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Grizzlies doc revises history of Canada’s lost NBA franchise

The Vancouver Grizzlies exited Canada’s West Coast for Memphis more than 20 long years ago. But in the making of a new documentary on the NBA franchise’s Canadian demise, director and Grizzlies superfan Kat Jayme suddenly found herself up against the clock.

Heading into the final block of shooting for “The Grizzlie Truth,” Jayme hadn’t secured an on-camera interview with Stu Jackson, the club’s founding general manager whose failings are generally put near the top of the list of reasons why the Grizzlies left town. Nor had Jayme earned an audience with Steve Francis, the three-time NBA all-star drafted No. 2 overall by the Grizzlies in 1999, whose nonplussed reaction to the pick on live TV only heightened Vancouver’s reputation as an NBA outpost best avoided.

To tell the franchise’s story without Jackson and Francis would have been suboptimal, to say the least.

“I was pretty freaked out, to be honest,” Jayme said.

While a meeting with Jackson, who works in the league office, was eventually arranged, tracking down Francis proved trickier. Francis, of course, never played a game for the Grizzlies before he was traded to Houston only a couple of months after he was selected. And considering he hadn’t said much about his snubbing of Vancouver in the years since — and that he hasn’t played in the NBA going back to 2008 — Jayme had no assurance he’d be amenable, never mind reachable.

“It was like, ‘I have no idea how I’m going to get in touch with Steve Francis,’” she said. “But I had a good feeling. I knew that if I just got five seconds in front of Steve and I was able to talk to him and pitch it to him in person, I knew I’d be able to convince him.”

So, after a member of Jayme’s production team saw a posting about a Francis autograph signing in Houston, the plan was hatched. Jayme hopped a flight and showed up sight unseen to ask Francis for an interview. Francis, just as Jayme predicted, said yes.

“You did better than Stu Jackson,” Francis says to Jayme in the film. “You got me to talk.”

If Francis was widely portrayed as a delusional prima donna in 1999, the film certainly frames him as a far more sympathetic figure. It points out that he was raised in a three-bedroom apartment in the Washington, D.C. suburbs that housed as many as 16 family members; that his biological father was in prison at the time he was drafted; that, for all his talent, he was a 22-year-old neophyte naïve to the politics of pro sports.

Francis, who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, was disappointed he wasn’t drafted No. 1 overall by the Chicago Bulls, who instead picked Elton Brand. But if it wasn’t going to be Chicago, Francis said his agents had assured him he’d be picked by the Charlotte Hornets at No. 3. Considering Francis’s camp had done its best to shun the Grizzlies during the pre-draft process, Francis said he still doesn’t understand why Jackson picked him at No. 2. Francis, after all, considered himself a point guard, and the Grizzlies had selected point guard Mike Bibby with the No. 2 pick the previous year.

“I love Mike Bibby, I love him, but there’s no way you were going to put me (on the floor) without the basketball in my hands,” Francis said in an interview with the Star. “If I ain’t going to have the basketball in my hands, I can’t wait for slow-ass Mike Bibby. I love him — excuse me — but I can’t wait for him.”

Jackson, in the film, insists it was his duty as an executive to pick the best player available, and that he should have done more to ensure Francis played for the team.

“My biggest regret is to not hold Steve Francis’s feet to the fire,” Jackson said.

Francis, for his part, claims Jackson never really made an effort to understand where he was coming from.

“He thought it was a done deal, that I was just coming,” Francis said of Jackson. “If he wanted to hold my feet to the fire, he would have went and talked to my grandmother (whom Francis loved and revered) instead of my ex-agents.”

Francis, of course, wasn’t Jackson’s only mistake. At one point the GM public sold his perennially hapless team on a strange tag line.

“Losing is learning” was Jackson’s pitch to potential season-ticket holders in a Grizzlies promotional video. By that measure the Grizzlies, who never won more than 22 games in Jackson’s five seasons at the helm, ought to have been the smartest team in the league.

As Grizzlies forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim remarks in the film: “If I was a marketer, it’s probably not the phrase I would use.”

Still, Jayme’s film makes the point that there’s no one person to blame for Vancouver’s failure as an NBA market, which David Stern, the late former commissioner, listed as the biggest mistake of his storied tenure. And Jackson, she insists, has taken too many lumps for too long.

“Stu is someone who I really wanted to exonerate in the film,” Jayme said, “because you talk to superfans, and he’s public enemy No. 1. But you talk to anyone who worked in the organization and everyone spoke to me about how great a leader he was, the environment he cultivated.”

The film gives two key reasons why the Toronto Raptors survived while the Grizzlies were transplanted.

For one, there was the financial wherewithal of Toronto’s majority owner at the time, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. For another, there was Vince Carter, passed over by the Grizzlies in the 1998 draft in favour of Bibby.

By the time American businessman Michael Heisley bought the Grizzlies from founding owner Arthur Griffiths in 2000 for $160 million (U.S.) — this at a moment when the Canadian dollar was trading for 67 cents American — Heisley calculated the franchise’s projected annual losses at $40 million. That gave him a green light to eventually call in the moving trucks. By 2001, Canada was down to one NBA team.

Jayme vowed never to cheer for the Grizzlies in Memphis, and in the film she documents her participation in rallies aimed at repatriating the franchise. But a pilgrimage to Memphis during filming changed her outlook.

“I wouldn’t want to take the Grizzlies away from the people of Memphis,” she said.

Now she, like a lot of Vancouver-based basketball fans, holds out hope for an NBA expansion team. Francis, all these years later, said he’d love to see basketball thrive in Vancouver. He says speaking with Jayme for the film “opened me up to Canada.”

“When I was drafted, I never was told about Vancouver,” Francis said. “I’d never been to Vancouver … Now I love it.”

Too bad Jayme wasn’t working for the Grizzlies in, say, 1999.

“Steve has become a really good friend of mine, which is the coolest and funniest thing,” Jayme said. “The cool thing about Steve Francis is that he’s Steve Francis, NBA superstar, but when we hang out at these (film) events, or we grab a bite to eat, I feel like he treats me like an equal. Which is really cool. Once you get to know someone, you kind of want to show that side of them to people. And I think that’s what happened in this film with Steve Francis.”

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