Uncovering the Grizzlie Truth in the NBA’s last Canadian outpost

14 April 2023 / by Daniel Centeno

This is Part One of CJRU’s coverage of Kat Jayme’s The Grizzlie Truth

April 14, 2001. 

The final seconds wind down at General Motors Place as the Vancouver Grizzlies prepare for the inevitable. It’s the final home game for the team with the Houston Rockets coming away with a 100-95 win.

Relocation plans to Memphis is a done deal, ending the once promising western Canadian expansion.  The buzzer sounds and Grizzlie greats Shareef Abdul-Rahim and Mike Bibby wave their final farewells to the fans. The NBA leaves Vancouver after six seasons.

However, the love and nostalgia remain for superfan Kat Jayme, who fondly remembers the NBA granting Vancouver and Toronto their own teams in 1995. The Grizzlies obsession was immediate for six-year-old Kat.

Her love for the original Grizzlies only grew stronger as the years went by and she continues to hold onto hope that the NBA gives Vancouver a second chance. 

Jayme is now an established filmmaker and has used documentary films to highlight her NBA idols of the past, as well as discover that she is not alone in the Grizzlies fandom. This includes a 2018 short film about Bryant “Big Country” Reeves in Finding Big Country

A person smiling and wearing a white shirt with a teal jacket. There are grey buildings or various heights with several windows in the background.

Grizzlie Truth director Kat Jayme brought the film to Toronto for a special screening and event in December 2022. Photo courtesy of the Kat Jayme.

Now with the Grizzlie Truth, she tells a more holistic story about why the Grizzlies left Vancouver more than 22 years ago, and to some extent why the franchise did not experience the same success, stability and longevity as the Toronto Raptors. Jayme’s current documentary tour has brought the film across Canada, including a special event in Toronto.

Despite the early promise of draft picks like Reeves, Bibby and Abdul-Rahim, bad management and coaching, a weak Canadian dollar in the late 1990s and persistent losing are often the main reasons fans reference for the Grizzlies’ departure.

Jayme spoke with former players, management and fans to uncover the reality that the franchise’s demise was not because of one cause or person to blame.

The biggest reveal of film however, was exploring the franchise’s greatest “what if.” The Grizzlies drafted point guard Steve Francis second overall in 1999, and it was one of many questionable moves by then-general manager Stu Jackson. 

Francis’ ability as a playmaker and dynamic scorer were the makings of a franchise player the Grizzlies would build upon, especially with Bibby and Abdul-Rahim committed to reaching their primes in Vancouver. 

Toronto already gained its cornerstone with Vince Carter in the 1998 draft and Vancouver looked to Francis as a similar centrepiece. 

But Francis’ focus was elsewhere. He initially thought the Chicago Bulls would draft him with the first overall pick and he was determined to stay on the east coast. However when the draft came, the Bulls went with Duke power forward Elton Brand. 

The emerging star point guard remained focused on staying in the US, and allegedly this was something he professed to the Grizzlies management before the draft. Right from the start, Francis looked and seemed disappointed by his selection. What eventually transpired was a three-way trade with the Houston Rockets getting the newly drafted Francis instead later into the offseason. The Grizzlies received quantity, but the players and picks paled in comparison to Francis. 

Mounting losses and questionable moves after the Francis dilemma exacerbated questions about Vancouver’s marketability. 

For more than 20 years Francis was public enemy number one in the circles of Vancouver’s basketball faithful, often attributed as the one of the poster boys for the team’s failures. 

Now retired and able to look back on his career, Jayme helped Francis give his own side of the story and finally make amends with Vancouver. 

Francis’ early career success also begs the question of what his effect on Vancouver basketball could have been. The phenomenon known as the “Vince Carter Effect” continues to be hailed as a catalyst towards elevating the Raptors into respectability and NBA legitimacy. 

More broadly speaking, “Air Canada”, as Carter was dubbed, continues to see its influence in the emergence of Canadian NBA talent today who often cite Carter as an early role model. 

A group of speaking smiling and looking into a phone being held by an arm. There is a basketball net and blue seats in the background.

Director Kat Jayme, former NBA All-Star Steve and the Grizzly take a selfie photo together. Photo by Daniel Centeno/CJRU.

Bibby and Abdul-Rahim were All-Star talents, but never the household name like Carter, whose 2000 dunk contest win solidified his stardom and the Raptors’ place in the NBA. 

Francis’ flashiness and quick ascent into stardom saw its parallels with the Raptors legend. Both were NCAA All-Americans, NBA Rookie of the Year winners and participants in the same 2000 dunk contest – the talent and marketability were there for both players.

For the first time, Jayme allowed Francis to be honest and candid about his decision to not go to Vancouver. He cities family reasons, his distance away from them and Vancouver’s team fit at the time. 

In Toronto, Jayme and Francis spoke about showcasing the film in the lone Canadian NBA market, celebrating Grizzlies history and how the changing Canadian basketball landscape can influence a potential second wave of NBA expansion north of the border.

Listen to episode one of CJRU highlighting the Grizzlie Truth: