Tonight, the Grizzlies take on the Clippers in what will undoubtedly be a wildly entertaining tilt, perhaps even the night’s best NBA game. Both teams are bound to be postseason contenders this season, with L.A. displaying a high-powered, high-flying offense and the suddenly surging Memphis squad having rolled through the League’s best—including Dallas, Miami and Oklahoma City—in the past week and a half. But Grizzlies-Clippers wasn’t always a bundle of fun; in fact, at some point it was such a dead affair that the competition (if you could call it that) wasn’t even aired on local TV. Back in December of ’99, current SLAM EIC Ben Osborne visited sunny Vancouver to observe one of those depressing contests, and he chronicled his experience in SLAM 41. The feature is re-published in its entirety below.—Ed.
by Ben Osborne | @bosborne17
There would be no more clichéd cliché in NBA locker rooms than this one: “Big Game,” which is how players love to refer to anything more than a game of H-O-R-S-E. But that doesn’t make it true.
I know, because I was at one of the many extremely small games that dot the NBA schedule: December 19th, ’99, Los Angeles Clippers (6-17) at Vancouver Grizzlies (4-19) in a 6 p.m. PST tip-off. These are teams who link Valentines Day with being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Teams with guys like Keith Closs and Milt Palacio on their respective rosters. Even the hype-mongers that double as power brokers in the NBA know a truly meaningless game when they see one. To that end, the game was not televised. Not in Vancouver. Not in L.A. Not even on the DirectTV package that claims to bring you every single game.
What follows is a chronicle of one lonely day in the NBA’s hinterland, a place where the only Big Game are the moose that roam not far from the city.
9:00 A.M.: Over breakfast, I scan the Vancouver Province. With terrorists on the loose in Canada, the holiday season in the air, and floods ravaging Venezuela, the Province’s lead editorial is on the Grizz, of all the subjects. It includes some obvious analysis that both GM Stu Jackson and center Bryant Reeves deserved the same fate as recently fired coach Brian Hill, but the story is capped off by a chilling sentence that captures the hometown paper’s belief’s—“The city managed without [The Grizzlies] before, and we can do without them now.” Ouch.
10:00 A.M.: Knowing the Grizzlies had cancelled shootaround, I try to find the Clippers. Took the Disney Ride—I mean SkyTrain, Vancouver’s ultra-clean and modern subway—to GM Place. No dice. Next I visit the Grizzlies’ practice facility. Not a creature is stirring; well except for some mice, who run across the floor behind the facility’s locked glass doors.
4:07 P.M.: It’s 110 minutes ‘til tip-off, and scalper Kingsley Bailey is already prowling for customers outside GM Place. His sale is made easier thanks to the massive sign that reads “Buy/Sell Tickets” and the map of the arena that hangs around his neck to make things easier for his customers. Bailey’s working a mere three-pointer from the Grizzlies’ ticket office, where plenty of good seats are still available, but the police (if they have any here) do not bother him. “I’ll get about $20 per ticket [around 14 US] tonight, and I’ll sell most of em,” Bailey tells me. “I mean, basketball’s still a much better deal than hockey in this town. You could never get a Canuck ticket for 20 bucks.”
4:20 P.M.: The Clippers arrive, nice and leisurely. Their age, dress and general make-up remind me more of a college squad than your typical late-90’s corporation/NBA team. It’s pretty refreshing, and to be expected since the Clips are by far the youngest team in the League.
4:27 P.M.: The hosts are on the court going through a “closed walk-through.” With sarcasm dripping, a security guard says to me, “You know, they don’t want anyone to see what they’re doing tonight.” He and his co-workers share a laugh.
4:37 P.M.: The Clippers’ locker room is chillin’. The guys are ordering Chinese food and peeping the Nets-Hawks game via DirectTV in the locker room. Everyone is feeling Steph.
I ask Maurice Taylor about the fact that today’s game is blacked out, everywhere. “I don’t care is it ain’t on TV,” he says. “Just ’cause one game is not on TV, does it affect you? No. When we was growin’ up, there wasn’t no TV. We just played outside. If you went around this locker room, I think you’d see that nobody knew this game wouldn’t be on TV.”
Two lockers from Mo, Michael Olowakandi scolds me in his professional English for even asking about the game’s exposure, of lack thereof. “As an NBA player, that is totally immaterial,” he scoffs. “We play to win. We’re trying to put ourselves in a position where games mean something down the line. So as far as TV coverage and media coverage, immaterial.”
4:50 P.M.: Over in the palatial home locker room, Othella Harrington stretches while “Still D.R.E.” pumps from all corners. Unlike the young Clippers, Harrington is more than willing to dis the concept of playing in a black hole of NBA media attention—especially after a college career at Georgetown and a few years of ballin’ in the metropolis formerly known as Clutch City.
“It’s different that Houston here,” Big O tells me. “ I mean, just in terms of some of the questions that are posed to me, and the way they’re posed.”
Me: You mean like the lack of basketball knowledge?
“Ummmm. I guess you could kind of say that [with an awkward chuckle /grimace].”
Me [sounding upbeat]: Well, you wont be here forever. I mean, what’s your contract situation?
“Ummm. Five more years after this one.” [chuckles/grimaces a lot more]
Me: Maybe you’ll be in St. Louis by then. Would that be better?
“That would be a lot better.”
5:07 P.M.: Back in the Timberland outlet, I mean the L.A. locker room, Lamar Odom rolls in and shows little concern about the TV question. “No TV, huh? We need wins too bad to be worrying about that anyway.”
6:16 P.M.: Lights out in the arena. A new era is being dawned. That’s what the scoreboard says, at least.
6:17 P.M: Introductions. Shareef gets a decent reaction—nothin’ special, though. No mention is made of the fact that this is Lionel Hollins first home game as Grizzlies’ coach.
6:18 P.M: The opening tip dribbles feebly out of bounds.
6:24 P.M.: The crowd is small—and mad polite.
6:32 P.M.: Watching Othella operate in the low post, in occurs to me that, disgruntled or not, he is perhaps the most fundamentally sound player in the NBA.
6:36 P.M.: Mike Bibby answers a Tyrone Nesby triple with one of his own as the first quarter expires. The 12 or so thousand in the stands cheer civilly. 22-all, baby.
6:47 P.M.: Lamar is keepin’ it real like Nas used to. L.O. plays real hard, real smart and really fucking well. I’m making these observations in the second quarter, but he’ll go on to score 28 on runners, low-post moves, long jumpers. Damn. He also throws textbook chest passes and rips down boards like a skinny Barkley. Too bad nobody will see his highlights tonight.
6:50 P.M.: Press row is buzzing! All TV’s turned to a press conference. Seems like there’s been a big trade. By the Canucks.
7:00 P.M.: Checking in for Vancouver is the multi tattooed, long-haired Cherokee Parks. I’m quickly convinced he should be on the next cover. Of High Times.
7:02 P.M.: Eric Murdock is running the point for the Clippers. His sleep-inducing game is a great argument for keeping this contest off the air.
7:05 P.M.: Halftime, and it’s 39-all, baby.
7:17P.M.: Second half, and the paradoxically invisible Reeves hits his first shot of the game. “Bbiiiggg-cccooouuunnntttrrryyy,” screams the PA announcer. Ugh.
7:24 P.M.: Troy Hudson—he of the zigzagged ‘rows and energetic game few have ever laid eyes on—is sparking L.A.
7:29 P.M.: Following a time-out, watching the game has become an even hazier proposition—the fireworks Super Grizz set off have left some lingering clouds.
7:41 P.M: I try focusing on ‘Reef for a little while. Mad solid, no doubt, but watching him take part in the game—but hardly take over—I start to wonder if his anonymity is due to more than just a small market.
7:47 P.M.: The Grizzlies final possession of the third quarter deteriorates as still-pudgy Dennis Scott tries to direct traffic and misses from deep. Alas, this game has finished a quarter without being tied. The Clips lead 67-65.
7:58 P.M.: Chris Ford, one-time coach of the once-proud Celtics, is basically reduced to cajoling rather than coaching the Clips. Odom handles most of the on-court play generating, so Ford spends the better part of the game imploring Olowokandi to do something, anything, that will help the team. “Let’s go , Michael” he begs of the enigmatic Englishman.
8:15 P.M.: Lamar fouls out when he charges into gritty, gutty Doug West, still in the League.
8:18 P.M.: It’s official, The Canucks have made a trade! Remarkably, this news is confirmed to the press when a press release is handed out to everyone on the Press Row with 1:30 left in the game.
8:20 P.M.: 1:13 to go, Clips call a T.O. up 84-82. Odom is screaming at his mates. “Win this game!” Let’s win this fucking game,” he pleads. On the Grizz bench, Parks and Brent Price share a laugh, while Othella watches from a distance.
8:26 P.M.: Down one with 30 seconds left ‘Reef hits two free throws to put the Grizz up.
8:28 P.M.: L.A.’s last possession sees Taylor dick around for much of the 24 second shot clock, before launching a ‘Reef deflected airball. 2.2. ticks left, Grizz ball. Abdur-Rahim exhorts, the crowd screams, and Chris Ford stares into space.
8:30 P.M.: The Clips offer no resistance as the Grizz inbound the ball and watch the clock expire. 85-84 Grizz. Get Home Safely.
8:31 P.M.: The fans file out happily—seems like Felix Potvin is a good pick-up.
8:45 P.M.: In the Clippers’ locker room, Taylor keeps the loss in (Clipper) perspective. “It’s one out of 82 man. We’ll get it together. “
8:50 P.M.: Twenty minutes after the game, and the Clippers are out.
8:54 P.M.: The Grizzlies’ locker room is filled with buoyant players, none happier than Parks, TV coverage or not. “I think going out there and losing a lot has a bigger effect on guys motivation than whether or not we get exposure. Sure it’s tough listening to all the hockey stuff, but whatever, it’s the losing. It’s really easy to get into one of those losing skids, and its hard to get out of them.Whether anyone wants to admit it individually, it’s really easy to get depressed.”
9:00 P.M.: Shareef and I are the only ones left in the Grizzlies’ locker room. He’s approachable like a 12th man, if saddened by the lack of coverage tonight.
“Tonight wasn’t even on Direct?,” he repeated. “My mom’s been watching a lot of the games on DirectTV, but I guess not tonight. It is the Grizzlies playing the Clippers, though, so it makes sense. But it ain’t so bad. You gotta take into consideration that we’re both real young teams; I look at it like in two or three years, when both of us are more established, then we’re gonna have our time to shine.”
2:42 A.M. EST: Dan Patrick on the late Sportscenter [I’m told by a colleague in the States], as score graphic for the Little Game came up on the screen:
“As a public service, we are just showing up the score.”