THIS IS A STORY ABOUT HOPE. HOW WE CLING TO IT, HOW WE LOSE IT, HOW WE NEED IT.
This is an article from the March 4, 2013 issue
And beer. This story is also about beer. Plus: Channing Frye's wallet, Shawn Kemp's lounge and David Lee's habit of stealing rebounds from his guards. It's also about the lure of history, the torture of fandom and the long-limbed ghost of Kevin Durant. It's the story of what happens when two friends drive I-5 from the Bay Area to Canada and stop in every NBA city past and present.
It was to be a pro basketball via dolorosa, an NBA trail of tears, for there had long been only despair in the Northwest: Golden State forever faltering, Sacramento on the verge of collapse, Portland in thrall to a curse, Seattle bereft and bitter, and Vancouver lost to time. We expected rain, pain and lamentation.
Then the season began, and something unexpected happened. From the darkness came light: in Portland, in the form of a fearless rookie point guard; in Seattle, through two rich guys intent on airlifting in a team; and most shocking perhaps, in Oakland, where a spindly guard and an awkward power forward led the Warriors somewhere they hadn't been in ages—far above .500. We delayed the road trip, sure that in due time hope would regain its bearings, realize where it was, and depart.
And yet it remained.
The East Coast editors, perplexed, said to go ahead. Tell us what's going on. So I called my trusty wingman, Dan Zehr, a writer, lover of microbrews and, at 6'7", one helluva two-on-two teammate. Our plan: rent an SUV, throw a basketball in the back and trace a route north, watching a game in each city and steeping ourselves in the sport for the better part of a week. We would be fans, anthropologists, critics, observers. We would come to understand the Pacific Northwest's complicated emotional relationship with pro hoops.
Or so we hoped.
THE WE BELIEVERS
Mark Jackson raises his chin, directs his gaze a good 15 feet above everyone's eye line and holds forth on defense. He is not gloating, at least not technically. "The experts said you can't be great defensively if you're playing fast-paced offense," he says. "But you can do both, and we're showing folks that."
It is a bright Thursday morning on the brink of February at the Warriors' practice facility in downtown Oakland, and Jackson has good reason to be pleased, for the team he coaches is second in the Pacific Division. Among Bay Area fans, this is cause for excitement bordering on euphoria. The last time Golden State finished a season in such a lofty perch, Billy Owens was the team's leading rebounder and the first George Bush was in office. There are other strange things afoot: an All-Star (Lee, the team's first since 1997), owners who appear suspiciously competent and, most foreign of all, the aforementioned defense, which has been in the top third of the league all season.
The mystery is how the Warriors are doing it. The core of the team is unchanged: Lee, guard Stephen Curry and swingman Klay Thompson. The biggest addition, Andrew Bogut (7 feet, 260 pounds), the true center the Dubs have coveted for roughly four decades, has barely played because of a left-ankle injury. A certain magazine even picked Golden State to finish 11th in the West in its NBA preview. That same magazine also cited an anonymous scout saying, "This is a bad team with an unproven coach and a poor mix of players," while trashing Lee as "looking for his own numbers big time" and reporting that Lee's nickname with the Knicks was FEMA, "because he's never there when you need him."
Now, with the team flourishing, it seems only fair that that magazine give Jackson a chance to respond. "I'd like to identify that guy and then question his expertise," he says of the scout. "I'm sure if he [had] been right about David, about the team, about the defense, he'd deserve a raise and maybe we'd want to hire him. But since he was totally off base and so wrong"—here Jackson pauses—"not just wrong but so wrong, [he should] own it and give my guys some love, because ... he underestimated how a culture can be changed and how guys will buy in and be committed to one another." Then Jackson does something he rarely does in public: He smiles.
Nearby, the bought-in, changed Warriors are finishing preparations for the night's game against the Mavericks. Lee tosses up midrange shots while, on an adjacent court, Thompson stands on the perimeter and flicks jumpers, each one plummeting through the net as cleanly as the last. He is the son of Lakers big man Mychal Thompson, so genetics cannot explain his release, which is as pretty as anyone's in the league. Not far away Bogut is talking to the press. A smart, likable Australian, he becomes very serious when it comes to the game. His default facial expression is pain leavened by anguish, and he wears it now while discussing the fans' loyalty. "We need to repay that," he says, as if he'd sworn a blood oath many years ago on a high, dusty plain. "They have been coming out for decades to support this team."
Indeed, it is curious: While Golden State has been consistently horrible to mediocre over the last 20 years (save for the flash of We Believe excitement in 2006--07), the fans have been consistently supportive. Through Latrell Sprewell and P.J. Carlesimo, through Todd Fuller and Les Jepsen, through good Nellie and bad Nellie, they have retained hope. The only explanation is that those who grew up here (and I am one of them) are afflicted with a terrible case of unrealistic optimism. Dan is from Philadelphia, where masochistic pessimism rules the day. He doesn't comprehend us. One of my infected friends, an East Bay native also named Chris, tries to sum it up with his reaction to that SI scouting report. "I'm so used to my optimism being here," he says, holding one hand way off to the side, "and reality being here"—he holds his other hand two feet away—"and that scouting report sounded like reality."
So far, however, through the end of January, the scouting report hasn't been reality. So far, the Warriors have appeared not just lucky, or on a roll, but really good. There is talk of home court advantage in the first round in the West. When we arrive at Oracle later that night on the BART train, we are awash in a sea of fellow unrealistic optimists who move as one off the train and into a low-lying cumulus cloud of marijuana smoke. (It's a common weather pattern in the Bay Area.) In front of us looms the sad concrete cauldron of the Oakland Coliseum, home of the A's. Beyond it we see the bulk of Oracle, the streaming lights of the highway and, across the Bay, the misty glow of San Francisco, where the Warriors are slated to move in four years, which no one in Oakland much brings up these days.
Inside, as always, Oracle is rocking. Fans roll through the concourse in Curry jerseys and Chris Mullin shirts and even a couple of Sprewell throwbacks. The good news: Bogut's in the lineup, his first home game since his most recent return from the ankle injury. The bad news (and there is always bad injury news with Golden State): Curry is out with his own lingering right-ankle injury.
Balancing $11 beers, we find our seats in the lower bowl. We instantly derive entertainment from watching Lee as he hustles to grab every uncontested board in a 10-foot radius, even if it's about to be snared by one of his own guards. When he heads to the free throw line with 7:34 left in the first half, a small but enthusiastic chant of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" arises from lower down in our section. Now that is optimism.
With Curry on the bench, Thompson has ample opportunity to display his beautiful release. By the final minutes of the fourth quarter he has scored 27 points without accruing a single rebound, assist, block or steal. In a moment of great drama—at least for us—he grabs an easy rebound to keep from joining the exclusive No-Conscience, No-Defense club of those who've scored 27 or more but zeroed out the rest of the way (your honorees: Michael Redd, Reggie Miller and Allan Houston).
The Warriors hold on for a 100--97 win, but not before dredging up unpleasant memories by blowing a 13-point lead. It's the kind of shaky home victory against a weak team that makes one wonder whether Golden State is as good as its record. Still, a win is a win. Cheers erupt, high fives are detonated, and we walk out into the night cradling our new RUN TMC T-shirts amid all the other Believers. On the walk back to BART we sense a giddiness in the air, though it could just be all the pot.
Either way, we need all the good vibes we can get. In the morning we drive to Sacramento.
INTO THE MAW OF DESPAIR
The ride northeast from Oakland is an hour and a half, but this proximity is deceiving. The Bay Area is ocean and mountains and intellectuals and fog and curvy streets and Alcatraz and the Giants and the 49ers and Silicon Valley. Sacramento is the capital of California.
If our trip is about finding hope, then Sacramento is the city where hope goes to die. Or so we have been led to believe. The narrative regarding the Kings at the time of our visit is that their departure is a done deal: After years of shoddy management, heartless ownership and crappy teams, they are headed to Seattle, purchased by hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft superbillionaire Steve Ballmer. The once-proud franchise—which was bought and installed in a cow pasture in 1985 by a gutsy businessman named Gregg Lukenbill, drew 10,000 fans in tuxedos to its opener, came within a few blown calls of the 2002 Finals and presented the grand Webber-Vlade-Peja pass-and-cut offensive circus—is sentenced to death, to be reincarnated 750 miles north as the SuperSonics.
We pull into town in the early afternoon, bright sun overhead, passing the capitol dome and pausing to watch a pickup game at 9th and Q streets. While none of the players wear Kings gear, they play Kings basketball: Everyone takes bad shots, and no one passes. We find a better run, as well as some jaded fans, at the downtown 24 Hour Fitness. "People don't give a s--- about the Kings anymore," says Daniel, a thick, bearded guy in his 20s. "This team left seven, eight years ago when they traded away all the good players. Back then players bought homes here. They lived here. Then the Maloofs asked for a -cent sales-tax increase. They said, You pay 250 mil for a new arena, we'll pay 75. Then they go lose more money in Vegas." Daniel shakes his head.
The disgust with Joe and Gavin Maloof, who have controlled the team since 1999, was evident a week earlier, when I drove up to see the Kings play the Thunder in a matchup of New Sonics versus Old Sonics. Most everything about the Kings seemed ridiculous. They play in an outdated, above-ground dungeon called Sleep Train Arena. The roster is full of malcontents and miscast role players. The owners are a family of attention-seeking buffoons more often glimpsed on The Real Housewives of Something or Other than at the arena. The die-hard fans, though—they are impressive.
For the Oklahoma City game they arrived early, families and couples and white-haired guys in PURPLE REIGN T-shirts crowding the court during warmups. Sacramento may be drawing the lowest turnouts in the NBA this season (13,473 per game through Sunday), but you wouldn't know it from the noise. Standing and whistling, the fans clapped in rhythm and banged their noisemakers as the Kings took a surprising 14--5 lead, at which point talented but troubled center DeMarcus Cousins sized up Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins on the wing, stepped back and sank a midrange jumper. As the crowd roared, Cousins, Sacramento's theoretical franchise player, turned to Perkins and shouted, "Bitch!"
From that high point—or low point, depending on your perspective—the Kings reverted to form. Kevin Durant tore upcourt on a fast break, and the Sacramento players engaged in a spirited game of who-can-clear-the-lane-first? before Durant threw down a tremendous dunk. Sacramento forward James Johnson attempted to hit guard Marcus Thornton on a baseline cut and instead flung the ball directly into the groin of one of the referees. Finally, with three seconds left in the half, sort-of point guard Tyreke Evans caught a pass in the left corner and launched a wide-open, high-arcing three. As it turned out, not only did Evans step out-of-bounds on the play, but he also air-balled the shot. Thunder 58--51.
At halftime, I met up with Blake Ellington, one of the producers of Small Market, Big Heart, the excellent 2012 documentary about the Kings that details how fans and small-business owners rallied behind the HereWeStay and HereWeBuild campaigns to keep the team, pledging money and tickets, and how Mayor Kevin Johnson made a last-minute pitch to the NBA to stop the Kings from moving to Anaheim in 2011. Earnest and thin, Ellington said he still thinks there's a "60-to-70-percent chance" the team stays, but he admitted, "This is kind of the last stand."
Dave Weiglein, a.k.a. Carmichael Dave, is less sanguine. He is the Kings lifer and former KHTK 1140 radio host who spread the word about HereWeBuild, inspiring millions of dollars in pledges. In many respects he is the fan movement in rough, imperfect human form, a gruff, profane 37-year-old with a scraggly beard who's afraid of crowds. Now, after so many close calls, he can't let himself believe it's over. "I'm aware of how bad this sounds, but what do you do if a family member dies or if your wife leaves you?" Weiglein says as he stands outside the press room during the third quarter. "I know a basketball team is not a human being, but I've spent hours and hours away from my family for this. It's not like Hollywood. There's no twist, no happy ending. I don't think there's any recovery. If they leave, there's always going to be a hole there the rest of [my] life."
Weiglein looks up at the TV feed and sees that Sacramento has let a close game turn into an 86--61 Thunder blowout in a matter of minutes. He grimaces. "The Kings [are] the difference between us and Albany," he says. "If this team leaves, when friends come into town, they're going to ask, 'Where do you want to go, the Bay Area or Tahoe?' Our motto should be, Sacramento: We're Near Things."
If there is hope for Sacramento, it resides with the mayor, a 46-year-old former NBA point guard. When Dan and I pass through town, on the first of February, the latest news is that Johnson is trying to pull together a surprise buyer or two—whales in financial parlance—who might be able to match the Seattle offer. When we reach KJ on the phone, he is jovial and unguarded until the on-the-record questions start, and then he goes into politician mode. He says he's "really confident" that "Sacramento will be the final resting place of the Kings." He trumpets the only-team-in-town advantage, a top 20 TV market, 19 sold-out seasons in 27 years and 2.3 million residents in the metro area. He compares the city's bond with the Kings to Detroit's with the auto industry. "The fight is personal for all of us," he says. "It's not just about a basketball team; it's our entire region fighting together."
But when I bring up Seattle and prod a little, the competitor in Johnson comes out. "I'm not going to talk smack," he says, but then of course he does. "It's kind of like when you have a World Series and one team is up 3--1, they get the champagne all corked in the locker room, and then they end up losing that game and the other team gets on a run. We'll create that dynamic. They'll be able to use those hats, those T-shirts they're creating—just not this year." He pauses. "Not on this team."
DEFYING THE CURSE
The farther north we go, the darker it gets. The warmth of inland California gives way to clouds and near-freezing temperatures as we ascend toward Mount Shasta. We arrive in Portland in mid-afternoon for the Jazz game. We turn onto Drexler Drive and park under the Rose Garden. Inside awaits the Curse.
Some background, in chronological order, in case you're not familiar (Blazers fans might want to skip ahead): Bill Walton. Sam Bowie. Brandon Roy. Greg Oden.
The devil is in the details, though: Joel Przybilla blowing out his knee when he slipped in the shower. Marcus Camby admitting he believed in the Curse. Argentine center Fabricio Oberto signing with the Blazers and retiring with a heart condition after five games. Watching Michael Jordan (a.k.a. the Guy Picked After Bowie) become the best ever. Watching Kevin Durant (a.k.a. the Guy Picked After Oden) make his case for one day becoming the second- or third-best ever. Enduring the Jailblazers. Enduring the Frailblazers. Blaming the trainers. Blaming the gods. Blaming general manager Kevin Pritchard.
How deep does it go? Before the tip-off, here's All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the locker room, watching game film on a flat screen. Aldridge, we've been told, has a thing about not being called a center because of the Curse. He laughs when it's brought up, saying, "I've been here so long, I've become numb to people getting hurt." In fact, he points out, "this is one of the healthiest years since I've been here." Then he reaches back and absentmindedly knocks on the wood inside his locker. As for the center part, he confirms it: He wants no part of the designation. When the Pistons' P.A. announcer introduced him as such earlier this year, Aldridge says he walked over and told the man that he's a forward. "I joke about it because, one, I'm not a center and, two, the issue of the actual centers here getting hurt." He pauses, turns serious. "I don't want to be in that group anymore."
This is fine for Aldridge, but it makes one wonder about the Blazer who does have to play center. Across the locker room, 6'9" J.J. Hickson, who is two inches shorter than Aldridge, sits in his chair, staring down at his phone. The Curse is mentioned, then the bit about his being labeled a center. "So are you cool with that?" I ask.
Hickson looks up, hesitates for a moment, then another. "To answer your question," he says, "no." Then, for good measure, "No." He is not joking.
It's enough to make you feel for Blazers management. Every franchise wants to build a team culture that's pervasive, like San Antonio's and Oklahoma City's. But what if that culture is not only negative but also out of your control? How do you end a culture of guys getting hurt? Of pessimism?
For a while, Portland fans blamed the training staff for the injuries so insistently that Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick wrote an article debunking the idea. (In essence, he wrote, the injuries were due more to management's taste for risk when acquiring and drafting players.) Coach Terry Stotts, usually a genial sort, recently got angry at reporters for asking whether he was playing his stars too many minutes (read: exposing them to injuries). Now, asked if a different city's fans would raise such questions, he bristles and recites his talking points: Almost every good player in history has played 40 minutes a game at some point in his career. The Blazers have suffered more injuries to their bench players than to starters this season (go figure that). Finally and most important, "I don't think you can live in fear of injuries," Stotts says. (Fittingly, on the day we're in town, reports come out of Boston that Greg Oden has met with the Celtics about a possible comeback. Just imagine how Blazers fans will feel in three years if Oden is an All-Star for a different franchise.)
Then again, these are not the Blazers of old. They enter the night's game 23--23 and boast a wealth of young (and healthy!) talent. Aldridge is 27. Nicolas Batum, a two-way forward and deft passer, is 24. And the compact playmaker with the sweet handle, Damian Lillard, is only 22. To Portlanders, Lillard represents the future: a guard, not a big man; a confident star; a player who never backs down. At the end of warmups, a group of 60-odd fans gathers by the tunnel to the Blazers' locker room, yelling Lillard's name, holding out items for autographs.
What makes these fans stand out is their age: There are no rowdy twentysomething bros, no middle-aged memorabilia collectors. Almost all are young boys and girls who know nothing of the Curse, who couldn't pick Sam Bowie out of a lineup. In Lillard they see someone smallish, like them, who beat the odds out of Weber State. One boy hangs his arm over the railing, beseeching the security guard to hand his ticket stub to Lillard. "I'll pay you a hundred dollars!" he promises. Another boy, who can't be more than seven, hunches with his face pressed against the bleacher bars, holding out his Spider-Man hat. Eventually Lillard walks over and begins signing. Teammates walk by. Assistant coaches walk by. Security guards too. And still Lillard stays. In 10 years covering the league, it's the longest I've seen any player sign pregame autographs.
This goes over well anywhere, but especially in Portland, a friendly, quirky city that wants to love its athletes and appreciates individualists. The following morning Dan and I will play hoops with an International Basketball League player named Stephen Dennis, who, at first glance, is a living, dunking Portland stereotype: a tall, dreadlocked white poet who works at a local brewery. "My hope is to be like a young Lamar Odom," he says. "Grab the defensive rebound, lead the break and pass with aplomb and precision."
Dennis is thoughtful and serious. He loves the Blazers. He is hopeful. So, if queasily, are most of the sports fans around here. Even the big-screen intro to the game seems steeped in darkness: grimacing Blazers amid computer-generated rain, lightning and thunder. We can't help but smile upon hearing the P.A. call: "And now, the big man in the middle and center ... J.J. Hickson!"
The game is encouraging, though. Lillard is guarded by Jamaal Tinsley, who looks about 70, and Lillard takes full advantage of that. Aldridge passes out of double teams with aplomb and precision. And Batum does a little bit of everything. We watch the first half on press row and then, to be with real fans, head to a dive bar.
The Blazers pull out a 105--99 victory, and afterward we head out into the cool Portland night with a friend who leads us to a joint aptly called the Black Cat Pub. By the end of the evening—or early morning—we've set a new high on the Pop-a-Shot machine and gazed upon the wallet of former fan favorite and bon vivant Channing Frye, the Blazers' reserve power forward from 2007 to '09. Frye, as much as any NBA player in any town, was Portland. He loved the music, beer, food, art and weirdness. In deference to Frye, the bartender has kept the wallet he once forgot, a limited-edition job that she guesses is worth $400 and still holds his credit cards. The wallet lives in a safe in the back of the bar, in case Frye returns for it. He has only 16 months, though. That's when the Black Cat is scheduled to close down for good. Maybe, Dan wonders, well into his pint, the Curse got it too.
Come Monday we push northward, and the landscape changes again. Coniferous trees border I-5, logging trucks trundle in front of us. The pale specter of Mount Rainier looms in the distance. The sky seems forever on the verge of rain. And then, out of the wild, arises the grandeur of the Queen City.
To be in Seattle these days is to feel a surge of green-and-yellow enthusiasm. In search of the epicenter, we head to Oskar's Kitchen, a funky little bar owned by former Sonics star Shawn Kemp in the Queen Anne district, near Key Arena. We'd heard tales of people walking in to find Kemp behind the bar, in a tank top, serving drinks. And of Kemp buying beers for Sonics diehards, throwing a huge arm around them. When we visit, we find only a Kemp number 40 Sonics jersey hanging on the wall. A guy at a nearby table is wearing a green zip-up sweatshirt that reads BACK TO SEATTLE in movie logo script. Seattle Weeklys stacked in the entryway feature a cover photo of a shockingly fit Kemp kissing a basketball (the tag line: IT'S REIGNING AGAIN).
When we raise Kemp on the phone later, he is pumped. "I always knew basketball would return to Seattle," he says. Kemp's in a good place these days. He's lost the weight he gained late in his career, married the mother of three of his many children. He plays flag football and rec league hoops. ("I still got it!" he reports.) And he has become the face of the Sonics' resurgence. Kemp says he's tight with Chris Hansen, mentions that he's seen Steve Ballmer at hoops games, even his own son's, and believes that the Microsoft CEO "truly loves basketball."
For Kemp there is nothing but upside to a return: His bar will do better business; his jersey will hang from the rafters; and he may play a role in the franchise. As for the Kings whose careers may slip away without the mooring of a franchise, men like Webber, Kemp says, "We'd welcome those guys, man." It is a nice sentiment, but how often do you see the jerseys of a defunct franchise hanging in the shiny home of a new one?
Then again, Seattle is not a done deal yet. I mention to Kemp the words of his old on-court opponent Kevin Johnson about 3--1 deficits and cracking the champagne too early. Kemp chuckles. "You look out there on the NBA court today," he says, "and you count how many players are from Sacramento and how many are from Seattle. That will tell you the difference in want and love for basketball."
While Kemp is elated, not everyone in Seattle feels the same way. Among those who railed loudest, and most eloquently, for the failed Save Our Sonics campaign was Sherman Alexie, the poet, novelist and National Book Award winner. When the team left for OKC in 2008, he took it hard. In 2010 he told me he'd cried 20 times in the previous year. "The other day I tried to watch [the Thunder]," he said, "and I saw Earl Watson take a stupid jumper, and I missed him so much."
Now, with a team again bound for Seattle, I give Alexie a call, expecting him to be, if not jubilant, at least excited. Instead, he's conflicted. He says he still can't watch Kevin Durant for more than five minutes without turning off the TV, because "my pain and anger just rise up." He says he still follows the careers of the players he considers true Sonics—guys like Watson and Nick Collison. ("His assist-to-turnover ratio is still amazing!" Alexie says of Watson. "And I think I could beat him in H-O-R-S-E!") Still, Alexie has publicly stated that he hopes Sacramento keeps its team, for how can Seattle take joy in doing to another city what Seattle endured?
"Seattle fans are pissed at me because I'm pointing out the hypocrisy of it," Alexie says. "Everybody's talking about it like it's the return of the Sonics, and it's not." His preference is an expansion team. He wants to believe that his principles will win out, that he won't support the Kings if they move north. "On a purely basketball level, it's horrible that we'll be getting this team," he says. "But for me, to not have season tickets to an NBA team, I just can't do it. So I'm going to do it, and I'm going to feel incredibly Catholic and guilty." And this is the worst part of it: "There's really not a player on the Kings I would keep."
We hear a different take during our last stop of the night, at Floyd's Place, a longtime Sonics bar in Queen Anne. Sonics pennants hang behind the bar, a poster of Kemp is pasted in the front window, and the tip jar is a Gary Payton lunch box. One of the TVs shows the Thunder blowing out a hapless opponent. But it's Sacramento that bartender Joe Dimmitt is interested in. "They've got some pieces," he says while pouring a Boneyard IPA. "Cousins has some skills. He could be a monster."
Dimmitt has worked at Floyd's for nearly six years and remembers how painful it was, both personally and for business, when the Sonics left. "We boycotted the NBA for a couple of years around here," he says. "Now I don't feel guilty for watching the NBA anymore. I even rooted for the Thunder against Miami in the Finals last year."
Soon enough, our attention has turned to the Kings. They're only a point behind Utah at the half. Perhaps there is hope in Sacramento on this one night. Then we see the news on the ticker: Cousins was ejected from the game for arguing with the refs. At halftime. It is, Dan notes while shaking his head, "the most DeMarcus thing ever."
Despite leading 82--80, the Kings lose by seven in OT. The folks in Seattle don't care, though. They'll love them just the way they are.
A FRANCHISE FORGOTTEN
The border guard appraises us skeptically when we tell him our story. "You're looking for Grizzlies fans?" he says. "You should have come 10 years ago." The guard is wrong, though. At 5:30 that afternoon we meet up with a man who is probably the biggest remaining Grizzlies supporter in Canada.
The setting is the Shark Club downtown, within walking distance of Rogers Arena (formerly General Motors Place), where the Grizz once played to a half-full house. We've called ahead and persuaded the owner to put the Grizzlies-Suns game on one of the dozens of TVs in the bar. Off in a corner we find Doug Eberhardt ensconced in a booth, eyes glued to the TV. Fifty years old, with short dark hair and the build of a point guard, which he once was for the University of British Columbia, he's wearing a Grizzlies polo shirt and carries a Grizzlies-embossed clipboard. Now a coach, Eberhardt still keeps a box of Grizzlies items at home, including a Grizzlies Christmas CD and point guard Darrick Martin's old warmup jersey.
"It didn't have to be like this," Eberhardt says, gesturing around the bar, one of the city's biggest sports-watching venues. There are all manner of hockey and CFL mementos but not a single reminder of the Grizz that we can see. Seattle is a city that lost a team and felt its soul ripped out, but Vancouver is quite different. As Eberhardt says, being a Grizzlies fan "is like Dallas. We woke up one day, and it was like six years didn't happen."
Once upon a time there was hope in Vancouver. Back in 1995, David Stern, dead set on expanding the NBA's reach, stuck two franchises in Canada. The owner of the Grizzlies, Arthur Griffiths, knew little about basketball, so Stern dispatched Stu Jackson to be the team's president and G.M. To hear Eberhardt tell it, Jackson's arrival was the beginning of the end. Jackson was a perfect gentleman and said all the right things, but he ran the franchise into the ground, making poor draft picks, bestowing a ridiculous $61.8 million contract extension upon Bryant (Big Country) Reeves and doing little to engage the populace.
Jackson's most unforgivable act, though, came in the late '90s, when the Grizzlies reportedly had two chances to acquire Steve Nash, who was raised in nearby Victoria, B.C. "And Jackson wouldn't give up Roy Rogers!" says Eberhardt, shaking his head. "Stu didn't think Nash could play." Years later, when the Suns came to town for an annual exhibition game with Nash at the helm, GM Place always sold out. Vancouver cable channels carried every Suns game—and still carry more than half of Lakers games, now that Nash plays in L.A. It's hard to overstate how popular the guy is up here, and with good reason. When the Grizzlies left and pulled funding from a youth program called the Junior Grizzlies, Nash put up the funds. The Steve Nash Youth Basketball League is still going strong.
There are other what-ifs. What if the Grizzlies had catered more to Vancouver's large Asian population? What if they had been allowed the first pick in the draft, which was denied to expansion franchises in those days? What if so many Grizzlies players hadn't publicly dumped on the city and franchise? Or have you forgotten George Lynch complaining that he had to drive over the border to Blaine, Wash., to find his favorite potato chips, or Steve Francis, upon being drafted by the Grizzlies, telling an excited Vancouver reporter, "It rains [there] all the time, and they take all your money in taxes"?
It was too much for the fans. Eberhardt and his family had season tickets the first three years. He went to games and heckled Benoit Benjamin, the arena so quiet that Benjamin would stop and look around, trying to locate him. Then the team raised ticket prices despite being horrible. "People say fans weren't supportive in Vancouver, but we had a CBA-level team," Eberhardt says of a squad that went a woeful 101--359. "There was more of a family atmosphere at Grizzlies games than at hockey. We had a real opportunity. The Grizzlies didn't need to be good; they just needed to be not terrible."
Then, in 2000, U.S. industrialist Michael Heisley bought the team, making himself out to be a knight in shining armor. "He even sang the Canadian national anthem at the home opener," Eberhardt says, amazed. "He had the people eating out of his hand." Eberhardt pauses. "Then a couple of months later he called the situation 'untenable' and started trying to move the team."
Because the NBA never gained a true foothold in Vancouver, it didn't take long for the Grizzlies to slip from public consciousness when Heisley moved them to Memphis in 2001. The downtown businesses hit the hardest were probably Brandi's, The Marble Arch and the Swedish Touch Massage, all of which are exactly what they sound like. See, while NBA players may have hated playing for the Grizzlies, they loved playing against them. Word has it that the Bulls would come to town a couple of days early and set up shop at the Century Grill in trendy Yaletown, smoking Cuban cigars. "What wasn't to love?" says Eberhardt. "There were beautiful women and great food, and they'd blow out the Grizzlies by halftime." More recently Eberhardt, who is an assistant for a high school team and has put in volunteer coaching stints with the Knicks and the Grizzlies, worked out Metta World Peace while he was in the city. The reason is classic Metta: He was filming a Lifetime TV movie based on a novel by Nancy Grace, whom he'd befriended while doing Dancing with the Stars. He loved the city so much that he came back a handful of times during the summer.
This is the hardest part for Eberhardt and other Vancouver basketball fans to stomach: Start a franchise here now, and it might flourish. The city has grown. The currency exchange rate, brutal during the Grizzlies days, is better. The high school hoops culture is strong, and the University of British Columbia, Eberhardt's alma mater, is a consistent top five team in Canada. A stop by the local Y, where the wait is three teams deep for a pickup game, confirms that the city likes its hoops. Some teenagers are even wearing Grizz gear because it's retro.
On this night at the Shark Club, we watch as the Grizzlies fall to the Suns 96--90. The man on the Memphis sideline, Lionel Hollins, is one of Vancouver's last links to the NBA, having been an assistant on the expansion team and, briefly, its coach. The last player to play in GM Place, Mike Bibby, is no longer in the league. A few others have NBA jobs: Shareef Abdur-Rahim is the assistant G.M. in Sacramento; Lawrence Frank, who got his start as an assistant in Vancouver, is the Pistons' coach. (Big Country, if you're wondering, is reportedly contentedly working his cattle ranch in Oklahoma.)
In Memphis the old Vancouver players are honored on one wall in the team's facilities building, which no fan can see. Otherwise, there's little evidence the team ever existed. "Truthfully," says Eberhardt, "I'm not sure anyone cares about them anymore, other than me."
BACK IN THE U.S.A.
Our final morning dawns, and for the first time we point the SUV south, back toward the border and Seattle, where our flights home await. We fire up our driving tunes for the last time (Japandroids, in honor of Vancouver), pore over the previous night's box scores and try not to break the spell of the road. Just before the Canadian border, Dan points and laughs. There, on the right side of the road is a large sign. It reads: EXIT 1E: HOPE.
Hope can be a sneaky bastard, though. Over the next two weeks the Warriors fall into a terrible tailspin. They lose to Dallas. They give up 140 points to the Rockets. They blow a game at Memphis. And in their final game before the All-Star break, they fall to Houston again 116--107, to drop their fifth in a row. Their D, once in the upper echelon, suddenly seemed spotty. Or as Andrew Bogut puts it to reporters after the Houston loss on Feb. 12: "Right now, our defense is s---." We think about Mark Jackson. About the scout. We wonder if the Warriors will have to hire him next year. We hope not.
The Blazers also drop five in a row heading into the break, including a final, embarrassing 99--63 loss to the woeful Hornets. Up in Vancouver, Eberhardt shoots us e-mails, wondering why Dwight Howard can't figure out that playing with the Greatest Teammate Ever, a.k.a. the Greatest Canadian Ever, will only make him better.
In Seattle and Sacramento the battle continues as the losses pile up for the Kings. A New York Times story reports that there are now "more than three or four" whales circling in Sacramento, hoping to match the Seattle offer. Just before the All-Star break an e-mail arrives. It's from Alexie. He is discouraged: "These Seattle and Sacramento billionaires are Loki and Thor throwing lightning at each other while we mortal basketball fans live in the debris."
And so it continues. The players trying or not trying, the owners doing what they may, and the rest of us, the fans, picking our way through the debris the best we can, ever hopeful of a better tomorrow.
And still, it is beautiful.