The NBA Settles North of the Border

he Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA for the 1995-96 season, along with the Toronto Raptors, as part of the league's two-pronged expansion into Canada. Vancouver and Toronto became the first non-U.S. cities to join the league since 1946-47, when the Toronto Huskies were one-year members of the NBA's forerunner, the Basketball Association of America.

After being officially accepted into the fold by the NBA's Board of Governors on April 27, 1994, Vancouver became the league's 29th franchise. The suddenness of the acceptance came as a shock to the Vancouver sporting public. The last time there had been any talk of an NBA franchise coming to Canada's west coast was in the early 1980s, when local entrepreneur Nelson Skalbania mounted an unsuccessful bid to lure the league north of the border.

A decade later, in late February 1993, local sports magnate Arthur Griffiths revealed that he was attempting to secure an NBA franchise for the city. Upon learning that the league had re-formed its expansion committee to debate the merits of an interested group from Toronto, Griffiths decided that Vancouver had enough merits of its own that he could sell the league on a two-city expansion. Griffiths' company, Northwest Sports Enterprises, was the majority owner of the National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks, and Griffiths already had plans to construct a privately funded 20,000-seat arena in the city's downtown core. The plans called for the arena to be completed in time for both the 1995-96 hockey and basketball seasons, according perfectly with the NBA's expansion hopes.

The Grizzlies' ownership, then known simply as the Vancouver Basketball Partnership, travelled to Minneapolis during All-Star Weekend and on Valentine's Day 1994 received preliminary franchise approval from the league's Expansion Committee. That move paved the way for full approval from the NBA during its Board of Governors meeting in New York City on April 27, 1994.

The franchise fee for both Vancouver and Toronto was set at $125 million, far more than the $32.5 million the last four expansion teams had paid during the four-team, two-phase expansion of 1988 and 1989.

Lottery Issue Resolved
The franchise agreements signed by both Vancouver and Toronto contained a number of conditions that had to be met before full approval could be granted. One condition in particular threatened to rob both cities of their teams well in advance of the projected November 1995 tip-offs.

To preserve the integrity of the NBA game, Commissioner David J. Stern required the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario to abolish any wagering on his league's games prior to the 1995-96 season. In British Columbia that meant removing NBA contests from the provincial government-controlled Sports Action betting games, in which players who correctly predicted the point spreads of at least three NBA games won cash prizes. In 1993, BC bettors shelled out some $1.56 million Canadian on NBA games, with a large portion of the money dedicated to health care services in the province.

Public opposition to the league's stance was fierce in both provinces. How could a professional sports league dictate policy to foreign governments, especially when the lotteries did so much to insure a high level of health care?

In the end, BC Premier Michael Harcourt, himself a BC high school basketball player of some renown in the 1950s worked together with Griffiths and the NBA to achieve a final resolution. On February 9, 1994, just prior to their trip to Minneapolis, Griffiths' group agreed to contribute $500,000 per year for five years (beginning in 1995). Half of the proceeds were donated to a hospice for needy children and the other half to the BC health care system, in exchange for having all NBA games removed from Sports Action.

The argument Griffiths successfully made to Harcourt was that a total of $10 million in taxes would be generated each year by the Vancouver NBA franchise, to the benefit of both the provincial and federal governments.

The Super Boss
On July 22, 1994, the Vancouver NBA group, still working without a team name, hired Stu Jackson as the team's first general manager and vice president of basketball operations. Jackson, head coach of the New York Knicks for 1989-90 and part of 1990-91, was lured away from his spot as head coach at the University of Wisconsin to take on the challenge of building an NBA club in Vancouver. For five months the team had been operating without any employee holding prior NBA experience.

Griffiths was drawn to Jackson because of the rave reviews Jackson had received from both Stern and NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik. Jackson had worked with both men while he was employed in the league's front office following his stint as the Knicks' coach.

Jackson immediately hired a scouting department, headed by former Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Larry Riley, and the four-man team made plans to evaluate the talent pool that would become available in both the expansion and college drafts in late June 1995.

The Name Game
On August 11, 1994, the Vancouver Basketball Partnership officially became the Vancouver Grizzlies.

During ceremonies held amid totem poles at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, Jackson and Griffiths announced the name and revealed the team logo of the fierce animal indigenous to Canada's westernmost province. Primary team colors were turquoise, bronze, and red.

Ticket Tales
Another of the NBA's more difficult stipulations for full franchise approval was for both Vancouver and Toronto to have secured 50-percent payment on 12,500 season tickets by January 1, 1995.

Orlando and Minnesota, markets with a much greater knowledge and appreciation of NBA basketball, had struggled to reach sales of 10,000 season tickets prior to their teams' debuts in fall 1989. In hockey-crazed Vancouver, even the National Hockey League's Canucks had a ticket base smaller than 12,500.

Sales had reached about 10,000 with 10 days remaining, but on December 21, 1994, the team announced that the nation-wide pharmaceutical chain Shoppers Drug Mart had purchased 2,500 sets of season tickets, pushing the Grizzlies past the magic number to 12,624. Shoppers Drug Mart also helped the Toronto Raptors in similar fashion.

Change at the Top
On March 7, 1995, Griffiths announced that he had surrendered majority control of the Grizzlies, the Canucks, and General Motors Place to Seattle's John McCaw JR. McCaw was a minority shareholder whose family had made its fortune through McCaw Cellular, a wireless-communications giant that had recently completed a multibillion-dollar merger with AT&T.

The Grizzlies Get a Face
On June 19, 1995, Jackson ended months of speculation by introducing Brian Winters as the Vancouver Grizzlies' first head coach. The 43-year-old Winters had spent the past nine seasons (two with the Atlanta Hawks and seven with the Cleveland Cavaliers) as an assistant under Lenny Wilkens, the winningest head coach in league history.

A first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1974, Winters was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team after his first year. The following season he was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks along with Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, and Elmore Smith for the most prolific scorer in league history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Winters went on to finish his career with the Bucks and is one of seven players to have had his jersey retired by the team. He averaged 16.2 points during his NBA career, which ended after the 1982-83 season.

Just five days after Winters' hiring, the Grizzlies and the Raptors selected the nuclei of their inaugural teams during the NBA Expansion Draft. Each of the existing 27 NBA teams was allowed to protect a maximum of eight players and could give up only one. The draft would end when one player had been chosen from each team.

After winning a coin flip, Vancouver elected to take the better pick in the upcoming college draft (sixth overall to Toronto's seventh), thus allowing the Raptors the top pick in the expansion draft. After Toronto selected Chicago Bulls point guard B. J. Armstrong with the first pick, Vancouver answered by selecting New York Knicks point guard Greg Anthony.

Among the top players selected by the Grizzlies during the expansion draft were Indiana Pacers guard Byron Scott, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Gerald Wilkins, and Utah Jazz swingman Blue Edwards. Other NBA veterans included Charlotte Hornets forward Kenny Gattison, New Jersey Nets center Benoit Benjamin, and Washington Bullets forward Larry Stewart. Vancouver also selected Rodney Dent from the Orlando Magic, Antonio Harvey from the Los Angeles Lakers, Reggie Slater from the Denver Nuggets, Trevor Ruffin from the Phoenix Suns, Derrick Phelps from the Sacramento Kings, and Doug Edwards from the Atlanta Hawks. Prior to the expansion draft, Vancouver had signed free-agent point guard Kevin Pritchard (formerly of the Miami Heat) as its first-ever player.

At the 1995 NBA Draft held in Toronto's SkyDome on June 28, the Grizzlies tabbed Oklahoma State's 7-foot, 292-pound center Bryant "Big Country" Reeves as their first-ever college draft pick. Reeves was the first true center selected and the sixth player taken overall. Jackson said he was delighted to get a player of Reeves' offensive capabilities and predicted that the young recruit would grow into one of the NBA's top centers. Looking for ways to sell the game in an untested NBA market, the Grizzlies also felt that Reeves was an especially solid citizen with the country charm to win over new fans. The Grizzlies are born.