"Then there is the more cynical perspective," says Vancouver assistant general manager and legal counsel Noah Croom, who administered the salary cap on a leaguewide basis until the Grizzlies hired him away from the league office before this season. "It goes: We're afraid that if we give you the full cap, you'd go out and steal free agents from other teams by offering them unrealistic amounts of money."
The Grizzlies and the Raptors chose sixth and seventh, respectively, in the 1995 college draft. Neither team, no matter how sorry its record, will be eligible for the first overall pick in the draft until 1999. Call that one the Shaq Rule. The Orlando Magic's selection of Shaquille O'Neal with the top pick in the 1992 draft and their getting the No. 1 pick again the next season—which eventually landed them Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway—were instrumental in the Magic's reaching the NBA Finals in just their sixth season. Old-guard NBA owners who resented Orlando's meteoric rise, and the fact that they didn't get a shot at Shaq and Penny themselves, pushed the new draft regulations through.
"There's no use crying over the rules." says Vancouver general manager Stu Jackson, who has vowed to build through the draft. "Our mission is to become successful in spite of them." Even with their low ceiling, the Grizzlies can clear $6 million under the cap, enough for them to shop for a solid, mid-level free agent. And with 11 wins at week's end, compared to Toronto's 18, they have a good chance at getting the second pick in the lottery, which is weighted in favor of the lesser teams.
Jackson's patience came under scrutiny in a recent Toronto Globe & Mail column, in which he was accused of sending the subtle message to players that "losing is O.K., losing is natural." In truth, if the Grizzlies are to reap the high draft picks Jackson envisions, then losing is absolutely essential. That's cold comfort to the men in uniform. "I know you've got to look at what lies ahead," said rookie center Bryant (Big Country) Reeves after loss number 21, "but we've played 69 games and won 11 of them. This is very hard to deal with."
Reeves has emerged as a true NBA center, a unique marketing asset for the Grizzlies and thus an overall beacon of hope in an otherwise gloomy season. A 7-footer out of Oklahoma State and Vancouver's first-round draft choice last June, Reeves became a starter after the Grizzlies traded center Benoit Benjamin to the Milwaukee Bucks for Murdock and center Eric Mobley in November. After a period of adjustment Big Country has become the focus of the Grizzlies' offense, such as it is: Through Sunday they were averaging a measly 89.7 points per game, last in the NBA and on pace to be the lowest season average since the shot clock was introduced in 1954-55. Says Winters, "He gives us someone we can play off of in the low post, which we didn't have before." As a starter Reeves has played nearly 38 minutes a game and, at week's end, had averaged 15.6 points and 8.9 rebounds.
He has also become, without trying, a cult figure in British Columbia. Before its Jan. 7 game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Vancouver hosted a Hair Country promotion. Any fan willing to get a haircut similar to Big Country's signature flattop would receive two free tickets. Twenty-eight hair stylists were hired for the event, which was expected to draw several hundred crazies. More than 2,000 showed up. The stylists only had time to shear 360 fans—18 of whom were women.
But Big Country needs help big time. The main reason the Grizzlies went a month and a half without a victory was their puniness up front. Vancouver lost 6'8" power forward Kenny Gattison to injury in January and then to Orlando in a February trade. The 6'11" Mobley went down with tendinitis in his right knee on Feb. 5. Since then, unheralded 6'7" forward Ashraf Amaya has been in the front-court rotation along with Wilkins.
Outwardly, Winters has remained composed; volcanic eruptions are not his style. "Really, what would be the point?" he says. However, at halftime of the Grizzlies' 86-75 defeat on March 26 in Detroit, the phlegmatic Winters threw what for him is a tantrum. After scoring nine points in the first quarter, the Grizzlies caught fire, as it were, finishing the half with 26. In the locker room Winters pleaded with his players to have some pride. In fact, pride is the only thing sustaining these players—that and the hope of a roster spot next season. Team sources predict that of the 13 current Grizzlies, at most seven will be back.
Byron Scott should be one of them. While point guard Greg Anthony is Vancouver's floor leader, it is shooting guard Scott, a 13-year veteran who won three NBA championship rings as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, to whom everyone looks in the dressing room. After Friday night's landmark loss, Scott sat for a long time with his left ankle in a bucket of ice. He gazed so long into the bucket, you wondered if he was looking for the big picture.
"If you're just going to pack it in, you're not showing any discipline. Or heart. Or courage," Scott said. "Even though we've lost 21 straight, we've never packed it in. We've played everybody hard. That's something I'm very proud of."