Back in 1995, the NBA was looking to expand the league outside of America, and into Canada. The two cities they decided on were Toronto and Vancouver, two of the most populated cities in Canada. The former got the Raptors, with the latter receiving the Grizzlies.

While both franchises started off really bad, losing a lot of games, the Raptors were always a step ahead of the Grizzlies when it came to the basketball influence in their area.

In their first season as an official NBA team, the Raptors were third in the league in attendance, while the Grizzlies were 14th, according to ESPN. But as the years went by, the Raptors quickly gained a ton of popularity, mainly because of Vinsanity.

vince carter

Vince Carter catapulted the Raptors into fame and fortune, as he helped the team lead the NBA in attendance for three straight seasons in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, that was not the case with the Grizzlies. After just six seasons in Vancouver, the team was forced to relocate, and as y’all know,  they ended up in Memphis.

What happened? What caused their relocation?

It was a combination of different factors. The biggest reason was that the team was losing a lot and did not have a legitimate franchise player. The best player that they have, who could’ve been considered a borderline All-Star, was Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who averaged over 20 points a game for a couple of seasons there. He was a pretty versatile power forward, who’s been forgotten over the years.

However, he wasn’t helping them win games, and neither was anyone else they picked up from the expansion draft.

In the franchise’s first four seasons, the team actually had a decent attendance record. Not as good as Toronto’s obviously, but they were around the middle of the pack. But in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons, their last two seasons in Vancouver, they were third worst in attendance for both years, averaging about 13,000 fans every game.

Of course the low attendance rates translated to lower revenue, but I mean, that’s not a huge deal. There’s been a lot of teams over the years that saw their attendance plummet if their team is losing a lot, but they don’t usually have to relocate.

But the thing is, with the Vancouver Grizzlies, the revenue loss extended beyond just the lower fan attendance.

memphis grizzlies MLK 50 Pride uniform

John McCaw Jr. was the owner of the team from 1995-1999, as well as the Vancouver Canucks. However, the operating costs were way too high, and the Canadian dollar was pretty weak so it just wasn’t profitable for him to own a team in that area, so he was forced to sell both the Grizzlies and Canucks.

Also, the fact that McCaw was based on Seattle, did not help his situation. A lot of local businesses in Vancouver did not wanna support the Grizzlies because it wasn’t owned by someone local. McCaw ended up selling the team to Chicago businessman Michael Heisley for $160 million in 2000.

The Grizzlies under Heisley’s ownership did not do any better. As I mentioned earlier, in 2000 and 2001, the Grizzlies saw their attendance drop significantly and continued to lose games. According to Dick Versace, the president of basketball operations for the Grizzlies, the team reportedly lost about $80 million in two years. That figure seemed ridiculous, but if you look at the bigger picture, it could be possible.


The team struggled to get corporate sponsors and when they did, they weren’t worth that much anyway because the team was losing a lot and had no All-Stars either. The NBA didn’t really promote basketball in Vancouver as much as they should have, as well.

Granted, the team itself did have some solid players, like Big Country Bryant Reeves and Mike Bibby, and I guess Shareef Abdur-Rahim was their best player, but he was obviously not a household name. They did not have a single member of their team make an All-Star game in the six seasons in Vancouver.

Additionally, very few players actually wanted to move to Vancouver in the first place. The most prominent example was Steve Francis. The Grizzlies drafted him with the 2nd overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft, but he did not wanna play in Vancouver. Francis publicly stated that he did not like the city and did not want to move to Canada. An incident at the Vancouver airport where some random people thought he was a rapper was the final straw.

steve francis
Getty Images

Francis publicly demanded a trade and would not play for them, so the Grizzlies were forced to trade him. This was devastating for Vancouver. Francis was an exciting player with a charismatic personality, and he was what the team needed at the time.

They needed him to re-ignite the franchise, attract more fans to the games, and help the team win games. The fact that he was the No. 2 pick and refused to even play for the city; that severely destroyed the rest of Vancouver’s hopes of keeping the team there. Not surprisingly, every time Francis played in Vancouver as a member of the Rockets, he would hear relentless boos from the crowd.

According to an interview with Shareef Abdur-Rahim years later, he recalls the last game they played in Vancouver. It was April 14, 2001. The game nearly sold out, with over 18,000 fans in attendance. While normally a game like this would be filled with energy and excitement, or at least something because it was the last time the team would play there.

Abdur-Rahim said that: “I remember it being like an eerie energy, I had never experienced that before. It was energetic and emotional and kind of eerie at the same time.” Apparently, a fan was holding up a sign that said “Thanks…for the worst team ever.”

shareef abdur-rahim

Yikes. I know one fan should not represent the fanbase as a whole, but I’m sure many fans felt the same way too, and did not care at all that the team was leaving. Even today, the team barely left any sort of legacy in Vancouver. It was almost like they were never even there, and the six years of Vancouver Grizzlies history have been forgotten. It’s not like Seattle, where there’s a ton of people who still care about losing their team, and a ton of former players have been vocal about getting a team in Seattle again.

Anyway, the Vancouver Grizzlies ended their reign of dominance with a total record of 101 wins, and 359 losses. Zero all-star selections, a couple of bad draft picks. It’s hard to find a bright spot, but at least the city and basketball fans still experienced what it was like having an NBA team. I’m sure there’s still a ton of older basketball fans in Vancouver who wish they never left, and are still upset they’re gone.

Michael Heisley, the owner, had a number of potential locations to relocate the team, which included St. Louis, Louisville, Las Vegas, New York, Anaheim, and San Diego, but they ultimately decided on Memphis because they made a strong bid and the city had a huge wave of fan support and interest in basketball.


Sports Illustrated