MikeCheck: As Grizzlies debut ‘throwback’ digs, Clarke bridges franchise’s stylish Vancouver roots to bright Memphis future

At the time, Brandon Clarke was two years old.

The rest of the details are a bit sketchy.

Clarke doesn’t remember the exact game, opponent or result. He simply believes he was in the original arena, because his family once told him so. Born on Sept. 19, 1996 in Vancouver, Clarke is the lone current member of the Grizzlies’ roster with a direct link to the team’s past in the Pacific Northwest.

“Obviously, I was way too young to remember anything about it,” Clarke said of his toddler years in Vancouver coinciding with the Grizzlies’ formative years as a NBA expansion franchise. “All I know is they took me to one of the games. It was a pretty big deal. It’s just cool to know I was there.”

That connection comes full circle on Saturday, and it’s a quarter of a century in the making. When Clarke and his teammates don their uniforms and step onto the FedExForum court for Saturday’s game against the Lakers, it’ll feel like they’ve ventured into a turquoise time machine.

The Grizzlies will be wearing one of their two “throwback” uniforms and playing on a newly designed alternate court in celebration of the franchise’s 25th year of existence overall, and its upcoming 20th season in Memphis. Launched as an NBA expansion franchise alongside the Toronto Raptors in 1995, the Grizzlies spent their first six years in Vancouver before the organization relocated to Memphis in 2001.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Roy Rogers

The team’s original primary colors of turquoise, bronze, red and black were used through the initial seasons in Vancouver, giving the Grizzlies a look that was as unique and vibrant as their first home city. The ‘Vancouver Edition’ uniforms feature the Canadian Pacific Northwest pattern outline, with ‘Grizzlies’ displayed across the chest and the original bear logo stitched on the left leg of the shorts.

Saturday marks the first of 10 home games this season during which the Grizzlies will wear the Vancouver-themed uniforms. For the 2020-21 season, the franchise will unveil the ‘Memphis Classic Edition’ uniforms, which commemorate the Grizzlies’ first seasons in the Bluff City.

At the team’s photo shoot this week to preview the uniforms and court design, several players were as excited to try on the new gear step onto the alternate court as they were to play in last month’s season opener. Half of the players on Memphis’ roster were not born when the team debuted in Vancouver, but there’s a tremendous sense of pride among those who’ll get to revive the vintage stylings.

Count rookie point guard Ja Morant in the group of players who have used their social media accounts to share photos and videos of themselves in the Vancouver Edition jersey and shorts. Morant, who campaigned to wear the Vancouver digs even before the team announced plans to bring back the uniforms, hardly wanted to take off his No. 12 turquoise Grizzlies jersey earlier this week.

“These are fire,” a smiling Morant said as he darted through the arena between photo shoot locations. “I’ve been waiting a long time to play in these. I can’t wait to get out there in these.”

As rookie first-round picks, the 20-year-old Morant and 23-year-old Clarke are foundational pieces of the franchise’s immediate future. But when on the court Saturday, they’ll be connected to a past group of players, coaches, executives and fans who laid the framework through the team’s fledgling yet fashionable early years.

Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke throwback

Selected third overall in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Grizzlies, forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim was the franchise’s first star player. He averaged at least 20 points in each of the team’s final four seasons in Vancouver, where the team peaked with a 23-59 record during the 2000-01 season, its last in Canada.

All these years later, Abdur-Rahim is amused by how those funky turquois uniforms his teammates once frowned upon in Vancouver are now viewed as “fire” and embraced by a new generation of Grizzlies.

“The crazy thing is that we hated those uniforms at the time,” Abdur-Rahim told Grind City Media this week. “We liked the home white uniforms, and then a couple of years later, we had some alternate black uniforms that we liked. We didn’t like the turquois ones because they were turquois! They were so unusual at the time. But you look up now, and years later, the turquois ones are popular.”

Abdur-Rahim laughed as he shared how his son quickly swooped in to snag his old Grizzlies jerseys when he recently found a box of them that had been stored. A member of the USA’s Olympic gold medal team in 2000 and a NBA All-Star in 2002, Abdur-Rahim played 12 years in the league with Vancouver, Atlanta, Portland and Sacramento. He now serves as president of the NBA G League.

So Abdur-Rahim knows creative, catchy and even corny uniform designs when he sees them. That’s why it’s easy for him to appreciate how the Grizzlies’ original uniforms, logo and court designs have stood the test of time and have been recommissioned in Memphis for select games through next season.

“They’ve endured because they’re so different,” Abdur-Rahim said. “There’s truly nothing else like that. Also, the fact that it’s a Vancouver jersey and the team isn’t there anymore is relevant to the popularity. It’s one of those things – you can’t plan that. I’m guessing nobody thought they’d be so legendary.”

Former Grizzlies forward Roy Rogers, a teammate of Abdur-Rahim’s in Vancouver, shares that sentiment. Much like the team’s original colorways, Vancouver as an NBA market required adjustments from players who were unfamiliar with the region and struggled with the currency exchange rate.

“I thought, ‘I’m so excited to be in the NBA,’” said Rogers, who also arrived in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft out of the University of Alabama. “And then I realized Vancouver is probably as far away from Alabama as you can go (laughs). It was a fantastic city. The fan support was great. Everyone treated me so well and I have nothing but positive memories from my time in Vancouver.”

Rogers has spent the past decade working as a NBA assistant coach, and is currently on the Bulls’ staff. No matter where he goes, he’s eventually asked about those old, attention-grabbing Grizzlies’ uniforms.

“I do have my original Vancouver Grizzlies jersey, a couple of them,” Rogers proudly asserted. “And it’s amazing that some of the younger players now go back and see those uniforms – I’ve had players stop me and ask, ‘Coach, you played in Vancouver? Do you still have some of those Vancouver jerseys?’ I didn’t realize until a couple summers ago when I was digging through some storage that I had them. It’s amazing how many requests I’ve gotten for those jerseys. I’m excited that the team is bringing them back this year. It’s really good for the NBA to bring back those jerseys. It was such a fun time.”

They were also lean years filled with plenty of losses in Vancouver. But the luster and love remain strong for those who were fond of the uniforms and the laid-back vibe of the eclectic city.

When Canada native Jay Triano thinks back on his days working in Vancouver as a broadcaster, basketball advisor and community affairs executive, he recalls seeing late-career veterans such as Byron Scott and Greg Anthony lend credibility to the turquois and black. Triano remembers the buzz in town when Bryant ‘Big Country’ Reeves’ arrived north of the border as Vancouver’s first draft pick in 1995.

“Canada finally got two NBA basketball teams, because Vancouver and Toronto came in at the same time,” reflected Triano, now lead assistant coach of the Charlotte Hornets. “Basketball wasn’t as well known then as it is now, and you can say the growth of basketball in Canada has a lot to do with both franchises coming. In Vancouver, it was fantastic – it was great to have the NBA in your backyard.”

Toronto’s Raptors pushed on and ultimately brought Canada its first NBA championship last summer by defeating the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Vancouver’s Grizzlies regrouped in Memphis, where the team recently completed a franchise-long streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances, including a trip to the 2013 Western Conference Finals.

Now, the Grizzlies are turning back the clock as they build for the future. Former NBA point guard Brevin Knight has seen the franchise transition through each stage of development – in both play and branding.

Early in his career, Knight was always fond of those stops in Vancouver to play against the Grizzlies. Then, he was part of the 2001 trade that sent Abdur-Rahim to Atlanta and brought Knight, Pau Gasol and Lorenzen Wright to the Grizzlies – just as the franchise was settling into Memphis.

Knight was on the original Memphis team that wore the version of the ‘Memphis Classic’ uniforms that will be featured next year in honor of the Grizzlies’ 20th season in Memphis. Now working as a TV broadcast analyst for the Grizzlies, Knight has seen the franchise evolve essentially from Day One.

Brevin Knight dribbling

“I’m blessed to have been around it, to have seen this franchise and experience them all,” Knight said of the uniforms and court designs over the years. “To see how much that old logo and old vibe of the teal just jumps out to kids and people today is cool. It’s funny how you remember hearing how awful and hideous it was back then, and now it’s back to being cool. I don’t know what changed, but it’s cool to see it back and people embrace it. It’s part of the organization. It’s good to see things come full circle.”

That full-scale embrace of the franchise’s history is what will make these “throwback” nights so special.

They’ll especially resonate with fans like Whitney Triplett, who will experience that full-circle effect when she visits Memphis next week to watch her son play for the same Grizzlies they supported back in Vancouver. Triplett worked in the nursing field in 1995 when the Grizzlies got started in Vancouver.

She remembers snagging promotional tickets to attend games in the team’s inaugural season. A year later, her son Brandon was born and the family would watch plenty of games on TV from home, too. Two years after that, they moved to the United States – first to Arizona and eventually to California.

Last June, the Grizzlies traded up two spots in the first round to acquire Clarke with the No. 21 pick after a dominant junior season at Gonzaga. Through his first dozen games with the Grizzlies, Clarke averaged 12.7 points and led all rookies in rebounds (6.1), field goal percentage (.619) and blocks (1.2).

Triplett will be in Memphis during Thanksgiving week for two games, including the Nov. 29 matchup against Utah when the Grizzlies will also wear the Vancouver throwbacks and play on the vintage court.

And it’ll feel sort of like old times.

“Those uniforms were my favorite colors, I remember that,” Triplett told Grind City Media. “When Brandon was drafted and we found out he was going to the Grizzlies, we were going crazy, quite naturally. He was 2 ½ years old when we left Vancouver and moved to the States. So, this is very special to us. It’s quite magical, actually.”

That magic extends to the nostalgic way Memphis is paying homage to the Grizzlies’ roots.

Another way this has all come full circle?

Clarke used to wear turquois Vancouver onesies as a baby, mom recalled with a laugh.

Now a 6-foot-8 NBA power forward, Clarke seemed destined from Day One for his No. 15 Grizzlies retrofit.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.