The existence and repeated success of the Toronto Raptors have proven against any doubt that an NBA team in Canada is a splendid idea.
Any concerns about the Canadian market, the fanbase, the economy: they’ve all been squashed.
Basketball in Canada is booming by just about every metric and having a pro team in the country has been a resounding success.
Of course, that isn’t always the case.
What about the Vancouver Grizzlies… and what about the “what-if” in regards to Steve Francis?
What if Steve Francis stayed in Vancouver?
For a little reminder on the back story: four years into the Grizzlies’ existence, Francis was drafted second overall by Vancouver in 1999.
Vancouver was in need of a star player, but they selected Francis — a point guard — despite having Mike Bibby on their roster, who they’d take in that same number two draft slot a year prior.
Francis had told the team he had no interest in playing for a team north of the border, but the Grizzlies’ front office went ahead and selected him anyway.
Once selected by Vancouver, Francis expected to start over Bibby, but Grizzlies GM Stu Jackson and head coach Brian Hill weren’t quite ready to offer him that role.
Francis never played for the team after being traded away to Houston in an 11-player deal later that same year.
“If there was no confusion at the starting point guard position, that would’ve been an easy transition,” Francis said in an interview with Daily Hive about what could’ve gotten him to stay in Vancouver.
By 2002, Francis was an All-Star, his first of three straight appearances in the annual showcase.
The Grizzlies left Vancouver in 2001, without a single All-Star selection to their name.
The documentary The Grizzlie Truth, featuring Francis as one of the key speakers, helps dive into these questions surrounding Francis and the eventual departure of Vancouver’s NBA team.
“The worst was people talking about my grandmother, my family. The fans called me all types of names. If I could take that, why not be able to come back and say how I feel?” Francis said about why he chose to get involved with the project by Filmmaker Kat Jayme, who also created Finding Big Country, centred around former Grizzlie Bryant Reeves.
“I think good filmmakers, good documentary filmmakers specifically, owe it to their subjects who trust them to tell their story in the right way,” Jayme said about getting Francis involved in the film. “And I take immense pride in that and always want to be respectful of those who take time to share their story.”
Jayme, a Grizzlies super-fan who said part of the purpose of the film was to given fellow fans “closure,” was among those who wish Francis stayed in Vancouver.
“I feel like that’s just what fan culture is. We love something so much. And when it gets taken away from us, we get angry,” Jayme said. “What Steve explained about his story is how players are also human beings and they have a story and a family. And that’s just something that I don’t think as fans, we realized that.”
It’s clear that some of the hard feelings are still there: Francis was booed by a portion of the crowd at a recent screening of the film in Vancouver. But Jayme said she’s much more at ease with how things played out, especially after getting to know Francis and working with him on the documentary.
“I can empathize with what he was going through and the decision he made,” Jayme added. “He’s a great example of [the player empowerment movement]. He was one of the first ones to do it in the NBA… and power to them.”
As for if Francis has any regrets about his career? Just a couple, but nothing major.
“Not really,” Francis said when asked if he’d want any do-overs in his NBA tenure. “I couldn’t really stick to one system, I had seven coaches in my 10 years…. and I should’ve shot it more.”
But one thing he would like to do? Check out Vancouver a little more closely at some point.
“I’d love to take a vacation there,” Francis admitted. “I never got a chance to see the city.”
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Francis’ thoughts on the Raptors
Despite recently snapping a six-game losing streak — their longest in two seasons — there are still questions about the Raptors’ long-term outlook.
Toronto is dealing with their own budding star in second-year forward Scottie Barnes, who’s dealing with an up-and-down campaign after winning the 2021-22 Rookie of the Year award.
Barnes was expected by many to make a big leap in year two, but his points, rebounds, and steals per game have all dropped off. At least on paper, Barnes hasn’t quite taken the big leap expected of him.
And few would know better about that transition than Francis, who split the Rookie of the Year in 2000 with Elton Brand, before making the All-Star game in the third year of his career.
“It has to be in you to be the leader of the team,” Francis said of the challenges ahead for Barnes. “After all the scrutiny I faced in Vancouver, I took it upon myself to try to work that much harder to be much better and the results were shown on the court.”
And as for the Raptors’ point guard Fred VanVleet?
Well, Francis has some thoughts on him too, as the owner of the highest contract ever given out to an undrafted player in NBA history.
“I think it’s a great story, to go to where he came from to get to where he’s at,” Francis said.
Like Barnes in year two, VanVleet has had a tough year relative to his standards after his first All-Star appearance last year.
VanVleet’s .327 three-point percentage is the lowest of his career, which has caused heavy scrutiny among the fanbase, something Francis is no stranger to.
“When you go from an unknown to everybody knows who you are, that’s when you have to change your tactics and your approach to the game. You’re on the board [in the other team’s scouting report] before every game,” Francis added.
But everything the Raptors ended up becoming in the decades following their founding, the Grizzlies were the opposite.
The Raptors have won six division titles in the last nine seasons, capped off with a 2019 NBA title. The Grizzlies never made the playoffs prior to moving to Memphis.
And Francis admitted he wasn’t always sure the NBA would succeed in Canada.
“I’m amazed. I wasn’t sure if there was any hope of building that in Toronto,” Francis said about seeing the Raptors win a title. “The championship was phenomenal. To be in the upper echelon of the whole NBA, a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world saw them as the team to beat.”