I’ve always liked basketball. Back in high school, I spent many an afternoon accruing my mandatory 30 hours (and then some) of volunteer experience running the scoreboard or the shot clock in the McRoberts Secondary gymnasium. Go Strikers. That volunteer work was, I like to think, one of the reasons that my best friend’s dad, when he hired his kid, hired me as well to work on the Vancouver Grizzlies’ stats crew.
I loved that club. I sat court-side for four wonderful, terrible seasons. I watched Stockton and Malone run their pick and roll to perfection right in front of me, I saw Michael Jordan play, and I passed Larry Bird in the hallway. I also exchanged pleasantries with Bryant Reeves, who for all his shortcomings as a basketball player is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.
I watched Sam Mack rain three-pointers, Blue Edwards hit clutch shots, and I nearly punched a hole in the wall when a terrible decision erased a Vancouver win against the Lakers in L.A. Regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to know that I once owned the original teal blue Grizzlies road jersey, with who else but Shareef Abdur-Rahim on the back. To the best of my memory, that is the only jersey I have ever purchased that I have later consigned to a donation bin. The Grizzlies, now and forever, can fuck right off.
Why this trip down memory lane? The Vancouver Canucks yesterday announced their 20 Years In 20 Nights promotion to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the opening of Rogers Arena. Among such worthy honourees as the Sedins, the West Coast Express line, and the 1994 black skate jersey, the Canucks have chosen to devote one of the 20 theme nights of the promotion to the city’s former NBA franchise. It is probably, I must admit, a sound marketing play. The Grizzlies brand is enjoying a retro chic period at the moment, with snapbacks bearing the old basketball-gripping bear logo seemingly everywhere around town. That doesn’t make it right.
There was something kinda fun about supporting a team like the Grizzlies. I assume this is why the Cubs and Leafs still have, against all reason, such strong followings. Maybe it’s because they never, ever won easily. It was always a last-second jumper that blew the roof off the arena. Maybe it was just the camaraderie of shared pain.
Whatever the reason, my enduring memory of the club is not Blue Edwards hitting a game winner against the Sixers and then sprinting off the court. Nor is it Antoine Carr endearing himself to every fan in the building by intentionally fouling Steve Francis, knocking him to the floor before stepping over him and raising his arm to take the foul.
No, my most vivid memory of my time with the Grizzlies is from March 29, 2001. The team was just back from an eight-game, 18-day road trip. Three days earlier, the possibility of relocation had been changed to a reality. Our crew usually arrived at least an hour prior to the game, had a quick meeting, then dispersed to grab a bite. When my buddy and I came in this time, the conference room was empty. Unusual. Looking around for our colleagues we eventually wandered out court-side, and there they were. We joined them, sitting there watching the team warm up to face the Knicks. Nobody spoke.
We’d all known it was a possibility. The league had already blocked a move to St. Louis earlier in the year. Michael Heisley, the new owner, had said he was keeping the team in Vancouver, even sung the national anthem before one of the games, but rumours started up almost immediately that he was looking for a new city to take the club to. Now it was official, and that reality was setting in.
It was crushing. Relocation is always crushing to a club’s supporters, few though they may be. Are there moments that will be remembered fondly? Sure. And the Canucks are going to play on those. They’ll play the clip of Chris King winning the team’s first match with a buzzer-beating lay-in. They’ll play Blue Edwards beating the Sixers. Probably they won’t mention that in the club’s best season they managed a 23-59 record. And they definitely won’t mention that they pulled the plug only three years before turning the corner and achieving a degree of respectability. The Canucks don’t seem to realize that fond memories don’t make up for what the Grizzlies did. The Vancouver Grizzlies ripped the hearts out of their supporters without even bothering to find out whether a successful team could have been viable in our fair city. The Canucks have no business celebrating them.