Filipina-Canadian filmmaker and diehard Vancouver Grizzlies fan Kathleen Jayme has given a voice to the legions of Vancouver basketball fans that are still not over the team’s somewhat sudden relocation to Memphis in 2001 with her latest film, The Grizzlie Truth.
The documentary, which will have a special screening at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Saturday, tells the story of the once-doomed franchise, and the hole it has since left in the Vancouver community.
“The main goal I had in making the film was trying to uncover what truly happened to the Grizzlies,” Jayme told Yahoo Sports Canada. “Get some closure for our Grizzly fans, myself included, and get the opportunity to give those who were part of the organization a chance to tell their side of the story, with hopes to better understand what actually happened.”
While Michael Jordan was capturing the hearts and minds of young fans around the world in the early 1990s – including Jayme’s older brother – it was the new Grizzlies, with their cool turquoise jerseys and unique Pacific Northwest identity, that inspired Jayme and her eventual love for basketball.
“The Grizzlies coming down really cemented my love for the game; just the excitement of going to games, the energy, the magic of it all,” she said. “I just completely fell head over heels for the Vancouver Grizzlies.”
As she made her way through high school, Jayme explored another significant part of her identity: filmmaking. Jayme admits she comes from a long line of filmmakers, telling Yahoo Sports Canada that her great-grandfather founded one of the biggest film studios in the Philippines in the 1950s, and her grandfather was a well-known filmmaker as well. She grew up dribbling a basketball with one hand, and documenting her life through a lens with the other.
“I would come to school with my family camcorder, and I would film my friends and I would make movies with the footage from that,” Jayme said. “I’ve always just naturally been drawn to document things, film things.
“When I go back to the Philippines, and I tell people what I do, they say, ‘that makes sense, it’s in your blood.'”
The Vancouver native graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Film Production from the University of British Columbia in 2011, and gained national attention in 2018 with the release of Finding Big Country, a documentary about her journey to find former Grizzlies star center Bryant Reeves, who retired from the NBA after only six seasons, moving back to his native Oklahoma to work as a cattle farmer.
The film won multiple awards, including Best Canadian Film at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.
Jayme also collaborated with the NBA and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation on the 2021 short film Born Identities, which chronicles the creation of the Toronto Raptors and Grizzlies logos and branding.
The Grizzlies struggled on the court in their inaugural season, finishing the season with a 15-67 record. They would do even worse in the following season, winning only 14 games. In six years in the NBA, Vancouver would never win more than 23 times in a single season, while never qualifying for the playoffs, and burning through six different coaches.
The Grizzlie Truth features cameos from former NBA stars including Antonio Harvey, George Lynch and Tony Massenburg, as well as one of the most unpopular athletes in Vancouver sports history: Steve Francis.
Francis was one of the most highly-touted prospects of the 1999 NBA Draft, and was projected to be a top-3 pick out of the University of Maryland. After registering a franchise-worst 8-42 record in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, Vancouver was awarded the second overall pick of the draft through the lottery. With big man Elton Brand slated to go first to the Chicago Bulls, the Grizzlies had their sights set on Francis. There was only one problem: Francis was adamant that he did not want to be drafted by Vancouver.
In a rather head-scratching move, the Grizzlies chose to take him with the second pick anyway, causing one of the most awkward scenes in NBA Draft history.
One of Francis’s concerns with the team was his role, as Vancouver had drafted guard Mike Bibby with the second overall pick just a year prior.
“The year before, you drafted in the same position, there was no definite answer over whether I would be playing at the one or the two,” he told Yahoo Sports Canada. “Coming out of college, I was not ready to check Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones or any of those two-guards, so if I wasn’t going to play immediately, I thought it wouldn’t be a good deal.”
In the days following the draft, Francis maintained that he did not want to be a Grizzly and pressured the organization into trading him, culminating in a three-team, 11-player trade that saw him shipped to the Houston Rockets.
Francis would go on to share the Rookie of the Year award with Brand and would be selected to three All-Star games in his 10-year NBA career.
Over 20 years later, Francis stands by his decision to force his way out of Vancouver.
“I don’t have any regrets. If things were explained more, as you’ll see in the movie, not only myself but some of the other guys that were there before me, there was no definite direction in which the organization was heading,” the 45-year-old said. “Everybody was kind of confused, so I’m glad I wasn’t part of that confusion.”
Francis felt like he needed to clear the air on the event that many consider to have accelerated the Grizzlies’ downfall, and felt this project was the perfect avenue to speak his truth.
“The reason why I really did it is because my kids have heard so much about this growing up from other outlets,” Francis said. “But for me to finally speak on it gives them clarity about their dad.”
The Francis pick wasn’t Vancouver’s only miss or stroke of bad luck at the draft, as management missed out on multiple generational talents like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.
Jayme believes the lack of a recognizable franchise cornerstone played a role in sinking the franchise.
“The Raptors, for example, had better luck in drafting players, like getting Vince Carter,” Jayme said. “So our luck at the draft is one of the reasons the team eventually folded.”
After the lockout-shortened season made a significant dent in team revenues, and attendance dropped drastically as the team showed no sign of climbing out of the league’s doldrums, the franchise was teetering on the brink. Chicago-based billionaire Michael Heasley purchased the team for $160 million in 2000, and despite promising to keep the team in Vancouver, almost immediately began searching for a relocation candidate.
He settled on Memphis. The NBA Board of Governors approved the move in July 2001, ending the league’s adventure in the Canadian west.
Despite the Vancouver debacle, we know today that professional basketball works in Canada.
Toronto is one of the biggest markets in the NBA, and the Raptors are the 11th-highest valued franchise in the league at $3.1 billion. They’ve averaged the third-highest average attendance in the 2022-23 season so far, and are only three years removed from an NBA championship.
While the Raptors have monopolized the Canadian professional basketball market as the only NBA team north of the border, Jayme still holds out hope for the return of her beloved Grizzlies to British Columbia.
“I am very hopeful. I know it’s not going to happen right away; maybe in the next decade or two,” she said. “One of the reasons why I made this film was to prove that the team should never have left, and to show how much love there still is for the Grizzlies and the NBA in Canada and Vancouver.”
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