The Canucks will continue their ’20 in 20′ series tomorrow night, celebrating Rogers Arena’s 20-year anniversary by honouring the Vancouver Grizzlies. The man who will drop the ceremonial opening faceoff is Shareef Abdur-Rahim, regarded as the best player during the teams short time in the city.
November 3, 1995. A date you have most likely forgotten about, but it was suppose to be the start of an exciting new era in Vancouver. It marks the first regular season game in the Grizzlies franchise history, one of the few that ended on a good note.
The team went into Portland and won 92-80 over the Trail Blazers, with Benoit Benjamin leading the way with a 29 point, 13 rebound performance.
Their home opener was two days later at what was then called GM Place, against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Grizzlies were down 14 going into the 4th quarter, but were able to come back and send the game to overtime. With time running down and the score tied up at 98, Chris King put back current Byron Scott’s jumper at the buzzer to give the Grizz the win.
As a 12-year-old kid who did not know what the internet was at this point, you would’ve thought the Grizzlies were a legitimate team, who were going to surprise people. What happened next? The team lost 19 in a row before beating Trail Blazers on December 15th.
Remember, this was a team that featured basketball immortals such as Ashraf Amaya and Anthony Avent, going on to finish the season with a 15-67 record, but averaged more than 17,000 fans per game.
They never won more than 23 games in a season, and the Grizzlies went 101-359 during their time in Vancouver. That is the worst six year stretch in the history of the NBA. Really, the team was doomed to fail before it even started and the decisions the organization made along the way just sped up the process.
Hamstrung by NBA restrictions
The league imposed a rule that both the Grizzlies and their expansion cousins, the Toronto Raptors, could not have the number one overall pick in the draft for their first three seasons. This was done to make some whiny NBA owners happy, after the Orlando Magic got to pick first in back-to-back years and selected Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber (who they traded for Penny Hardaway), which made Orlando a legitimate title contender within 5 years of their existence.
Till this day, if I saw Stu Jackson out in public, I would angrily ask him what the hell he was thinking when he ran this franchise. He has to go down as one of the worst GMs in the NBA over the last 20 years. His coaching selections usually whiffed (Brian Winters, who you couldn’t be sure had a pulse during games, and Brian Hill to name a couple.) His personnel decisions were also perplexing. And his drafting?
While the league didn’t really help the team’s cause with their expansion team drafting restrictions, if you compare who the Grizzlies drafted with some of the guys still available, you’ll see they didn’t do any favours for themselves.
Bryan “Big Country” Reeves (1995)
The Grizzlies select Bryant Reeves 6th overall, one spot ahead of the Raptors, who took Damon Stoudamire, who went on to win the Rookie of the Year award.
The Grizzlies? They signed Big Country to a 6 year $65 million dollar contract in 1998 and he subsequently became fatter and was out of the league by the time the team moved to Memphis.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1996)
Shareef Abdur-Rahim was a very good pick for the team at 3rd overall, but was never going to be “the guy” on a championship team. He would be very comparable to Chris Bosh today, where with the right supporting cast, he would’ve led the team to the playoffs, but no further than the 2nd round.
Out of all the players who played in Vancouver, Abdur-Rahim was the only one to ever play in an All-Star game in his career (when he was with the Atlanta Hawks) and he played for Team USA at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
Some of the other guys the Grizzlies could’ve had? Ray Allen, Steve Nash or Kobe Bryant.
Antonio Daniels (1997)
Antonio Daniels was a complete and utter bust, traded away for spare parts after one season, despite being drafted 4th overall.
To make this pick worse, the Phoenix Suns were reportedly offering Steve Nash straight up for the pick. STEVE NASH!!! No one can say he would’ve went on to win multiple MVP trophies here, but you can bet that he would have raised the team’s profile across the country.
Mike Bibby (1998)
Mike Bibby was a solid player, who was never really good enough to justify being taken this high. For the second year in a row, they took a point guard and left Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce on the board. The Raptors took off with Carter, and became must see TV, even in the United States. Carter became a superstar and the team began appearing on American national TV networks.
Steve Francis (1999)
The dagger. This was truly the beginning of the end for the team, as Stu Jackson botched yet another pick.
Look, Francis was/is/always be a jackass for acting like this when you’re about to make millions of dollars playing a sport. In his defence (I can’t believe I am saying this) he made it crystal clear he had no intention of coming here, so why risk it?
Stu Jackson could’ve traded this pick at, or before, the draft for a lot more than what he got for him from Houston (Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington, and the decomposing bodies of Antoine Carr and Brent Price) or taken Baron Davis or Lamar Odom. Odom was one of the few guys who actually wanted to come to Vancouver.
Stromile Swift (2000)
Symbolic for the last draft pick Vancouver would ever make, because he sucked, just like the rest of the draft and team that chose him.
What could have been
The team had some other factors working against them. The Canadian dollar was hovering around 65 cents, and corporate sponsorship was almost non-existent as the team rapidly declined to basketball purgatory.
The lack of knowledge on the part of NBA players didn’t help. From George Lynch complaining about grocery stores not being open, to Doug West going on a Heineken binge upon finding out he was traded here, players just never understood the city. Othella Harrington despised playing here, yet he went on a tryout for a team in Iran later in his career. Yup, willing to move to Iran, but hated Vancouver.
In the late 90s the Canucks were floundering, and their season ticket sales were down. Imagine if the Grizzlies had a superstar to galvanize the city and draw more attention their team. This will always be a hockey city first, but the opportunity was there for the Grizzlies to attract some more fans by being even a semi-competent team. Just look at the Raptors support in Toronto the last few years, while the Leafs have stunk.
I do believe the NBA would do much better here now. Vancouver’s reputation as a world class city is growing, and corporate money will be more readily available now. The population continues to increase, and with that more kids are playing the sport of basketball.
Shareef is the perfect guy to bring back, because he really is the only one that evokes positive memories. He embraced the city, worked his butt off, and tried to lead the Grizzlies every night he was on the court representing Vancouver.
I was just a kid when they played that game in Portland 20 years ago. I thought I would have a second team to cheer for, along with the Canucks, for the rest of my life. Ultimately, the team never had a chance, but for some strange reason, I still look back fondly on the memories.