The Vancouver Grizzlies, along with the Toronto Raptors were the first two NBA teams in Canada, in an historical expansion for the league. So what exactly led to the team leaving their home in Vancouver after just six seasons? In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how the team was largely set up to fail, with the team never gaining the traction they needed in Vancouver to succeed.
Professional basketball in Canada dates back to the mid 1940’s when the Toronto Huskies played only one single season before folding 1947. Despite the fact that the sport itself was invented by a Canadien, James Naismith in 1891, there wasn’t much interest in reviving a pro basketball team in Canada until the 1980s. During that time, the NBA went through a rapid expansion period, adding the Charlotte Hornets, and Miami Heat in 1988. While the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic were added the next season. Not long after, the league began considering expansion into Canada as a viable option after scheduling a couple of preseason games at Toronto’s brand new SkyDome stadium between 1989 and 1992. Each game attracted 25,000 fans in attendance, at which point NBA commissioner David Stern felt that expanding into Toronto would be a “safe step.” This opened the door to the possibility of expanding the NBA into Canada for the first time. Around the same time, two business groups were organizing to make bids on expansion franchises, one in Toronto and one in Vancouver. The Vancouver group, headed by the owner of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, Arthur Griffiths announced that he was developing plans for a 20,000 seat arena that could be home to both the Canucks and a new NBA team. Griffiths formed a partnership with Seattle Mariners co-owner John McCaw Jr., and later they formed the Northwest Sports Group (which was later renamed the Orca Bay Sports Group).
Meanwhile, executives from the NBA were touring possible sites in Toronto for a future arena. Liking what they saw, the NBA formally approved Toronto’s bid for a team on September 30, 1993. Six months later, Vancouver’s ownership group also got approval from the league for an expansion franchise on February 14, 1994. One roadblock that had to be settled before the teams could start playing was the NBA at the time had strict rules against sports betting on games. Both provinces, British Columbia and Ontario had legal sports betting on games which provided 1.56 million Canadien dollars in public funding that went towards health care. Understandably a large subset of the public was against the NBA’s demands but a deal was struck when Griffith and McCaw Jr’s group agreed to pay half a million dollars annually to health care funds. With that, and an expansion fee of $125 million dollars, Toronto and Vancouver became the NBA’s 28th and 29th franchises.
A Change In Ownership
When coming up with a team nickname, the “Vancouver Mounties” quickly emerged as the preferred favorite. However, the real Royal Canadien Mounted police objected to the use of their name, and so the team switched to the alternate favorite of “Grizzlies’ ‘ in honor of the bear that is indiguousness to the Vancouver area. As for the team colors, the team chose the very 1990’s colors of bronze, red, and turquoise (which the team referred to as “Naismith blue” after basketball’s inventor James Naismith”). The logo, which kind of looks like a cross between the Knicks logo and the Ninja Turtle logo, was used for all six seasons the Grizzlies were in Vancouver. The Grizzlies weren’t just one of the first NBA teams in Canada, they were also the first NBA team to have a website. Launched in 1995, it was created by the team’s chief information officer Bob Kerstien, with the rest of the league catching up and launching their sites shortly after. Construction on the team’s home arena, General Motors Place (and later renamed Rogers Arena) broke ground two years earlier on July 13, 1993. GM Place cost $160 million Canadien dollars to build, and opened in time for the 1995 season of both the Vancouver Canucks and Grizzlies. However, construction cost overruns with the arena and expensive entry fees paid the NBA, forced owner Arther Griffiths to sell his share of the Grizzlies and Canucks to McCaw Jr and Orca Bay Sports Group.
Part of the deal for the Grizzlies to begin play was that they had to sell 12,500 tickets (with at least a 50 percent payment) before January 1, 1995. But on December 21, 1994 with about a week and half before the deadline, the team had only sold 10,000 tickets. Luckily, the pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart stepped in and purchased the 2,500 tickets remaining needed to start play. Interestingly enough, the Toronto Raptors were having the exact same issues selling their tickets by the deadline, and Shoppers Drug Mart once again saved the day by buying the remaining tickets needed. In the special expansion draft, the Grizzlies and Raptors were allowed to pick one unprotected player from each of the other 27 NBA teams. With their first pick, the Grizzlies ended up picking Knicks point guard, Greg Anthony (seen here in his denim business casual look) and he would go on to play for Vancouver for two seasons. In the regular 1995 NBA draft, the league made the strange decision to not allow either the Grizzlies or Raptors to pick within the top 5 draft spots. Furthermore, both Canadien teams were not allowed a top draft choice, even if they were to win the draft lottery for their first three seasons and were not allowed to use their full salary cap for two seasons. With the restrictions in place, it unfortunately kept the Grizzlies from being as competitive as they could have been right out of the gate. With that Vancouver, who had the 6th overall pick, chose center Bryant Reeves (nicknamed Big Country) out of Oklahoma State. Reeves, who quickly became the face of the new organization, struggled to live up to the expectations of being a high draft pick. Chronic back pains and other injuries ultimately shortened his career, with him only playing six seasons each one of them with the Grizzlies.
The First Season: 1995-96
Beginning with the 1995 preseason, the Grizzlies and Raptors met for exhibition games at neutral sites across Canada to compete for the Naismith Cup. This was not too different than the Pearson Cup in baseball, where the Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays play each other to raise money for minor league baseball in Canada. Similarly, The Naismith cup was also held to raise money for the non profit organization Canada Basketball, and was played every year between 1995 and 2000, with the exception of 1998 during the NBA lockout year. The Grizzlies played their first ever game on November 3, 1995, in a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. They would win their next game as well, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but their early season luck would run out as the team would lose their next 19 games in a row. Even more embarrassing, the Grizzlies later that season set the all time record for most losses in a row, when they dropped 23 straight games. Vancouver would only manage to win 15 games in their first season, but they did average just over 17,000 fans a game.
Second Season: 1996-97
The Grizzlies second season wasn’t any better, despite drafting rookie of the year candidate Shareef Abdur-Rahim as the third overall pick in 1996. After only winning 8 games during the first half of the season, Vancouver fired head coach Brian Winters and replaced him with General Manager Stu Jackson who stepped in as head coach for the remainder of the season. Even with Abdur-Rahim making the all rookie first team, the Grizzlies only managed to finished with just 14 wins that season, the worst record in the league.
Third Season: 1997-98
The Grizzlies hired Brian Hill (seen here regretting having eaten that convenience store sushi before the game) as their new head coach, and drafted Antonio Daniels with the fourth overall pick. The team slightly improved their record, with 19 wins and 63 losses. They finished the 1997-98 season sixth in their division, ahead of the Denver Nuggets.
Fourth Season: 1998-99
The 1998-99 season was shortened due to a lockout and work stoppage that lasted from July 1, 1998 to January 20, 1999. Because of this, the season was reduced from 82 games to just 50. Even though the team once again struggled on the court, winning only 8 games that season, the overall attendance was actually slightly up. This was especially odd, given that most of the league had suffered dips in their attendance due the shortened season.
Fifth Season: 1999-00
Going into the 1999 NBA draft, the Grizzlies had the second pick and selected point guard Steve Francis. One problem was, Francis let it be known before the draft that he had no interest in playing for Vancouver, and preferred to be picked by the Chicago Bulls. However, after being picked by the Grizzlies, and facing criticism for his earlier statements, he momentarily gave in and thought about playing for Vancouver. But after an incident at Vancouver’s airport where Francis and his entourage were allegedly asked if they were rappers, he then refused to ever play for the Grizzlies. The team had no choice but to trade Francis, in what at the time was the biggest NBA trade ever involving 11 players, and three teams. To put it in short, Four players from the Grizzlies were traded to the Orlando Magic, while Steve Francis and Tony Massenburg were traded to the Houston Rockets. In return, the Grizzlies received four players from the Rockets, including Othella Harrington, Brent Price, Michael Dickerson, and Antoine Carr. The Grizzlies also received a first round draft pick from Houston, as well as another first and second round draft pick from the Orlando Magic.
Up For Sale
The slight uptick in attendance during the year of the lockout would be short lived, as the Grizzlies saw a huge drop off the next season. Just under 14,000 fans on average attended home games between the next two seasons, near the very bottom of the league for attendance figures. The drop off was the combination of a few factors, mainly stemming from the lockout and the poor marketability of the team due to its lackluster play. On top of that the Grizzlies were losing a ton of money, due to the weak Canadien dollar. Because of this, McCaw decided that he would try to sell the Grizzlies. He first negotiated a deal with Dennis Washington the owner of the Seaspan (no, not that C-Span, yes that Seaspan). Seaspan operates as a marine transport company out of the pacific northwest. Washington agreed to buy 50 percent of the Grizzlies, and intended to keep the team in Vancouver. However, McCaw then turned around and used the proposed deal with Washington to negotiate a better deal with Bill Laurie, who was on a bit of a spending spree at the time, having just bought the St. Louis Blues hockey team. Laurie promised to pay $148 million US dollars for the team, and another $52 million if the Grizzlies moved to St. Louis. The deal was officially announced in September of 1999, after which the NBA commissioner David Stern responded by vocally disapproving of the deal since it happened without the NBA’s finance committee getting a chance to vote on it. Ultimately the deal was blocked by Stern, and not allowed to go any further with Stern saying that his goal was for the Grizzlies to stay in Vancouver, and to succeed there. Just 22 games into the 1999-00 season, head coach Brian Hill was let go and replaced by Lionel Hollins as an interim head coach. Coincidentally, the Grizzlies would only end up winning 22 games that season, losing 60. Hollins too was let go during the offseason and replaced with Sidney Lowe, who became the franchise’s fifth head coach in just six seasons.
The Final Season: 2000-01
In April of 2000, McCaw was finally able to sell Grizzlies. A former computer salesman and businessman named Michael Heisley bought the team for $160 million US dollars. Heisley said at the time that he was committed to keeping the Grizzlies in Vancouver. But by early 2001, the team was struggling to stay financially viable. The Grizzlies president of basketball operations, Dick Verace claimed that the team was losing $40 million dollars per season. It also was becoming increasingly difficult to secure local sponsorships of businesses due to the franchise’s poor marketability. At this point, Heisley began the process of exploring moving the Grizzlies. In February 2001, Heisley and his team actually set out on a road trip to find the best suitable spot for the Grizzlies. The team looked at several different cities across the United States, places like Louisville, New Orleans, Anaheim, Las Vegas, Buffalo, San Diego, and Memphis, Tennessee. However, most of the places they looked at lacked either a strong site to build a new arena, or needed a large amount of public funding to get one built. Heisley narrowed down the list of preferred cites, to just four, Louisville, New Orleans, Anaheim, and Memphis. While both New Orleans and Anaheim had arenas in place, ready to be used, the idea of building a new, custom made arena for the Grizzlies (where they would control all of the revenue), was very tempting. Another selling point to either Louisville or Memphis is that the Grizzlies would have the strongest sports media presence in those cities, due to neither city having another pro sports team at the time. On March 26, 2001 Heisley made his final decision official, when the team announced that they would be moving to Memphis the following season. Heisley stated that Memphis gave the most attractive offer, while Louisville had a strong offer as well but he had doubts about the local government’s ability to follow through with their promises.
Relocation to Memphis
The Grizzlies last game in Vancouver took place on April 14, 2001 where they lost in a close game to the Houston Rockets 100-95. But, the team did win in their final game ever as the Vancouver Grizzlies, whey they defeated the Golden State Warriors 95-81 on the road. That summer, on July 3 2001, the NBA board of Governors formally approved of the relocation. In a rare move, the team decided to keep the nickname “Grizzlies”, becoming the Memphis Grizzlies, rather than coming up with a new name. The team may have been inspired by another Memphis Grizzlies team that played in the World Football league during the mid 1970’s. Just like the NBA Grizzlies, the football Grizzlies had moved to Tennessee from Canada. They were originally called the Toronto Northman, but eventually moved to Memphis and became the Memphis “Southmen” instead. However, their fans absolutely hated the name Southmen and so the name was changed to Grizzlies. Also side note, I feel like the old school Grizzlies logo is would make a great basketball logo, just saying.. The Grizzlies moving to Memphis also marked the return of pro basketball to the area since 1975, when the Memphis Sounds of the American Basketball League last played.
Part of the relocation deal was an agreement to build a brand new 20,000 seat arena that would open after the first few seasons in Memphis. The new arena broke ground on June 20, 2002, with a construction cost of $250 million dollars. In the meantime, The Grizzlies played at the Pyramid Arena, which had been home to the University of Memphis basketball team since the early 1990’s. The Grizzlies would play at the Pyramid Arena from 2001 to 2004, when they moved into the newly opened FedEx Forum the following season. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, moving to Memphis didn’t bring the change of fortune the ownership had hoped for (at least not right away). The team continued to struggle to draw fans to games, with the Grizzlies never exceeding their highest Vancouver attendance numbers for their first ten years in Memphis. According to a recent evaluation list by Forbes, while the team’s value has grown to 1.3 Billion as of 2021, the Grizzlies still rank last among NBA teams in value.
The last time the NBA expanded was in 2004, when the Charlotte Bobcats (Now the Hornets thanks to the New Orleans Pelicans) entered the league. But recently, the league has hinted that they might consider expansion soon, with a possible entry price point of around 2 billion dollars. The league would need to expand with two new teams to balance out the overall number of franchises, going from 30 to 32. It would then make sense to add two new western teams, and reorganize existing teams to the Eastern Conference. Several cities are top candidates for expansion, with two that are usually at near the top of the list in Seattle and Las Vegas. But Vancouver is still an outside possibility, where potentially reviving an old natural rivalry in the pacific northwest, between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver could be very appealing. But unfortunately for Vancouver, the city faces some of the same hurdles as before though, with the weaker Canadian dollar and competition from other attractive expansion sites like Las Vegas and Louisville.
The aftermath and legacy of the Grizzlies leaving Vancouver lives on in a number of ways, when the Charlotte Bobcats came into the league in 2004 the rules around NBA draft picks for expansion clubs had been updated. The league realizing how their draft rules hurt both the Raptors, and in particular the Grizzlies in their early years, they amended them to allow the Bobcats to pick fourth in their first draft, and in later years were not restricted in the ability to pick first in the draft. It’s been 20 years since the Grizzlies left Vancouver, but they haven’t forgotten their Canadien roots, recently they paid homage to their time in Vancouver during the 2019-20 season when the team wore throwback jerseys from their Vancouver days in honor of the franchise’s 25th anniversary.
So what did you think about the Grizzlies moving to Memphis from Vancouver? And what did you think about the NBA restricting the Raptors and Grizzlies salary cap in their first few years? Let me know in the comments below!