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It happened in Vancouver before
by Ed Willes / May 16, 2002

The arthouse epic Men In Black proposed that space aliens live among us and, every now and then, a rogue extraterrestrial will attempt to take over the world. On those occasions a special police force is assigned to hunt down the offending alien. When they've completed their mission, they then use a gadget called a neuralizer to wipe out the memory of any humans who came in contact with the intruders. This tends to cut down on mass hysteria. It also explains why few people outside of Tennessee can remember meeting a Martian.

And this brings us around to the Vancouver Grizzlies. One year after the fact, can anyone remember the Grizzlies? Did they really exist or is it just a bad dream? When they arrived in the fall of '95, they were a symbol, our validation that Vancouver was a major North American sports market. Now, well let's just say if they're missed, we're doing an awfully good job of hiding the pain.

Maybe, like in Men In Black, someone zapped our collective memory banks. Or maybe we just fell into a time portal and we're back to where we were in the summer of '95. Either way it's a little eerie because there is little evidence they were ever here. When the Grizzlies left town, there was a fear they'd leave a hole in the city. A year later, it's feels like we lost a Burger King franchise, not an NBA franchise.

"Even though I was as close to the team as you could be, it's like I never had the job," says Al Murdoch, the Grizzlies' public-address announcer. "I miss it. I just don't miss all that other stuff. I think that's the way it is with the majority of the people. They look back and go, 'We're they even here?' "

Well, we're they?

"There was a group of 10,000 to 12,000 who were tremendous basketball fans," Stu Jackson, the one-time GM, president and face of the franchise, says from the NBA office in New York. "But the fact was NBA basketball was never part of the culture in this city and didn't occupy the minds of sports fans any longer than the night of the games."

And these are people who loved the Grizzlies, Day 1ers who were connected to the franchise in a very meaningful way. Elsewhere around Vancouver, the reaction to the Grizz's departure is equally underwhelming.

Jack Scott, the Canadian-flag waving season-ticket holder who sat behind the Grizzlies' bench says: "Life goes on. They're history. They're toast. I have no animosity but they aren't here so what's the point."

This season, Scott bought a six-game mini-pack to Seattle Supersonics' games. He went to the first three then gave the rest to his son. "Couldn 't get into it," he says.

Brian Burtwell was another charter season-tickets holder. He was asked if he misses the Grizzlies. "With the season-ticket money I took my family to Mexico for a week," he answered. "And we didn't have to sit through one loss while we were there." We can take that as a no, then.

It wasn't always this way, of course. They arrived amid great excitement and genuine optimism. They enjoyed a honeymoon period. Then it started. They traded for Otis Thorpe, the veteran who would give the franchise some credibility, and he didn't like it here. They traded for Doug West, another veteran, he immediately drank "17 Heinekens" and went into rehab. They drafted Bryant Reeves who, of course, loved it here. They drafted Steve Francis and God told him to keep away from Vancouver. We could go on. But it's getting depressing all over again.

"It was, at best, a brief stay and it never got the support it needed from the areas they had to have support," said Arthur Griffiths, the Grizzlies original owner. "They were handicapped by the league's expansion agreement. I still think if we had a Vince Carter or been able to keep Francis, the team would still be here. But every chance we had always seemed to go sideways. We never caught a break."

That's, at least, is the way the fans would like to remember it. Jackson, however, says it never had a chance. "When you're trying to build a franchise, you never want to entertain the fact it's not really happening," says the NBA's vice-president of basketball operations (?). "But by Year 3 and 4, it was apparent it was going to be a difficult task.

"We knew the expansion process was going to be difficult. But the real slap in the head was looking at the books and the projections."

Looking at the team, sadly, wasn't much better. Still, there were nights, electric, memorable nights, when the Grizzlies transcended the dark forces aligned against them and GM Place became alive. If you were there, you remember those nights. If you were there, you wonder how anyone can say this isn't a basketball town.

"I look back at those games," said Murdoch. "The night we beat LA and Del Harris got fired the next day. The games Steve Francis came to town. The game Michael Jordan was here. "There were all those nights we were so close. You wonder if we would have had that one player or that one general manager. Maybe that's all we needed."

Looking back, it doesn't seem too much to ask "For me it's the games," said Griffiths. "I watch the highlights now and my heart still gets pumping. That's when I think, I really do miss sitting there watching the games."

OTHER DEEP THOUGHTS ON THE GRIZZLIES

Stu Jackson, former GM and president, on whether he ever second-guesses some of his decisions:
"All the time (laughs) and I probably will all my career. I think about all the what-ifs. There are probably a lot of general managers who wish they would have drafted Paul Pierce."

Jackson on whether he's ever talked to Steve Francis: "I've talked to Steve a couple of times. I see him maturing and I see a very likeable young man. I don't hold any animosity towards him."

Debbie Butt, former Grizzlies' manager of media relations: "I felt the bitterness from fans. They were the ones who'd supported the team all along and they were getting the bad end of the deal. I felt for the season-ticket holder who was in Seat 101 who I walked by every game night. I felt horrible for them. But, emotionally, you have to get over it. It was a great experience. There were good parts and bad parts. You take what you will and you move on."

Jay Triano, former Grizzlies' director of community relations, color man and the only person to see every minute of every Grizzlies' game: "I think people will remember the losing. It never did get any better. There was always this sense of optimism around the team. It never amounted to any wins. But I look at the attendance in places like Atlanta and Charlotte and it's a shame Vancouver lost its franchise before some of these cities."

Brian Burtwell, former season-ticket holder: "It's a hockey town. There's no doubt about that but I think it's a hockey town to a fault. We've lost triple-A baseball and the NBA. You just go 100 miles down the road (to Seattle) and you can see a team who could be in the World Series, you see a basketball team that's always solid, you see the Seahawks about to move into a new stadium. I guess it's a different world with a different set of priorities."

Ed Willes is a columnist for The Province of Vancouver

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