There was a lot of excitement when the NBA came to Vancouver. It was part of a complete expansion of the sports industry in B.C. with new television stations and a new pro sports team. I remember that TSN had launched the Western Broadcast Centre shortly after the Grizzlies began play.
There was a lot of sexiness to the NBA and when the Grizzlies came the Canucks were well past the summer of '94 and entering the dark days of the Mark Messier era. I really believe there was a window there when the Canucks were so bad that the town was the Grizzlies' for the taking if they were just halfway respectable. They had a .220 winning percentage for six seasons and showed no signs of improvement - ever - and yet they still averaged 14,500 fans during their last (lame duck) season. There are some who suggest that those numbers were inflated or papered, but I see it differently: people are more likely to waste their money than they are their time, so even if the tickets were cheap, people where still making an effort to go. Off the court, they were doing it right and making an impact on youth and on the multi-cultural aspect of the city.
Having covered the story closely when the Grizzlies left, I can't help but feel it was a complete sham by Michael Heisley and the NBA. Heisley sang the Canadian national anthem on opening night, but behind closed doors the front office didn't even market the team until after the season had started and advertising dollars had been allocated elsewhere by most businesses. The league pointed out that they saved the Grizzlies a year earlier when Bill Laurie tried to buy them and move them to St. Louis, but in reality the league didn't want to "let him into the club", kind of like what's happening in Phoenix with Jim Balsillie right now. It was less about Vancouver and more about the league getting to decide who owns what and where it goes.
It seemed like all the stars completely aligned against the NBA in Vancouver: a horrible team featuring a slug like Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, a terrible Canadian dollar, and spoiled, uneducated, American players who didn't want to come play in the world's greatest city because it doesn't include an "inner-city". But if you look at the league now with its international players and a much better Canadian dollar, throw in a respectable team and it would have worked here. By the time the team moved it seemed like there was very little emotion left. The battle had been lost and vast majority of fans were happy they were gone. "If they don't want to be here then who needs them" seemed to be the mood.
My favorite Grizzlies moments include a victory on Opening Night in November, 1995, and the hype around Michael Jordan's first game here with the Chicago Bulls. I remember when some no-name Grizzlies guard (Darrick Martin, I believe) actually started taunting the greatest player in the world when the Grizzlies had a late fourth quarter lead against the Bulls. Jordan raised his eyebrows and took over the game, and once again showed his greatness. Vancouver was up eight points with seven minutes to play and Jordan scored 19 points in the final seven minutes to win it for the Bulls.
I know I'm one of the few, but I actually still miss the Grizzlies. They were fun to cover and just being at a game was entertaining even when they lost. There was always a star like Shaq, Kobe, MJ or Sir Charles in town so there was always a reason to get excited. Hockey is a Canadian game, but basketball is truly international, and it was neat to have an international league with international stars in your own backyard.