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MIDWEST: 11 VANCOUVER Grizzlies
L. Jon Wertheim
November 01, 1999
As a smaller Big Country shapes up in the middle, this team becomes a bigger threat
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November 01, 1999

Midwest: 11 Vancouver Grizzlies

As a smaller Big Country shapes up in the middle, this team becomes a bigger threat

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By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 8-42 (14th in Western Conference) Coach: Brian Hill (third season with Grizzlies)

1998-99 PER GAME AVERAGES

POINT (rank)

FG% (rank)

REBOUNDS (rank)

TURNOVERS (rank)

GRIZZLIES

88.9 (24)

42.8 (19)

40.2 (23)

17.0 (29)

OPPONENTS

97.5 (26)

46.3 (27)

42.6 (20)

15.1 (11)

By the time the summer sunlight started to bathe the 500-acre Big C Ranch in Gans, Okla., its proprietor was already busy working up a sweat. Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, the Grizzlies' 7-foot, 280-pound center, returned to his Lilliputian hometown this off-season hell-bent on exercising away the poltergeists of a disastrous 1998-99 season. He ran sprints and distances, pumped iron, underwent a battery of conditioning drills and sharpened his footwork until his body could take no more. "Then," he says, "I rested and started up again."

A year ago, thinking that a lockout would doom the season, Reeves stayed at home in Gans (pop. 251) indulging his appetite for all things fried and whiling away time with his wife, April; their son, Treyton Lee; his 100 head of cattle and his collection of pocketknives. "It's my hometown, so I love it there," he says, "but there's not a lot of NBA competition in Gans." When Billy Hunter and David Stern declared a truce, Reeves arrived at training camp resembling less Big Country than, say, Asia. Saddled with 40 excess pounds, he had his worst stats since his freshman year at Oklahoma State before missing the last 25 games of the season with a knee injury. "I know the team was disappointed in me, and I was disappointed in myself," he says. "I used this summer to make sure that didn't happen again."

To make sure his motivation didn't waver, Vancouver dispatched assistant coach Jim Boylan and strength and conditioning coach Robert Hackett to monitor Reeves's progress. With no hotel in Gans—"We still don't even have a stoplight," Reeves says proudly—the coaches stayed 20 minutes away in Fort Smith, Ark., on and off through the summer. By day they would take Reeves to the gym at Gans High (recently rechristened the Big Country Fieldhouse), and in that un-air-conditioned sweatbox put him through a series of gut-busting drills. By night they would wonder why Reeves felt compelled to return home every off-season. "I think I saw enough movies this summer to have a second career as a critic," says Boylan, "but you can't argue with the results."

Indeed, when Reeves showed up for the first day of training camp on Victoria Island, he looked to be in the best shape of his life. Though he'll never have the footwork of a ballerina—or even of teammate Cherokee Parks—he's immovable without the aid of a backhoe and has a surprisingly deft touch. "I'm feeling lighter on my feet, and most of all, I'm feeling real confident," says Reeves, 26. "I don't see any reason why I'm not going to have a great year."

If only it were that easy for the rest of the Grizzlies. Despite the team's perennially Panglossian predictions that include words like "playoff contender" and "spoiler," Vancouver has yet to awaken from its expansion hibernation. Last year the Grizzlies showed signs of life, starting the season 4-6 and beating the Lakers in General Motors Place before dropping a whopping 36 of 40. "Obviously we have to make significant strides," says coach Brian Hill, "but we should definitely be the most improved team in the league."

On paper, though, Vancouver's prospects are scarcely improved. With the second pick in the draft the Grizzlies selected guard Steve Francis, who essentially told Vancouver, "Take off, Hoser." On a day that should have ranked among the happiest of his life, Francis angrily declined to accept the ceremonial Grizzlies' jersey and exclaimed, "I hope I feel better when I wake up in the morning." A few days later he taped an ESPN spot that poked fun at Canada.

Capitulating to Francis, the Grizzlies traded him to the Rockets in an 11-player, three-team megadeal. They received promising young players Othella Harrington and Michael Dickerson and veterans Brent Price and Antoine Carr. It was fair-market value for Francis—an explosive, if untested, player—but it established a dangerous precedent for future prima donnas. "It was really pretty simple," says general manager Stu Jackson, under whom Vancouver has gone 56-240 (.189). "We don't want players who don't want to be here."

That may not be an issue much longer. Shortly after the Francis trade, businessman Bill Laurie and his wife, Nancy, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, bought the Grizzlies for the less-than-discount price of $200 million. Though a move couldn't occur until after the 2000-01 season, speculation is rampant that the Grizzlies will pack off to St. Louis, where the Lauries already own the Kiel Center and the NHL's Blues. Billionaire Bill, who played guard on the Memphis State team that reached the Final Four in 1973, has remained mum on the relocation issue, but as one NBA owner says, "As far as staying in Vancouver, I think they're toast."

For all the ambient instability, the Grizzlies' immediate future isn't altogether bleak. Mike Bibby may not have made as many highlight-reel plays last season as fellow rookie point guard Jason Williams, but he shot better from the floor and, without particularly athletic teammates filling the lane, averaged more assists. Shareef Abdur-Rahim has quietly become a star; despite constant double teams he was the league's fourth-best scorer in 1998-99. After solid seasons with the Rockets, Harrington and Dickerson will have a chance to fill two huge voids, at power forward and shooting guard, respectively.

The Grizzlies also made strides in addressing what might be best described as a lack of Grrrrr. Vancouver ranked 27th in defensive rebounding, conceded countless loose balls and played defense with daintiness reminiscent of a Merchant Ivory movie. Carr and free agent pick-up Grant Long should infuse the troops with a much needed dose of bad-ass.

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