It seemed a reasonable assumption back in December: Snap a 19-game losing streak and the worst would be behind you. In the case of the Vancouver Grizzlies, however, that 19-game skid proved to be a tune-up, a sound check, an appetizer for the epic ugliness to follow. Still, you had to admire the chutzpah of the NBA's bad news bears, who made dubious history last week and then tendered no apologies for doing so.
No NBA team had lost more than 20 consecutive games in one season—until last Friday night in Salt Lake City. Having flirted with the record by dropping the aforementioned 19 straight between Nov. 7 and Dec. 13, the first-year expansion Grizzlies eclipsed it by losing 105-91 to the Utah Jazz. With their 121-88 defeat by the Charlotte Hornets two days later, Vancouver put some distance between itself and the co-holders of the old record: the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers and the 1993-94 Dallas Mavericks. And they were closing in on the mark of 24 straight losses set by the Cleveland Cavaliers over two seasons: 1981-82 and '82-83. The loss to Charlotte capped a winless month for the Grizzlies. March in Vancouver: In like a lamb, out like a lamb.
The new owners of the NBA's record for serial futility left the court at Utah's Delta Center with their chins up. Their dressing room, while subdued, could hardly have been described as funereal, just as shooting guard Blue Edwards could hardly have been described as, well, blue. "If you hadn't mentioned how many games we've lost, I wouldn't have known," he said. "The losing streak is not something I dwell on." Outside, Grizzlies coach Brian Winters displayed a skill at which he has become quite adept: He put the best face on the loss. This time, he pointed out, Vancouver had trailed by just six points with 5:05 to play. "Unfortunately," he said, "we just can't find a way to finish off games these days. We're a little snakebit."
British cattle farmers are a little snakebit, Coach Your team is the lump in the belly of the boa Still, the fact that they have been stuck on 11 wins since Valentine's Day has failed to trap the Grizzlies in what Saturday Night Lire's Stuart Smalley would call a "shame spiral."
"There's no shame," says Gerald Wilkins, a 6'6" shooting guard whom Winters has pressed into service as one of the NBA's smallest small forwards. "We're just totally outmanned, and we realize it. We weren't the most talented team in the world before we had a bunch of guys get injured. It's amazing how many games we've been competitive in during the streak."
He was referring to the 22-game swoon—Ursa Major, as it were—in which the average margin of defeat was 10.9 points. Good news, Grizzlies! That's down from your 14.1-point margin during Ursa Minor in November and December. Rather than becoming discouraged and throwing in the towel, Vancouver is ratcheting up its intensity even as it amasses defeats.
For this reason it's hard to goof on the Grizzlies. They play their guts out every night. Going into last Friday's game, seven of Vancouver's previous nine losses had come by five or fewer points. Against Utah the Grizzlies trailed 56-51 at halftime and played well enough to provoke one stout heckler to shout at Eric Murdock, a backup guard for Vancouver, "Murdock, you can't even start for an expansion team!" Not a particularly clever line, but it got Murdock's attention, since the speaker was Jazz owner Larry Miller.
Perhaps Miller was agitated because the Grizzlies, who had trailed 43-30, had rallied to take a 49-48 lead. Eventually, though, Vancouver suffered its habitual fourth-quarter collapse, getting outscored 25-18. But after pouring in 13 of Utah's final 16 points, forward Antoine (Big Dawg) Carr commended the Grizzlies for not being, well, big dogs. "These guys fought. They wouldn't lay down for us," said Carr.
Another admirer of the Grizzlies' grit: Jazz All-Star forward Karl Malone. "You want to pat 'em on the back and say, 'Hang in there,' because they're going through some tough times," said the Mailman. "They're trying to stop the bleeding."
Less sympathetic to Vancouver's victory drought is the NBA itself. Having socked the Grizzlies and the other first-year expansion franchise, the Toronto Raptors, with $125 million entry fees, the league further imposed upon them a $16 million salary cap—less by a third than the sum other clubs can spend. Why? The NBA would have you believe the lower cap is designed to help keep its newest members out of financial trouble.