In 1995, the NBA was thriving globally and financially. In 1988 and ‘89, the league added four new teams: the Charlotte Hornets (now New Orleans Pelicans), Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Those organizations were fiscally and competitively successful early on. The Heat made the playoffs in year four. The Hornets made the playoffs in their fifth season, advancing to the conference semis. The Magic made it all the way to the Finals by year six. The Timberwolves were less successful, but they had been purchased by the affluent Glen Taylor in 1994, and the Twin Cities were a strong market. Charlotte and Orlando had no major sports teams to compete with in their market. Miami had only an NFL team.
The sport of basketball’s internationalism had been growing steadily in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, it was exponential. The Dream Team’s Barcelona Olympics, FIBA play, and the success of stars like Hakeem Olajuwon, Drazen Petrovic, and Dikembe Mutombo encouraged the Association to add its first franchises outside of the U.S., in Canada. These teams became the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies
Both teams, as most expansion teams, struggled mightily out of the gate on-court. After four seasons well below .500, the Raptors made the playoffs three straight years, including a conference semis appearance.
Vancouver was a different story. The Grizzlies never won more than 23 games in Canada, including an 8-42 record in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season that was one of the five worst winning percentages ever.
Basketball was still relatively novel to Canadians at large, and the city of Vancouver ended up reluctant to embrace its upstart franchise. The Grizzlies lacked star power, a luxurious stadium, and compelling storylines, giving an ambivalent market little reason to watch or ingratiate the team. A perfect summation: the Grizz selected Steve Francis 2nd overall in 1999. Francis refused to play for Vancouver, and forced the team to trade him away.
The Grizzlies never had a player selected to the All-Star team in Vancouver. In fact, they never had an All-Star until the franchise’s 11th season in 2005-06 (Pau Gasol).
A lack of financial viability ultimately led the team to a new city. Business is business, and the NBA is a gargantuan one. The NBA’s lockout in 1999 squeezed the portfolio of every franchise.
According to Mike Beamish of the Vancouver Sun, “The location of the team in Canada was a major contributor [to relocation]. At the time, the exchange rate was 67 U.S. cents to the Canadian dollar. Because revenue was collected in Canadian dollars but player and coach salaries were paid in U.S. dollars, the team ended up spending an undue amount of its revenue on salaries.” In 1997, the team signed 24 year old Bryant “Big Country” Reeves to a 6 year, $65 million contract extension. He would be out of the league by 2001, never playing for a second team. Mistakes like that contract and the Francis selection snowballed on the franchise. Each misstep became more costly than the last, and the progressively deeper hole made each step toward light harder.
In 1999, the Grizzlies were sold to Bill Laurie, who had purchased the NHL’s St. Louis Blues a month earlier. Laurie intended to move the team to St. Louis. No NBA team had relocated since 1985, when the Kansas City Kings migrated to Sacramento. Commissioner David Stern and the NBA Board of Governors eventually blocked the move, and the sale was reneged.
In January of 2001, Michael Heisley purchased the Grizzlies for $160 million. He proceeded to tour the country, scouting for potential relocation cities. These included Memphis, Nashville, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, San Diego, Buffalo, and Louisville.
In March of 2001, the tour’s prospects started to heat up. Anaheim, Louisville, New Orleans, and Memphis emerged as the final contenders.
The Houston Rockets had considered a relocation to Anaheim the season before, where they would have shared a new stadium with the NHL’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and also been owned by Disney. New Orleans had completed what is now the Smoothie King Center in 1999, and the buying group had sold guarantees for purchasing suites, season tickets, and club seating from businesses to the extent that there was a waiting list for suites, according to the LA Times.
By virtue of the two cities having existing arenas – the most expensive capital asset for any sports franchise – the two front runners saw the team becoming the Anaheim Grizzlies or the New Orleans Grizzlies.
However, having no competing professional sports teams in a market had shown its value for the recent NBA expansions. The prospect of a new stadium tailored to the franchise also ended up favoring Louisville and Memphis. College basketball’s success in both regions boded well for the team’s potential new populace, too. The age-old rivalry between Kentucky and Tennessee got a new iteration; the two southern states became the two finalists.
Should the team move to Louisville, they would be renamed as the Kentucky Colonels, and their new stadium would be called the KFC Bucket. Yes, really. Seriously though. For real. The Kentucky Colonels had been the name of the city’s ABA franchise, from 1968 to 1976. The Colonels made three Finals trips in eight seasons, including winning the championship in 1975, under coach Hubie Brown! The team’s history was led by Hall of Famers Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel.
Kentucky and Louisville governmental officials agreed to build the franchise a $200 million new stadium, worth more than the franchise itself’s $160 million purchase price. Tricom Global Restaurants, which operates KFC and other chains, also agreed to pay ownership $5 million every year for 20 years should the team relocate.
As at least 51% of readers will know, however, this fairy tale doesn’t end with a three piece combo nor potato wedges. Memphis, Tennessee ultimately won.
The stateside iteration of the franchise has seen litanies of things that Vancouver never had: a Conference Finals appearance, playoff appearances, All-Stars, All-NBAs, All-Defenses, a Defensive Player of the Year, a Rookie of the Year, a Coach of the Year, a Most Improved Player, an Executive of the Year, and other accomplishments. Most notably: happy fans.