Who killed the Vancouver Grizzlies? As a new doc reveals, the answer is complicated

Kat Jayme's "The Grizzlie Truth" digs deep into the contentious history of the Vancouver Grizzlies, Canada's ill-fated former NBA team.

'The Grizzlie Truth' tries to find out who was really responsible for the team's demise

Filmmaker Kat Jayme and former Vancouver Grizzlie Chris King meet in California in The Grizzlie Truth, Jayme's new documentary about the Grizzlies. (Mike Dinsmore)

Vancouver-based documentarian Kat Jayme has two life-long passions: filmmaking and basketball. Filmmaking, she explains, is a part of her heritage. Her grandfather was a prolific director in the Philippines, and his father owned one of that country's three major studios in the 1950s — a time regarded as the first golden age of Filipino cinema. Her great uncle was a producer who worked with American cult film director Roger Corman. His younger sister was also a producer. 

"Whenever I go back to the Philippines and people ask, 'What do you do?' And I say, 'I'm a filmmaker,' usually the response is, 'Yeah, that makes sense. It's in your blood,'" she says.

Basketball is also, in a way, part of her heritage. As she explains in her new documentary The Grizzlie Truth, "basketball is like a religion" in the Philippines, and her family is no exception. But in Jayme's case, that multi-generational love of the game combined with the introduction of the NBA's Grizzlies to Vancouver during her childhood, turning her into a self-described "superfan."

"I wanted to be the first girl to play in the NBA and I really believed that I could do it," she says. "The Grizzlies inspired me to like to feel that. That's such a powerful feeling to feel when you're quite young."

The Grizzlie Truth is Jayme's fourth documentary about Canada's other NBA team, which spent just six years on the West Coast before relocating to Memphis. Two were shorts — "Born Identities," about the logos of the Raptors and Grizzlies, and "We the West," about Grizzlies superfans — and one was a mid-length doc, Searching for Big Country, about Griz centre Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, who disappeared from the public eye after a promising career was cut short by injury. In The Grizzlie Truth, she talks to former players, sports journalists, team insiders and other superfans to find out who was really behind the demise of the Vancouver Grizzlies. 

Initially, it seems like there are any number of suspects: Stu Jackson, the inexperienced rookie general manager; Steve Francis, the team's 1999 first round draft pick, who looked visibly distraught when he was selected by the team and demanded a trade before he ever played a game; the team's second owner, Michael Heisley, who eventually moved the team to Memphis, and who many fans say never intended to keep the Grizzlies in Vancouver.

College star Bryant "Big Country" Reeves was the Grizzlies first round draft pick in 1995, and the topic of one of Jayme's previous documentaries "Searching for Big Country." (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Instead, it turns out that there are very few clear-cut villains. Francis, who still draws the ire of Vancouver fans, comes off as particularly, and surprisingly, sympathetic. 

"Steve was very kind and generous with his time," says Jayme. "He invited us to his hometown, and showed me where he grew up. Out of all the Grizzlies players we spoke to for this film, we spent the most time with Steve… Whether or not Vancouver fans want to see it, he is part of [the team's] history. And so, you know, how can we approach this situation with a bit more understanding and empathy?"

Francis is one of the former players who will be at the film's premiere, which takes place Oct. 1 as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

"I know that Steve has expressed how he'd love to give back to the Vancouver basketball community, because we did draft him, you know?" she says. "I'm hoping that this weekend is a healing experience for both Vancouver fans and Steve Francis."

What happened to the Grizzlies, Jayme says, was less a case of one big villain, and more a "perfect storm of everything that could go wrong for the Grizzlies, went wrong."

Both they and the Raptors were hamstrung by rules that prevented them from getting a top draft pick for their first several years of existence, no matter how bad they were. (That rule was imposed after the league's last new expansion team, the Orlando Magic, became a powerhouse overnight after drafting Shaquille O'Neal before their fourth season.)

Jackson pursued a strategy of developing young talent with an eye to the future, versus the Raptors' approach of putting together a core of aging veterans and trying to win games immediately. This led to some staggeringly bad seasons. (Although, as Jayme points out in the doc, by 2001, they had a solid young core and were starting to improve. "Stu's plan was working," she says.) A Canadian dollar that was worth 63 U.S. cents didn't help matters, either.

Three basketball players wearing the Vancouver Grizzlies kit.
Left to right: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Bryant Reeves and Mike Bibby pose for a publicity shot in 1999. MB/SV - RTRYUDB (Reuters)

As for the team's owner, Heisley, Jayme says, "You could argue what his intentions were. I think what I learned is that, and this is in an interview, they did have a plan B" — Plan B being to move the team if it continued to lose money in Vancouver.

One thing that did not prompt the team's move to Memphis, Jayme says, was lack of fan support. She says that even though the team was only in the city for six years, over two decades ago, they still made a massive impression on Vancouverites.

"Through my journey making this film, I've met so many other super-fans," she says. That just proves to me that I wasn't the only one who felt this. There were many more [people] who loved the Grizzlies as much as I did. So many people that I've met have Grizzlies tattoos."

And in spite of the "perfect storm" of things going wrong, and in spite of the team having been in Memphis for over 20 years, Jayme still believes that Vancouver will be an NBA city again, one day. 

"I don't think it's going to happen in the next 10 years," she says. "I'll probably be an old granny by the time this happens, but I do think it will happen."

The Grizzlie Truth premieres Oct. 1 at the Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, and screens again on Oct. 5. 


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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