise didn’t even manage to win 22 percent of their games. If you ask a random person walking down a Vancouver street today what they remember about our dearly departed team, their first memory is probably tied to wins and losses; The Grizzlies? Umm, they sucked. Like, really bad. Sadly, it’s a just reputation, but there was so much more to the Grizzlies and their eventual relocation that gets ignored or forgotten, and basketball fans in Vancouver deserve a better explanation.

I remember the morning of August 11, 1994, waiting in line outside of Winning Spirit (the official retailer of the Canucks, Lions, and Grizzlies at the time), at Guildford Mall with my friends and one of their Dads, waiting to find out what our team would actually be called. We had been told nothing, but this was the day when the team name, logo and colours would be announced and, of course, immediately available for sale. The curtain was raised at the front of the store, and there it was. The team’s brief dalliance with the name Mounties had thankfully come and gone, and we ended up in pretty good shape with Grizzlies. I mean, hell, we could have been purple dinosaurs just as easily. We didn’t have jerseys yet, but one of their key elements was already clear. Teal. A lot of teal. It was the mid-1990s, so it’s easy now to scoff at the colour choice, but even then, at the age of fifteen, I was left wanting. This was not a colour that intimidated, impressed, or even begged for respect. This was the colour of twenty-two percenters. Despite the failure (the NBA gets at least partial blame here, as they dictate what colours will be worn by their teams), the logo actually holds up over time, as all of the throwback Grizzlies hats reappearing now have shown. The jerseys (unveiled almost a year later) don’t, at least not without a healthy dose of irony on behalf of the wearer. After waiting outside of the store for more than an hour, and staring at the various apparel choices for nearly as long, I didn’t buy anything. Not a hat, not a t-shirt, not a sticker. This was not a good start.

The Grizzlies roster, from inception to departure, is comical in retrospect. Prior to the expansion draft, which was almost completely devoid of plus basketball players, the Grizzlies brass decided to sign a player in a misguided attempt to connect fans with someone who would actually be on the roster. That player, and I use that term loosely, was Kevin Pritchard, a future NBA GM but not a future NBA player; a guy who couldn’t even make it through training camp. Draft picks aside (we’ll get to them), the most memorable players from the Vancouver-era Grizzlies wouldn’t even register a blip on casual NBA fans radar. Can I interest anyone in a Sam Mack throwback jersey? Michael Dickerson? Anthony Peeler? Each of these guys managed to be a top-three scorer for the Grizzlies during at least one season in Vancouver, which speaks volumes about the lack of talent in the league during those years. The 90s have been accurately described as the “too much, too soon,” generation in the NBA, but “too awful,” wouldn’t be a bad descriptor to tack on, as the talent pool was practically dry by the end of the decade. Suffice to say it wasn’t a good time to try and build a roster from scratch, and when your draft picks don’t work out, you end up with depth charts that look like this. That said, blaming the Grizzlies failures solely on a lack of available talent ignores the absolutely turrible job Stu Jackson did while employed as the Grizzlies’ general manager. Stu’s archived bio on NBA.com contains the gem, “he had a hand in shaping all aspects of the [Vancouver Grizzlies] organization.” How that sentence is allowed to exist on the bio of someone who was employed in any capacity ever again is one of society’s great injustices, let alone someone who was then promoted to a position with the NBA. The Otis Thorpe trade alone managed to screw the franchise post-Jackson and post-Vancouver; it takes a singular talent like Stu to gut the present and future of a team (and two cities!) and parlay it into a promotion.

I’m sure Stu Jackson is good at something (despite the evidence to the contrary), and if that something had been drafting college and high school players, the team may have survived to see their seventh birthday in Vancouver. He wasn’t, and thus, they didn’t. The team’s first NBA Draft in 1995 established the Grizzlies drafting ineptitude and utterly horrendous luck early, and it continued for the next five years. In a laughable attempt to make sure that Vancouver and Toronto wouldn’t become instantly dominant by landing repeated top lottery picks (thanks Orlando), the NBA assigned the Grizzlies and Raptors the 6th and 7th picks respectively, in what amounted to a five player draft. For Vancouver, that resulted in the selection of Bryant Reeves, more famous at the time for shattering a backboard during practice at the Final Four than for being athletic, skilled, or particularly interested in playing basketball. Moving forward, both teams were forbidden from “winning” the first overall pick for the next five years (No Duncan or Iverson for you!). Regardless of this asinine rule, top-five picks for five years in a row should have produced at least one sure-fire All-Star if not multiple, but through a combination of bad drafting and a staggering lack of overall talent available (the 1996 Draft notwithstanding), the Grizzlies ended up with a roster made up of beta dogs (Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Mike Bibby), outright disasters (Antonio Daniels and Stromile Swift), and future moving targets (Steve Francis). If you can allow yourself to forgive the first overall pick embargo (I can’t), then the 1996 Draft is really the one that hurts, and gives some credence to the argument that poor drafting was the biggest reason that Vancouver lost its franchise. In what turned out to be one of the best draft classes of the past thirty years (SLAM 15 Cover Alert!), the Grizzlies picked Shareef Abdur-Rahim (nice player, occasional moments of brilliance), over three future first-ballot Hall of Famers, including two MVPs and one of the greatest shooters to ever live. I won’t try and make the Kobe Bryant argument here, because at third overall, it would have been a tough sell to mostly uneducated fans that a kid out of high school was ready to lead their team, and nine other teams passed on him after Vancouver. Ray Allen however, would have been defensible at the time and a perfect building block for a team that had just drafted a big man the year before. (Sidebar: does Ray get to be Jesus if he’s playing in Vancouver?). The toughest miss here though is obviously Steve Nash, but it also would have been the biggest stretch at the time. In no way, shape, or form was he projected as a third overall pick, but for a team based in Vancouver, this should have been a no-brainer. Despite promising attendance numbers during its inaugural season, the Grizzlies were still struggling to connect with their community, and a homegrown talent that had proven his mettle in the States would have been the right play, draft projections be damned. As Nash has proven with his Sports Clubs and Whitecaps ownership stake, he is truly tied to his home province, and he would have represented the Vancouver Grizzlies better than anyone else could have, regardless of whether or not he achieved the same career arc that he did in Dallas and Phoenix. The drafts to follow all had their what if scenarios as most drafts do, but none of them so clearly demonstrated how slight the margin is between franchise salvation and impending doom the way 1996 did. One last act of masochism; compare the Grizzlies drafting ineptitude to their expansion brothers in Toronto. Despite picking, on average, two spots lower during their first four drafts, the Raptors ended up with Damon Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. The Grizzlies during the same period: Reeves, Abdur-Rahim, Daniels, and Bibby. Stu Jackson everybody!

On-court issues don’t really tell this story fully though, as bad teams last in their original cities all the time. In retrospect, there couldn’t have been a worse economic time for Vancouver (or Toronto, in this case), to be given an NBA franchise, and this is one of the biggest reasons I believe an NBA team would flourish in the city now. During the Grizzlies existence, the US dollar was worth anywhere from 1.36 to 1.54 what the Canadian dollar was worth at the time, instantly putting the team at a massive financial disadvantage. The Orca Bay ownership group that paid 125 million for was awarded the Grizzlies franchise was essentially a family business that also owned the Vancouver Canucks (hold your Canucks thoughts for a moment though, as they can’t be ignored here), and the newly built, privately funded, grossly over-budget GM Place. This was not a diverse, capital-rich ownership group that could withstand the type of market obstacles at play here, and that is before you take into account the lack of a salary cap and an unprecedented jump in player salaries that Orca Bay clearly didn’t budget for. The average NBA player salary rose from 2 million dollars in 1995-96 (the year the Grizzlies began playing) to 4.2 million during their last season in Vancouver; an increase of 110 percent over five years! In a pre-sabermetrics, advanced stats universe, the Grizzlies were placed in the unenviable position of either keeping up with the Colemans and the McIlvaines or adding cheapskate to their already stellar losers, Canada and teal stigmas. Unfortunately, they chose the former, and planted a money tree on Bryant Reeves’ ranch to the tune of 60 million dollars, which, I imagine, sounded like a fair number for 16 ppg and 8 rpg at the time (picture me cringin’). The price of doing business with the NBA in the late-nineties was not something that Arthur Griffiths or his successors (has that term ever sounded less appropriate?), were prepared for or capable of adapting to, and the team’s ties to the city frayed more with each passing of the ownership torch. Sadly, for Vancouver basketball fans, none of these obstacles exist now, making the Grizzlies departure more difficult to reconcile than ever before. Note: an attempt to contact Griffiths for comments on this story went unanswered.

Vancouver sports fans like to fancy themselves as ride or die loyalists when it comes to their teams, but we are an absolutely ridiculous group of front-runners who will bury our jerseys in the backyard during tough times. Given the joint ownership situation with the Grizzlies and the Canucks, the success of the former was hugely dependent on the success of the latter, and the Canucks were riding high when Vancouver was anointed as an NBA city. However, by the time the Grizzlies hit the hardwood for the first time, the Canucks were coming off a strike-shortened season and were a team in decline. After reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994, the Canucks were quickly ousted from the playoffs in 1995 and 1996, and then missed the playoffs for the next four years. This dark period for the Canucks franchise included a much-maligned change of logo and jerseys, and the cataclysmic Mark Messier/Mike Keenan era that had even the most ardent Canucks fan tuning out. This reversal of fortunes resonated at the box office, as attendance steadily declined from 1995-96 through 1999-00, dropping 18% overall. This drop was almost identical to the 19% drop the woeful Grizzlies experienced during the same period, and demonstrates just how quickly Vancouverites will ditch local sports teams. Conversely, local residents have been happy to pay exorbitant ticket prices to watch a winning product lately, as the Canucks currently have a sellout streak stretching past 430 games (best in the league), but I digress. A decline in ticket sales and the complete absence of playoff revenue from the Canucks did the Grizzlies no favours inside the Orca Bay offices, and with a failing product on the hardwood, Griffiths desperately needed a successful team on the ice to keep GM Place the hottest new club in town. But as they are wont to do, the Canucks failed, leaving their owners with little choice but to put their less successful (and increasingly expensive), child up for adoption. The majority owners that followed Griffiths (John McCaw and Michael Heisley), lacked the ties to Vancouver that Griffiths had, and despite what they may have stated initially, efforts to keep the team in Vancouver were minimal. David Stern and the NBA has even more blood on their hands, as their initial opposition to relocation evaporated quickly; Stern admitted as much in an interview with Bill Simmons, but his post-mortem mea culpa doesn’t change much for the NBA fans in Vancouver.

The Association’s decision to allow the Grizzlies’ relocation looks even worse in retrospect when you consider how disastrous their timing was; the NBA managed to extricate itself from the North American market best positioned to facilitate their endeavours in Asia just as Asian migration to Vancouver exploded. Metro Vancouver is home to the highest percentage of Chinese, South Asian, and Filipino residents in the country (as per Statistics Canada), populations that have grown exponentially since the nineties. The NBA has taken great steps to increase its presence in Asia, especially in the past five years, but as North America’s gateway to Asia, Vancouver could have been the launching point for all of the NBA’s globalization initiatives in Asia. As beneficial as Vancouver could have been to the league’s efforts, the demographic changes in Metro Vancouver alone have created a new and growing NBA fan base, even in the Grizzlies absence. The city as it exists now bears only a slight resemblance to the one that welcomed the Grizzlies twenty years ago, and the city has an audience fluent in the game that it lacked in the past.

Vancouver and the NBA was a tragic relationship in the truest sense, where the best intentions were scuttled by terrible timing and poor decision-making. Everything the NBA initially saw in Vancouver turned out to be true, but they were ten years ahead of their time and were unable to weather the economic and managerial storms they encountered or created themselves. Outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern has said that he doesn’t see a return to Vancouver in the league’s future, but perhaps boss-in-waiting Adam Silver will see Vancouver as a place to start anew, and not as the tortured former fling that Stern clearly regrets.

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