The Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA for the 1995-96 season, along with the Toronto Raptors, as part of the league's two-pronged expansion into Canada. Vancouver and Toronto became the first non-U.S. cities to join the league since 1946-47, when the Toronto Huskies were one-year members of the NBA's forerunner, the Basketball Association of America.
After being officially accepted into the fold by the NBA's Board of Governors on April 27, 1994, Vancouver became the league's 29th franchise. The suddenness of the acceptance came as a shock to the Vancouver sporting public. The last time there had been any talk of an NBA franchise coming to Canada's west coast was in the early 1980s, when local entrepreneur Nelson Skalbania mounted an unsuccessful bid to lure the league north of the border.
A decade later, in late February 1993, local sports magnate Arthur Griffiths revealed that he was attempting to secure an NBA franchise for the city. Upon learning that the league had re-formed its expansion committee to debate the merits of an interested group from Toronto, Griffiths decided that Vancouver had enough merits of its own that he could sell the league on a two-city expansion. Griffiths' company, Northwest Sports Enterprises, was the majority owner of the National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks, and Griffiths already had plans to construct a privately funded 20,000-seat arena in the city's downtown core. The plans called for the arena to be completed in time for both the 1995-96 hockey and basketball seasons, according perfectly with the NBA's expansion hopes.
The Grizzlies' ownership, then known simply as the Vancouver Basketball Partnership, travelled to Minneapolis during All-Star Weekend and on Valentine's Day 1994 received preliminary franchise approval from the league's Expansion Committee. That move paved the way for full approval from the NBA during its Board of Governors meeting in New York City on April 27, 1994.
The franchise fee for both Vancouver and Toronto was set at $125 million, far more than the $32.5 million the last four expansion teams had paid during the four-team, two-phase expansion of 1988 and 1989.
Lottery Issue Resolved
The franchise agreements signed by both Vancouver and Toronto contained a number of conditions that had to be met before full approval could be granted. One condition in particular threatened to rob both cities of their teams well in advance of the projected November 1995 tip-offs.
To preserve the integrity of the NBA game, Commissioner David J. Stern required the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario to abolish any wagering on his league's games prior to the 1995-96 season. In British Columbia that meant removing NBA contests from the provincial government-controlled Sports Action betting games, in which players who correctly predicted the point spreads of at least three NBA games won cash prizes. In 1993, BC bettors shelled out some $1.56 million Canadian on NBA games, with a large portion of the money dedicated to health care services in the province.
Public opposition to the league's stance was fierce in both provinces. How could a professional sports league dictate policy to foreign governments, especially when the lotteries did so much to insure a high level of health care?
In the end, BC Premier Michael Harcourt, himself a BC high school basketball player of some renown in the 1950s worked together with Griffiths and the NBA to achieve a final resolution. On February 9, 1994, just prior to their trip to Minneapolis, Griffiths' group agreed to contribute $500,000 per year for five years (beginning in 1995). Half of the proceeds were donated to a hospice for needy children and the other half to the BC health care system, in exchange for having all NBA games removed from Sports Action.
The argument Griffiths successfully made to Harcourt was that a total of $10 million in taxes would be generated each year by the Vancouver NBA franchise, to the benefit of both the provincial and federal governments.
The Super Boss
On July 22, 1994, the Vancouver NBA group, still working without a team name, hired Stu Jackson as the team's first general manager and vice president of basketball operations. Jackson, head coach of the New York Knicks for 1989-90 and part of 1990-91, was lured away from his spot as head coach at the University of Wisconsin to take on the challenge of building an NBA club in Vancouver. For five months the team had been operating without any employee holding prior NBA experience.
Griffiths was drawn to Jackson because of the rave reviews Jackson had received from both Stern and NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik. Jackson had worked with both men while he was employed in the league's front office following his stint as the Knicks' coach.
Jackson immediately hired a scouting department, headed by former Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Larry Riley, and the four-man team made plans to evaluate the talent pool that would become available in both the expansion and college drafts in late June 1995.
The Name Game
On August 11, 1994, the Vancouver Basketball Partnership officially became the Vancouver Grizzlies.
During ceremonies held amid totem poles at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, Jackson and Griffiths announced the name and revealed the team logo of the fierce animal indigenous to Canada's westernmost province. Primary team colors were turquoise, bronze, and red.
Another of the NBA's more difficult stipulations for full franchise approval was for both Vancouver and Toronto to have secured 50-percent payment on 12,500 season tickets by January 1, 1995.
Orlando and Minnesota, markets with a much greater knowledge and appreciation of NBA basketball, had struggled to reach sales of 10,000 season tickets prior to their teams' debuts in fall 1989. In hockey-crazed Vancouver, even the National Hockey League's Canucks had a ticket base smaller than 12,500.
Sales had reached about 10,000 with 10 days remaining, but on December 21, 1994, the team announced that the nation-wide pharmaceutical chain Shoppers Drug Mart had purchased 2,500 sets of season tickets, pushing the Grizzlies past the magic number to 12,624. Shoppers Drug Mart also helped the Toronto Raptors in similar fashion.
Change at the Top
On March 7, 1995, Griffiths announced that he had surrendered majority control of the Grizzlies, the Canucks, and General Motors Place to Seattle's John McCaw JR. McCaw was a minority shareholder whose family had made its fortune through McCaw Cellular, a wireless-communications giant that had recently completed a multibillion-dollar merger with AT&T.
The Grizzlies Get a Face
On June 19, 1995, Jackson ended months of speculation by introducing Brian Winters as the Vancouver Grizzlies' first head coach. The 43-year-old Winters had spent the past nine seasons (two with the Atlanta Hawks and seven with the Cleveland Cavaliers) as an assistant under Lenny Wilkens, the winningest head coach in league history.
A first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1974, Winters was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team after his first year. The following season he was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks along with Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, and Elmore Smith for the most prolific scorer in league history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Winters went on to finish his career with the Bucks and is one of seven players to have had his jersey retired by the team. He averaged 16.2 points during his NBA career, which ended after the 1982-83 season.
Just five days after Winters' hiring, the Grizzlies and the Raptors selected the nuclei of their inaugural teams during the NBA Expansion Draft. Each of the existing 27 NBA teams was allowed to protect a maximum of eight players and could give up only one. The draft would end when one player had been chosen from each team.
After winning a coin flip, Vancouver elected to take the better pick in the upcoming college draft (sixth overall to Toronto's seventh), thus allowing the Raptors the top pick in the expansion draft. After Toronto selected Chicago Bulls point guard B. J. Armstrong with the first pick, Vancouver answered by selecting New York Knicks point guard Greg Anthony.
Among the top players selected by the Grizzlies during the expansion draft were Indiana Pacers guard Byron Scott, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Gerald Wilkins, and Utah Jazz swingman Blue Edwards. Other NBA veterans included Charlotte Hornets forward Kenny Gattison, New Jersey Nets center Benoit Benjamin, and Washington Bullets forward Larry Stewart. Vancouver also selected Rodney Dent from the Orlando Magic, Antonio Harvey from the Los Angeles Lakers, Reggie Slater from the Denver Nuggets, Trevor Ruffin from the Phoenix Suns, Derrick Phelps from the Sacramento Kings, and Doug Edwards from the Atlanta Hawks. Prior to the expansion draft, Vancouver had signed free-agent point guard Kevin Pritchard (formerly of the Miami Heat) as its first-ever player.
At the 1995 NBA Draft held in Toronto's SkyDome on June 28, the Grizzlies tabbed Oklahoma State's 7-foot, 292-pound center Bryant "Big Country" Reeves as their first-ever college draft pick. Reeves was the first true center selected and the sixth player taken overall. Jackson said he was delighted to get a player of Reeves' offensive capabilities and predicted that the young recruit would grow into one of the NBA's top centers. Looking for ways to sell the game in an untested NBA market, the Grizzlies also felt that Reeves was an especially solid citizen with the country charm to win over new fans. The Grizzlies are born.
1995-97: Team Learns Expansion Lessons
1995-96: Team Takes First Year Knocks
Their first season in the NBA turned out to be a learning experience for the Grizzlies. What they learned is that they'll need to shoot better, rebound better, play better defense and score more points in order to win more games.
As expected, the Grizzlies took their lumps this season, but did give Vancouver fans early cause for excitement with a 2-0 start, spoiling Portland's debut of the Rose Garden with a 92-80 win, then debuting at General Motors Place with a 100-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The progress of rookie center Bryant Reeves, Greg Anthony, Blue Edwards, Eric Mobley and Eric Murdock provided them with some solid pieces around which to build, and Byron Scott showed the veteran leadership that is so vital for young expansion teams. Reeves showed that he was more than worthy of being the sixth player taken in last summer's NBA Draft, averaging 13.3 ppg and 7.4 rpg. He was named to the All-Rookie Second Team.
On the downside, there was a stretch of 23 consecutive losses, the longest single-season losing streak in NBA history, which included a 0-17 March. The Grizzlies had dropped 19 straight at one juncture earlier in the season.
The Grizzlies did end their season just like they started it; with a pair of wins, which Vancouver fans hope is a foreshadowing of things to come.
1996-97: Grizzlies Bear Another Year of Learning
In two years in the NBA, the Vancouver Grizzlies have won 29 games, not so impressive, by say, Chicago's standards, but enough to give Vancouver fans and players a taste of what could transpire around the team's young nucleus.
After winning 15 games last season, the Grizzlies slumped to 14 wins this season, the lowest win total in the league. The Grizzlies were 8-35 when the team's first coach, Brian Winters, was relieved of his duties on Jan. 24.
Team President Stu Jackson took over on the bench, and fared no better, posting a 6-33 record. Even the players themselves knew that it was up to them, not the coach, to manufacture wins. Forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a contender for the Rookie of the Year, and second-year center Bryant "Big Country" Reeves were the focal points of the Grizzlies' offense, and they responded by finishing the season as one of the league's highest-scoring front-court duos.
Abdur-Rahim proved that he is a tough player to defend and drew raves from coaches and general managers all around the league. Unfortunately, without experienced perimeter players to take the pressure off of Abdur-Rahim and Reeves inside, more talented teams overmatched the Grizzlies; their record against teams with a .500 or better record was only 3-35.
Still, though the Grizzlies ended the season losing 10 of their final 12 games, they won their last game of the season in Phoenix against the playoff-bound Suns, 121-107. Fans continued to stand by the Grizzlies, as 16,751 per game came to General Motors Place, where fans saw few wins, but many lessons learned.
1997-99: Entertaining Fans - Still Learning How to Win
1997-98: Headed in the Right Direction The 1997-98 Vancouver Grizzlies had the best season in the team's brief history, finishing their third NBA season with 19 wins under new Head Coach Brian Hill.
The Grizzlies made strides this season under new Hill, who was named the team's third head coach on June 26, 1997. Hill relied heavily upon the team's two marquee players, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bryant Reeves, to carry the offensive load. The pair responded to the task and continued their development, becoming premier NBA players.
Nicknamed "the Future," Abdur-Rahim proved at the age of 21 that his future is now. The second-year pro improved upon his rookie season in nearly every statistical category, in nearly identical minutes. His scoring average soared to 22.3 points, sixth in the NBA, and his shooting improved to 48.3 percent. The versatile forward also averaged 7.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
That sentiment was often true. Abdur-Rahim led the team in scoring in 13 of the team's 18 wins, and in all three games, Jan. 20-24, as the Grizzlies celebrated the first three-game winning streak in team history.
Reeves, one of two players (Blue Edwards is the other) to complete three full seasons with the Grizzlies, also posted his best career numbers. "Big Country" averaged 16.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.08 blocks per game, and was the key to two of the team's biggest wins of the season. He scored 38, including 15 in the final three-and-a-half minutes, to spark a 113-106 win over rival Toronto on March 8. He scored 35 points in Vancouver's 16th win of the year, a 106-95 win over the Clippers on March 23 that set a new team record for wins in a season.
At the trading deadline, the Grizzlies added point guard Bobby Hurley and rebounder Michael Smith from Sacramento in exchange for forward Otis Thorpe and Chris Robinson. Smith and Hurley joined a nucleus that also included double-figure scorers Edwards and Sam Mack, as well as George Lynch, Tony Massenburg, Pete Chilcutt and Lee Mayberry.
That group was to be augmented by point guard Mike Bibby, the Arizona All-American who was selected with the second overall pick in the 1998 Draft.
1998-99: Don't Look Back With exciting young players such as Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Mike Bibby, the Vancouver Grizzlies were focussed on a bright future instead of their 8-42 record during the lockout-shortened season.
Abdur-Rahim posted the best numbers of his three-year career, averaging 23 points (fourth in NBA), 7.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.38 steals and 1.1 blocks. Bibby posted 13.2 points and 6.5 assists per game and was named to the All-Rookie First Team.
The season was particularly frustrating for starting center Bryant Reeves, who missed the final 25 games with a knee injury and averaged a career-low 10.8 points.
2001: Memphis Goes to the Hoop and Scores!
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG Sports fans all across the Mid-South have waited a long time for this moment and it's finally here. With the arrival of the Grizzlies, Mid-Southerners now have major-league sports right in their backyard. The Memphis Grizzlies 2001-02 inaugural season will be many Memphians first time seeing the NBA live. This privilege did not come easily, however. It took collaboration, teamwork, and months of negotiating to bring the Grizzlies from Vancouver to Memphis.
At the mid-point of the 2000-01 season, Michael Heisley, the owner of the Grizzlies, began to reconsider the team's future in Vancouver. A dismal winning record had given the team both low morale and decreasing support in the community. After weighing his options, Heisley decided that it was time for the Grizzlies to move on. The team needed new players, a new home, and a fresh start. With his mind set on relocation, Heisley appealed to the NBA Board of Governors. On February 12, 2001, Commissioner David Stern granted Heisley's wish and began what would prove to be a swift, but intense relocation process.
Memphis, Tennessee was a prime site for relocation because the city is currently undergoing a major renovation. For Memphis, the Grizzlies were the perfect opportunity at the perfect time; however, New Orleans, Anaheim, and Louisville, were all stiff competitors. If the Mid-South wanted a team to call its own it would need strong unified leadership. Enter: City Mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout.
THE MEMPHIS PURSUIT On February 19, 2001 the Grizzlies executive staff traveled to Memphis to meet with Mayors Herenton and Rout. When the staff arrived they were greeted all around town with signs reading NBA NOW. Supporters of the move posted the purple and orange signs in their yards, cars, and businesses. Opinion polls showed that the majority of Memphians wanted the NBA and the community embraced and wooed the Grizzlies executive team during their visit. The courtship was quick because just a month after their first visit to Memphis, the Grizzlies execs were swayed. On March 26, 2001 Michael Heisley applied for permission to relocate his team to Memphis.
Throughout April and May key players in the Memphis bid met with Grizzlies execs to smooth out the details. Fred Smith, Chief Executive Officer of FedEx, which he founded and based in Memphis, agreed to buy naming rights to the new arena. A group of local business people, led by AutoZone founder, J.R. b
Inaugural Season Surpasses Expectations
Grizzlies and Rookies Gain Respect “Beat LA!” “Beat LA!” all around the Pyramid the chant could be heard. It was December 21, 2001, and the Grizzlies faced their second match against the World Champion LA Lakers. The first time around the Grizzlies recorded a tough lost at the Staple Center, but this time the Lakers were treading on Grizzlies ground. “Beat LA!” was the battle cry and the Grizzlies answered the call. When the final shot was released the score board read, Memphis Grizzlies 114, LA Lakers 108. This was the pinnacle of a three-game winning streak for the Grizzlies and one of the many highlights of 2001-2002 season.
The Memphis Grizzlies kicked off their inaugural season on November 1 at home against the Detriot Pistons. Justin Timberlake opened the game with the National Anthem and Isaac Hayes wooed the crowd with a medley featuring America the Beautiful. The Grizzlies recorded their first victory of the season on Saturday, November 17 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a much needed morale boaster after an 8-game losing streak. The Grizzlies closed the season a little stronger than they opened it, winning 4 of their final 8 games and matching their previous season record of 23-59.
The biggest victories for the Grizzlies this season came off the court. The electric combination of Shane Battier and Pau Gasol gave Grizzlies fans many reasons to cheer. Battier became the first rookie to receive the NBA Assist Award for outstanding community service and Pau Gasol took home the prestigious Rookie of the Year honor.
Experience is the Best Teacher With a little experience under their belts, Battier and Gasol will be a big part of improving the Grizzlies game record. So too will Wesley Person, Gordan Giricek, Cezary Trybanski, and other experienced players who have been added to the Grizzlies roster. Together they will have the task of orientating the newcomers Drew Gooden and Robert Archibald who played well in the off-season summer tournaments.
At the close of the 2001-2002 season the Grizzlies added another weapon to their arsenal. Remember that little chant, “Beat LA”, well everything comes full circle. In April, the Grizzlies announced Jerry West as the new President of Basketball Operations. West who has over 40 years of experiences in the NBA, served as a player, coach, and executive for the LA Lakers. West said he came out of retirement for the sole purpose of “building a winning franchise.”
With a roster that fuses fresh and experienced talent, a new den under construction, and a new cub house head, the Grizzlies are posed to bring in big scores this season. The league’s expansion into Memphis has already been a success. As fans across Memphis and the Mid-South prepare for round two, catch phrases, buzz lines, and chants are being etched out. No matter what the call, ain’t nothing like Grizzlies basketball.