Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the Vancouver Grizzlies home opener at GM Place, (now known as Rogers Arena). I miss the Grizzlies a lot, some weeks I think about it, but also some weeks I’m too busy to remember what it was like. However, one of my favorite birthday presents was a black #3 Shareef Abdur-Rahim jersey. Back on Monday night at Rogers Arena, Shareef Abdur-Rahim himself was on hand to drop the puck at the ceremonial face-off as it was Vancouver Grizzlies night.
Unfortunately, when a franchise has one of its’ best moments in their tenure on the opening night, it’s a sign of a downfall. And this was the case for Vancouver, who let’s be honest, after their opening night win over the Minnesota Timberwolves at the buzzer, their well-known franchise went down hill from there.
Most of my memories of the Grizzlies were watching them on TV for the first half, then crawling into bed to listen to the second half. At first it was cool to have a team to call my own, but yet again I had nothing to compare it to. For most basketball expansion teams, the timetable for success doesn’t occur until the fourth year, where rosters are finally established and the head coach has found benefit behind his staff.
Although for some reason, even amidst turmoil, the Grizzlies still embodied an exciting atmosphere with make-shift talent. For the first three years the Grizzlies struggled. Winning 15, 14, and 19 games respectively. In the 1996 draft, the Grizzlies had the third pick. With Allen Iverson taken off the board at #1 when the 76ers selected him, the Grizzlies still had a lot to choose from in the first round. The likes of Ray Allen, future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant and what turned out to be the Wayne Gretzky of basketball, Steve Nash, was available. Instead of taking a hall of famer, the Grizzlies worked outside the box and selected Cal stand-out and Pac 10 player of the year, Shareef Abdur-Rahim. As most scenarios would indicate when you select an average first round pick, things would eventually go horribly wrong.
Things did go wrong for Vancouver fast once the 1998 draft came up. This time with the Grizzlies holding the #2 overall pick, surely they wouldn’t mess this one up. But again, with notable names such as Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki still on the board. The Grizzlies stuck with limited options, and went with another Pac 10 player in Mike Bibby. Up to now, it’s a mystery to why the organization chose this selection, as in many ways this ended up dooming the franchise one final time. At the very end, there were three future Hall-of-Famers the Grizzlies passed over.
In 1999, things took a turn for the worst. The NBA season was shortened because of a strike. The Grizzlies winning percentage dropped to a franchise low 38%. In the 1999 NBA draft, the Grizzlies drafted Steve Francis and while it seemed like a good pick knowingly. Unfortunately, Francis didn’t want to play in Vancouver and demanded a trade. He was traded for Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington, Antoine Carr and Brent Price. Also included in this deal were first and second round picks. This was a huge turning point in the Grizzlies tenure in Vancouver. In the late 1990’s, Vancouver wasn’t the same city it was and leading up to the 2010 Olympics, that lust has turned absent. People around the city thought it was too far away, or it snowed too much. Both of which were untrue and therefore, was hard to attract key free agents at the time.
The next year, attendance started to plummet and more importantly, so did the weak Canadian dollar. Rumor had it, that the Grizzlies were going on their way to St. Louis. Fortunately, that deal never happened, but grizzlies in Vancouver were for sure starting to be an endangered species. The team was improving but so was the Western Conference. In their final year in Vancouver, my family went to opening night against Gary Payton and the Seattle Super Sonics. Even thinking about the Sonics leaving hurts too. Anyway, it was Halloween, and my costume that night was Super Grizz the Grizzlies mascot. I got picked as a finalist to be eligible to go onto the floor during a timeout. When I was walking off, I received a high-five from Patrick Ewing as I shuffled past the Sonics bench. The Grizzlies ended up beating the Sonics that night 94-88, en route to a 2-0 start for the first and only time for the franchise.
In the end, the NBA ruined the Grizzlies for having a rule that the Grizzlies couldn’t pick #1. AKA the Orlando Magic rule. The draft picks didn’t help and neither did Vancouver’s front office decisions. To this day, my dad and I still avoid Wal-Mart as much as we can. I’m not sure why, but a best guess would be because it has something to do with the Grizzlies sale to Memphis. At the time, I enforced a plan to be the only Memphis Grizzlies fan in British Columbia. Since then, that dream has faded considering Memphis isn’t your typical American family holiday destination.
As for a team returning? This is just as likely as the Canucks winning the Stanley Cup one day. I’ll leave that for anyone to discuss openly, whether it’s easy to tell or not.
To finalize, the city of Vancouver currently has no professional championships to show for, and that in itself isn’t in any form of changing. But dating back to nearly two decades ago, where multiple sports franchises resided, the fun occupying Vancouver didn’t connect along the ice rink, but instead on the hard-wood. Where a basketball sentiment that still today remains a riddle wrapped beneath the corridors of the northern province.