First-Place Grizzlies have found a home in Memphis

By: Jacob Scholl

The Memphis Grizzlies are 9-2? They have  best record in the NBA?


Despite those sweet unis, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the Grizzlies struggled mightily in Vancouver. (NBA E/Getty)

It’s true.  Even after losing O.J. Mayo to free agency, the Grizzlies have continued their stint as the NBA’s underdogs that have finally come into their own. With the combination of guards like Rudy Gay and Mike Conley Jr., and big men like Marc Gasol and fan-favorite Z-Bo (Zach Randolph), Memphis has made a splash in the early part of the season.

It’s easy to forget the no-so-good-old-days, when the hapless Grizzlies were considered the laughing stock/bastard child of professional basketball.  As a sort of an acknowledgement of the team’s coming-of-age, the story of the franchise’s dark past should be brought to the light, and show just how far this team has really come.

On April 27, 1994, the Grizzlies were conceived and approved in an NBA boardroom. They were a part of a dual-headed expansion into Canada, with the Toronto Raptors being the other new team.

Not surprisingly, both of the new expansion teams played poorly in their first season. The Vancouver Grizzlies finished with a dismal 15-67 record, falling to last in their division.  The following years would be just as dreary in Vancouver.

The Grizz couldn’t seem to catch a break in almost any aspect of the game. The Grizzlies were so bad that even their draft picks dreaded even going to Vancouver.  In the 1998 Draft, Vancouver took point guard Mike Bibby from Arizona.  Bibby was upset that he was drafted to the Grizzlies, and held out for signing for a good portion of the season.  He still ended up averaging around 13 points  and around 6 dimes in 50 games with the team, and he would go on to play in every game for Vancouver until the franchise moved in 2001-02.

The next year, Vancouver would once again have to deal with an unhappy draft pick, and this time the holdout would be much worse.  Steve Francis was be taken by the Grizz as the second-overall pick in the 1999 Draft.  Francis was hoping to be taken first overall to the Bulls, but Chicago instead went with Elton Brand. Francis openly stated he had no interest in playing for the Grizzlies.  He said that he would not play in Vancouver because of, “the distance from home, taxes, endorsements, and God’s will.” Then-Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon said it best when he called Francis  “one-year wonder who looked very selfish and completely ungrateful.”

After a nasty PR battle with the team and media, the Grizzlies finally dealt Francis to the Houston Rockets. In return, Vacnouver received the paltry sum of Michael Dickerson, and Othella Harrington, among other forgettable players.

Pau Gasol helped lead the Grizz to its first playoff appearance. (Getty)

From 1995 through 2001, the Vancouver Grizzlies would finish last in the Midwest Division every year but one. Every time the Grizzlies obtained a good player, he didn’t stay very long. Not to mention the fact that over the six seasons in Vancouver, the team had five different coaches.  That stat alone should say enough about the team in its first few years.

It’s for all of these reasons that the Grizzlies needed a change of scenery.  But knowing the Grizzlies at this point, you know this wouldn’t go very smoothly.

Before the 2001-2002 season, the people at Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the team, decided that this business experiment had gone on long enough. The company officially put the franchise on the market.  NBA Comish David Stern was heavily opposed to the idea of relocation, because the last time a team had moved was in the early 80’s.  After a meeting with the NBA Board of Governors’ Finance Committee, Stern realized that the Grizzlies would have a very difficult time succeeding fiscally if they stayed put.

So, on January 25, 2001, the Vancouver Grizzlies were sold to Chicago-native Michael Heisley.  Heisley started searching for a new home, almost immediately.  He narrowed down his possibilities down to seven cities: Anaheim, Buffalo, Memphis, New Orleans (the Hornets were still in Charlotte), Louisville, Las Vegas, and San Diego.  Though all cities expressed a great deal of interest in the team, Heisley announced that Memphis would be the new home of the team before the end of the season.

With a new city came a clean slate of luck for this unfortunate franchise. The same year the Grizz moved to the City of Blues, they would pick up two players that would be the cornerstones of the franchise for many years. Memphis would trade for third-pick Pau Gasol, a big man from Spain.  With the sixth pick in the 2002 draft, the Grizzlies took Duke forward Shane Battier. These two would become fan favorites and would draw attention to the team like it had never seen before.

Gasol would become the Rookie of the Year in 2002.  The next season, the franchise hired Hall-of-Famer Jerry West as its G.M. The following year, West was named NBA Executive of the Year. In the same season, head coach Hubie Brown was named NBA Coach of the Year.

This group of Grizzlies has seen some good times in Memphis. (Joe Murphy/

Finally, in 2004, the Grizzlies came out of their proverbial shell.  The team had its first winning season in history, winning 50 games and earning the fifth seed of the Western Conference Playoffs. Even though they were eliminated by the Spurs in four games, this was still a turning point in the Grizzlies’ history.  Memphis would reach the playoffs in each of the next two seasons.

After a few years of the Grizzlies getting back to their old losing ways, Memphis returned to the playoffs as an eight seed in 2011. Then, the Grizzlies orchestrated one of the most spectacular first-round upsets the NBA has ever seen, knocking off the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games. Fan favorite Zach Randolph was the catalyst.

This single moment was the absolute pinnacle of the franchise’s history.  For Grizzlies fans everywhere, the ridicule was over.  Every fan in the FedexForum wore shirts that had “Believe Memphis” across the front.  When the final buzzer sounded, the arena erupted.  The city finally had a winning team they could call their own.  After being rejected for so long, the Grizzlies franchise finally found a city it belonged in.

So, that brings us back to now.  The Grizzlies are among the league’s elite, and the city wouldn’t have it any other way.  This team has given players a first home and others a second chance. Greats like Pau Gasol got their start there, while others like Zach Randolph rekindled their careers there.

The Grizzlies have been to hell and back, and their time is finally here.

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