The Vancouver Grizzlies were the worst franchise in NBA history.
From 1995 to 2001, Vancouver was home to the Grizzlies. Mostly remembered for their garish turquoise, bronze and red jerseys, the organization went an abysmal 101-359. The Grizz posted the worst record in the NBA in three of their six seasons in the league. Vancouver never made the playoffs and their best winning percentage was .280, which they achieved during their final season in British Columbia. A total of 62 players laced up their sneakers for the Vancouver Grizzlies. Not one was ever named to an NBA All-Star team.
The Grizzlies had an NBA-worst 15-67 record in their first season, including a league-record 23 straight losses at one point from February to April. In 1996-97, they had one less win than the previous season, winning an NBA-low 14 games.
Prior to 1995, the only pro basketball team ever to play in Canada was the Toronto Huskies, who played a single season in 1946-47 before folding. The Huskies played in the Basketball Association of America, which was a forerunner to the NBA. In the early 1990s, the NBA decided to expand into Canada. The league’s Expansion Committee voted to place teams in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, and Vancouver, the fourth-most densely populated city in North America. The franchise was purchased by Vancouver executive Arthur Griffiths, who paid $125 million to join the NBA, up from the $32 million expansion fee paid by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic during the league’s most recent expansion in 1988.
Assigned to the Midwest Division of the Western Conference, the Grizzlies officially became the NBA’s 29th franchise in April 1994.
Arthur Griffiths inherited the NHL Vancouver Canucks from his father in 1988. Looking to replace the aging Pacific Coliseum, he financed the construction of General Motors Place, a sparkling new arena in downtown Vancouver that would serve as home to both the Canucks and Grizzlies. Griffiths overspent on GM Place, forcing him to sell his majority ownership stake in the arena, Grizzlies and Canucks to Seattle billionaire John McCaw Jr. in 1996.
Things went in two very different directions following the NBA’s expansion into Canada in 1995. In their first season, the Toronto Raptors were third in the league in attendance, while the Grizzlies were 14th. As the years went by the Raptors quickly gained popularity, mostly because of Vinsanity – the hysteria that surrounded superstar forward Vince Carter. While Toronto went on to lead the NBA in attendance for three straight years, Vancouver was losing a lot and did not have a legitimate franchise player. Interest waned, and in their last two seasons in B.C., the Grizzlies were third-worst in the league in attendance, averaging 13,000 per game.
Citing mounting losses – president of basketball operations Dick Versace estimated the team lost $89 million in two years – McCaw announced in 1999 that the Grizzlies, Canucks and GM Place were for sale. In 2000, the Grizzlies were purchased by Chicago businessman Michael Heisley for $160 million. The new owner promised to keep the team in Vancouver for at least five years. After complaining he was losing too much money, Heisley moved the franchise to Memphis just one year later.
Several factors contributed to the Grizzlies becoming extinct in B.C. During the team’s brief stint in Vancouver, the Canadian dollar was a mere 70 cents to $1 USD. The organization was paying its players – its biggest expense – in U.S. dollars while taking in most of its revenue in Canadian dollars, thus losing 30 percent in the exchange. Canada was suffering from a lackluster economy in the second half of the 1990s. For most of its existence, the team was owned by U.S. businessmen, resulting in a lack of local corporate sponsors. And the NBA played a role by not doing much to promote basketball in Vancouver.
When Vancouver was awarded an expansion franchise in 1994, the club’s owners had plans to name the team the Mounties. The Royal Mounted Canadian Police objected, so team officials resumed their search for a name. The local newspaper sponsored a name-the-team contest, and Grizzlies was chosen over Ravens.
Organizationally, the Grizzlies made horrific personnel decisions which was reflected in the poor product they put on the floor. Despite having the worst record in the NBA three times in six seasons, Vancouver never received the first overall pick in the draft. Their inaugural draft came in 1995. After Minnesota took Kevin Garnett fifth, the Grizzlies spent the sixth pick on Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, who spent all six of his NBA seasons with Vancouver. In year two, they passed on Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Ray Allen to select Shareef Abdur-Rahim. In 1997, Vancouver chose Antonio Daniels, who survived only one season with the team. The Grizzlies selected Stromile Swift second overall in 2000. A bust who averaged just over eight points in nine NBA seasons, Swift ended his career in China as a member of the Shandong Lions.
The biggest black eye ever suffered by the NBA’s most moribund franchise came at the hands of Steve Francis. After drafting the explosive playmaker with the second overall pick of the 1999 draft, all hell broke loose in Vancouver. Before the draft, Francis had publicly announced that he did not want to play for the Grizzlies. After being selected, things got more contentious, with Francis citing the distance from his Maryland home, taxes, lack of endorsement opportunities and “God’s will” as reasons for his disdain for the franchise and the city. Following an incident at Vancouver International Airport in which he and his entourage were mistaken for a rap group, Francis got his wish. Prior to the start of the 1999-2000 season, Francis was traded to the Houston Rockets in a three-team, 11-player deal. It was the largest trade in NBA history.
No player – for better or worse – was more synonymous with the Vancouver Grizzlies than Reeves, the seven-foot hayseed from Oklahoma State. Reeves averaged just over 16 points per game in his second season and the Grizzlies rewarded him with a six-year, $62 million contract extension. The deal proved a bust for Vancouver. While Big Country’s productivity dropped, his weight did not. By 2001, Reeves – who had ballooned to over 300 pounds — was out of basketball.
In 2001, the Grizzlies migrated south to Memphis for the winter – and stayed forever.
Maybe it was the Canadian dollar. Maybe it was Steve Francis. Maybe Michael Heisley moved the team prematurely. Or maybe the team was just that bad and couldn’t be brought back from the dead while still playing in Canada. Whatever the reasons, the Grizzlies barely left a legacy in Vancouver, almost like they were never there. The team lost its sense of identity and purpose in a hockey town, which led to their demise.
On this date in 1994, the Vancouver Grizzlies hired Wisconsin Badgers head coach Stu Jackson as General Manager. Halfway into their second season, Jackson fired Brian Winters and inserted himself as head coach. Jackson was the second of five different head coaches the franchise had during its six years in Vancouver. He guided the club to an NBA-low 14 wins, one fewer than the Grizz had won the previous season.
The Grizz played their last game in Vancouver April 14, 2001. Over 18,000 fans showed up to say goodbye. True to form, the worst franchise in NBA history lost to the Houston Rockets, 100-95. It was Vancouver’s 58th loss in 80 games. Houston was paced by Steve Francis, who scored 14 points.