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 Live'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
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.
"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
"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 frontcourt 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
"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."