Who Killed the Vancouver Grizzlies?

On Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team will face off against Japan in the World Cup Final at BC Place in Vancouver, Canada—just a mere 300 yards from Rogers Arena, where NBA basketball used to be played. Yes, you read that correctly—NBA basketball. From 1995 to 2001 Vancouver was home to the Grizzlies, indisputably one of the worst products in League history.

What happened to the Vancouver incarnation of those Grizzlies, though? What made that experiment so, so bad? In honor of the 20th anniversary of the Vancouver Grizzlies’ inaugural season, we tried to find out.

Posting an abysmal record of 101-359 in six seasons (with a staggering five different head coaches), the Vancouver Grizzlies are mostly remembered today for their jerseys. In 2001, the Grizzlies migrated south to Memphis for the winter—forever.

Mike Bibby, best known for his time in Sacramento alongside C-Webb and Vlade Divac, started his career in Vancouver, when the Grizzlies drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft.

When Bibby touched down in Vancouver, right in the middle of the short-lived tenure of the franchise, he knew he might not be there for long. “I think it was kind of in the air,” Bibby said over the phone recently, when we asked if at that time he thought the franchise was going to be moving. “I don’t know if I saw it coming necessarily, but I think it was being talked about. It was just a matter of finding the right city and all that.”

During the Grizzlies’ stint in Vancouver, the Canadian dollar was a mere 70 cents to $1 USD—a huge element to why the Grizzlies became extinct in British Columbia. Jon Azpiri, a Web Producer for Global BC in Vancouver, covered the Grizzlies extensively during their run in Canada.

“You’re paying your employees—which is their biggest expense—in U.S. dollars and they’re taking in money, most of their money, in Canadian dollars,” Azpiri explained. Not only were the Grizzlies losing money on the typical ticket and advertisement revenue (which stir the economy of an NBA franchise), they were losing serious green before the opening tip every night.

Coupled with the lackluster economy at the time in Canada, the Grizzlies had to hurdle the obstacles of being an expansion team. “If I’m not mistaken, they couldn’t spend the full cap the first couple of years,” Azpiri said. “They couldn’t get a top-5 pick that first year and of course, that fifth pick was Kevin Garnett.” The team selected Bryant “Big Country” Reeves from Oklahoma State with the 6th pick—Reeves spent all six of his NBA seasons with the squad.

The misfortune of the ’95 draft was not the team’s only bad luck come June, despite being a perennial lottery team. The ’99 NBA Draft is when things really started looking South for the Grizzlies—literally.

In ’96 they selected Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the undisputed face of the franchise, in ’97 Antonio Daniels, who only survived one season in Vancouver, and in ’98 they snagged Bibby from Arizona. A “Big Three” was being built with Bibby and ‘Reef, needing one more piece to complete it. That missing piece was supposed to be Steve Francis, the All-American guard from the University of Maryland.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, Francis vehemently said that he did not want to play in Vancouver. GM Stu Jackson drafted him anyway, thus leading to the infamous Francis saga and eventually a 3-team, 11-player that sent Francis to Houston before the season began. Francis was supposed to be the savior of the franchise, but instead he demanded a trade without even giving Vancouver a shot.

Perhaps people in Vancouver still want Francis’ blood or maybe they have forgotten about the big “F U” he handed the city. Regardless, Bibby doesn’t fault management for rolling the dice by drafting the former Terrapin. “I think you had to go with the best available player and that was Francis,” Bibby said. “We got some pretty good guys for him too, like Michael Dickerson.” Dickerson was a double-digit scorer in four of his five NBA seasons, but he was no Francis, who went on to be a three-time All-Star.

Francis was an it guy—a player that could single-handedly draw hockey fans in Vancouver to check out basketball as well. After all, it is the “wow-factor” in one player that can keep a Canadian NBA expansion team alive—look no further than the Toronto Raptors.

“I think they sort of figured it out. You know, they were just more exciting than we were,” Bibby admitted. “They had Vince Carter—the second human highlight film. We never really had a player that got people out of their seats. I was the type of player to come in and try to get the job done—never did any extra moves.”

Azpiri agrees, the Grizzlies lost sense of identity and purpose in a hockey town lead to their demise. He also cited Carter as the saving grace of the NBA in Canada altogether.

“There was a media buzz at the time. The Canadian franchises were both hurting. The perception of the Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady era is sort of where the split happened and Toronto kind of found its way a little more and Vancouver didn’t,” Azpiri said.

Those Grizzlies didn’t have an identity like the Grit-N-Grind crew in Memphis today.

“The Grizzlies at the time didn’t really have an identity. They didn’t have a player where people would come just to watch that player. They didn’t have the Vince Carter of that era,” Azpiri said.

Francis joins the late Michael Heisley, the franchise’s owner that moved the team to Memphis, among Vancouver’s most-wanted men. Heisley, who has been accused of buying the team in 2000 with a pre-determined agenda to move them to the States, does have one longstanding supporter with Vancouver ties. It’s Bibby.

“Michael Heisley was great,” Bibby said. “He came to me and asked if there was a particular place where I wanted to be traded to help my career, and when I said Sacramento, he got me there. I’ll always be thankful for Michael Heisley and the Grizzlies.

Maybe it was the Canadian dollar that was the primary reason the Grizzlies migrated to Memphis. Maybe things would have been different if Francis suited up in light blue and white instead of Rocket pin stripes. Maybe Heisley moved the team pre-maturely. Or maybe the team was just that bad and couldn’t be brought back from the dead while still playing in Canada.

Whatever it was, Canadian basketball has thrived despite hosting just one NBA franchise on its soil. The Raptors are now a playoff team and the country has begun to produce big-time NBA talent not named Steve Nash.

Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett all will rock the leaf on their chest come Olympic time.

And no matter how disastrous the Vancouver Grizzlies may have been as a franchise, their memory will forever live in those iconic throwback jerseys.