Founded in 1995 to commence play in the 1995/96 season, the Vancouver Grizzlies would sport a superb turquoise jersey and play in a brand new downtown stadium. 

Everything seemed to be in place for the surging NBA to find success in two of Canada’s prime cities, Vancouver and Toronto, but the expansion only worked for half of those teams involved. 

By 2001, the Vancouver Grizzlies had moved across the border and to the south-eastern state of Tennessee, now playing as the Memphis Grizzlies. 

So, what really happened to the Vancouver Grizzlies, and how did their rapid demise come to pass?

What’s the History of the Vancouver Grizzlies?

The short history of the Vancouver Grizzlies is that they were one of two Canadian expansion teams to enter the NBA in 1995, played for six seasons, and, after multiple ownership sales, were permitted to relocate. 

GM Place, which would also be the home of Vancouver’s NHL team, the Canucks, looked to be the ideal, shiny, and attractive home in a perfect part of a buzzing city. Everything was in place. 

However, in six seasons, the Grizzlies would only climb higher than seventh in the Midwest Division once, moving from seventh to sixth in 1997/98, and could never put up more than 23 wins in a single campaign. 

For much of the run of the Grizzlies in Vancouver, Stu Jackson played as team manager – and even head coach for a short spell – overseeing team building, drafting, and head coach selection.

In the end, there’d be five different head coaches in just six seasons for the Grizzlies, with the Jackson-built team never seeming to gel with any of the coaches or each other enough to produce wins. 

Off the court, the Grizzlies franchise also changed hands over this short spell. First, it changed hands in 1995, and then again in 2000. It was this final sale to Michael Heisley from John McCraw that quickly led to relocation. 

To get the Grizzlies out of Vancouver, on top of the $160 million already paid under the guise of keeping the team in the British Columbia city, Heisley built a new arena in Memphis, and that swung the NBA to permit the move. 

Now, the team is known as the Memphis Grizzlies: a franchise that has ended up flourishing under steady management. Having built a strong core through the draft, the Grizzlies are at +1400 to win the championship in the NBA odds.

Why did the Vancouver Grizzlies Need to Relocate?

The Vancouver Grizzlies needed to locate because basketball franchises are, above all else, a business, and the owners could see that six years in the Canadian city only resulted in failures across the board.

Not one single entity or reason can really be pointed to for why the Grizzlies had to be moved, but rather, many issues that were constantly chipping away at the potential success of the NBA team in Canada. 

Here’re some of the more prominent reasons why it didn’t work in Vancouver and why the Grizzlies had to move to Tennessee.

1) Team Building Failures

General manager Stu Jackson never managed to create a functional team from the options available to him and the franchise. On top of this, some eyebrow-raising decisions were made in the front office. 

He wasn’t granted much cap space, but he decided to sign his sixth-overall pick from the 1995 draft, who averaged 12.5 points in his six-year career, Bryant Reeves, to a US$65 million deal over six years by 1997. 

This was despite the team working under a league-imposed restricted salary cap, which the team endured for a couple of seasons as part of the expansion deal.

Jackson would then gravitate towards drafting players from the same position with high picks in successive years or even within the same drafts. Mike Bibby being followed by Steve Francis in 1998 and 1999 is the prime example.

Francis reportedly told the franchise that he didn’t want to play for Vancouver, but Jackson selected him second overall anyway. 

He then had to trade Francis to the Houston Rockets without much of an effort to keep the eventual three-time All-Star in Vancouver. 

2) Losses Followed By Losses

The Vancouver Grizzlies bowed out of BC with a record of 101 wins and 359 losses – which is a win percentage of just .220 – and never made it to the playoffs. 

This was to be expected from a new franchise that built its initial team through an expansion draft, but six seasons of lofty picks didn’t yield any real progress on the court. 

The high point, ironically, came in the team’s last season in downtown Vancouver, 2000/01, which ended with a 23-59 record. 

Still, the low point came in the team’s fourth campaign. Even though it was shortened to 50 games, the 8-42 record holds the .160 win percentage as the franchise’s very worst.

3) Draft Restrictions And Poor Picks

We’ve already been over the Steve Francis debacle, but another draft element that helped to inhibit the Vancouver Grizzlies was put on them by the NBA itself. 

As a part of the expansion agreement, neither the Grizzlies nor Toronto Raptors were allowed to get the first-overall pick in 1996, 1997, or 1998 – their first three drafts. 

Both teams won the draft lottery during this time, and both had to give up the top pick. For the Grizzlies, this meant taking Mike Bibby second overall, passing on the likes of Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, and Dirk Nowitzki. 

The team’s third-overall pick in 1996, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, would turn out to be somewhat of a gem for the Grizzlies, but little else paid off or was in Vancouver long enough to help the team in Canada.

Over six disastrous seasons in the NBA, the Grizzlies were perpetually amongst the high odds of the draft lottery but never got to use the first overall selection. 

Of course, you don’t need the very first pick to get a top-class player, as Jaren Jackson Jr is proving for the Memphis Grizzlies this season, in at -150 to win Defensive Player of the Year in the basketball betting.

4) Cost Of Doing Business

Cited as a primary inhibitor was the relative lack of value in the Canadian dollar compared to the US dollar, which was what all those under an NBA contract – players and coaches – were paid in each season. 

As such, the cost of paying those USD salaries was very high, and the team was seemingly unwilling to invest in major local business deals, connect with the right people, or engage in strong marketing campaigns. 

The lockout season of 1998/99 proved to kill any budding momentum being held by the team. Prior, it was averaging 16,645 in attendance per season – although the peak was in 95/96 and the low was in 97/98.

Still, after the lockout season, attendance plummeted to 13,899 in 1999/00 and then a little lower to 13,737 in 2000/01.

It had already proved somewhat difficult for McCaw to make a profit in Vancouver up to the turn of the millennium, but also said to be factoring in was his Seattle base: local businesses didn’t want to work with a non-local owner.

Many factors contributed to the downfall of the Vancouver Grizzlies, but at least it panned out for the Toronto Raptors under steadfast ownership and a savvy front office to keep Canada in the NBA.

*Credit for all images in this article belongs to AP Photo*

Ben is very much a sports nerd, being obsessed with statistical deep dives and the numbers behind the results and performances.

Top of the agenda are hockey, soccer, and boxing, but there's always time for the NFL, cricket, Formula One, and a bit of mixed martial arts.