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Originally in: Vancouver Sun

February 13, 2001

Six Seasons of Basketball Heartache

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The Grizzlies are an unblushing study in coming up short. They are one of a handful of pro sports names for which losing has become synonymous. Now with this week’s announcements of imminent relocation resounding across the newswires, the franchise will certainly exercise its every right in wiping the slate clean. It will be a new Grizzlies squad that pull up stakes and light out for the territories—or at least somewhere fairly brimming with corporate patronage. For Vancouver, however, it means that the chronicle of our basketball experience is over: the narrative sweep is all tragic nadir, with none of the eventual redemption that some suspect approaches from around the bend.

At 91 wins and 336 losses before last week’s half-season mark, while toting the accumulated baggage of untold off-court tribulations, the team’s perennial losing ways have earned it an assortment of league records—all for futility, naturally. Amid the lost games, ownership instability, draft busts, and particularly the recalcitrant (albeit memorable) commentary from players and the media alike, it seems as though the reputation of Vancouver basketball has been perpetually on the wane. In fine self-fulfilling form, the Grizzlies have taken to the floor every other night for a half decade, playing in muted astonishment, frustration and, finally, wavering admittance to the law of averages wreaking havoc on their collective and individual egos. According to the masochists who record such things, the Grizzlies have lost more games by a margin of 5 or less points than any other team in NBA league history.

Basketball is a cruel sport for also-rans and, more than any other sport, box scores can be criminally deceptive. Teams average play three or four times a week; scores total in the hundreds; situational intangibles abound; and winners and losers exchange places with confusing regularity to the non-fan. With often only the slightest margins of victory, and games that are won or lost in a flash of seconds, losing has a particularly cruel and humbling aspect. Worse yet is chronic losing. It is the grimmest spectre in pro basketball, broadcasting for everyone the revelatory point at which failing—in a manner all too painfully evident—becomes internalized, and players give up, emotionally bruised beyond all recognition of their determined pre-game posturing and, over time, their former statistical impressiveness.

After a particularly disheartening loss to Dallas, a playoff contender that the Grizzlies dispatched with considerable ease at the beginning of the season, reserve guard Brent Price confirmed everyone’s worst suspicion. “I think there’s a lot of guys [on this team] who are defeated in their mind,” he told a reporter. “I just think the core players that have been here for a while and haven’t won year in and year out … at times, I see signs of just almost giving up out there, just letting it go.”

As the PA announcer at GM Place is wont to drawl, Say hello to your Vancouver Grizzlies.

* * * * *

It’s almost needless to say that everyone suffers for this. In Vancouver there is plentiful evidence for the ways different parties cope with adversity on this scale.

Within a team, quiet desperation and ineffectuality rule the roost. An athlete’s psyche can face no greater crucible of self-doubt, but a player still gets paid, and can place hope in the eventualities of a trade or free agency. Team management can arguably do the most to change chemistry, but their work is also a mess of guesswork and poker-faced resilience. An owner can agitate for trades, an owner can sell. An owner can move.
Outside a team, interested observers have a different, easily misunderstood stake in a team’s welfare. The business community which pro sports courts so avidly—it’s well known by most that NBA teams cannot break even with strong broadcast contracts and a sold-out stadium every night—is neither here nor there, both the most fickle and disinterested group in all this.

The local sports media birth new criticisms and, occasionally, even break a substantive story. Too often it’s all sound and fury, signifying a slow news day for them. “God knows you [reporters] don’t want to talk about the team anymore,” President Dick Versace claimed in typically wry fashion. “You’re tired of the one-point losses, the two-point losses, the three-point losses. You’re tired of the blown leads and all that. You’re tired of it. It’s the same old hackneyed story every single time. So you have to find something else and I don’t blame you.”

Vancouver sportswriters on the basketball beat speak by turns impassioned and scornful, alternating with alarmingly schizophrenic frequency. Sports scribes are supposed to be professional fans, but in hockey-first Vancouver they are (excepting a notable few, including the earnest Howard Tsumura) too often a gallery of studied scowls and solemn disapproval, rehearsing their already tired ledes and inflammatory rumours from cushioned press seats. All the while, official broadcasters Don Poier and Jay Triano tirelessly call another game, hoarse and consoling to their viewers and listeners.

What of this core audience, anyway? It’s the part of the story you know best. They are, of course, the group with the most to lose, and the least able to do anything about it. All fans have is their own devotion, however lunatic and blindered it may be. There is obviously no consolation for those who, like myself, have sweated down the seconds of the shot clock, clutching and grabbing as if we could arrest our heart flutters. Grizzlies fans are a minority, to be sure, and it’s a pleasant fiction for those among us to believe that our fervour is somehow special—some kind of an empathic endowment for being stalwart to the side of a team as beset by hardship as these Grizzlies.

But Grizzlies fans are ultimately no different than any other. At the same time, they don’t act out of religious awe for the team: clearly, they see something in the players that continues to feed their faith, drawing them back (in whatever varying numbers) to the game.

* * * * *

Success is, so they say, its own reward. I’ve hung on every moment of nearly six years of Vancouver pro basketball; nothing else can tell me a thing more about failure. Yet I’ve come to realize that losing, too, is its own immeasurable reward.

In the end there is the game, its constituent parts, and what you make of them. And there are the players. Long after the wins and losses, the armchair punditry, the jeremiads against big business—yes, even after Vancouver—there will still be a game and its players. There will even be, in one form or another, this team.

Losing will be a hallmark of this team’s stay in Vancouver, but that is hardly cause for complaint and regret. This team bears a remarkable, creditable likeness to the city that it called home for six years. For now, it remains a team with the city’s imprint: its athletes are unassuming and meek, stoic and relaxed, youthful and poised. Brash upstarts simply refused to cross the border, and our city’s relative anonymity has shaped the building of a team identity unthinkable and without peer in today’s major league sports.

Such benign personalities, critics inveigh, do not make for winning teams. Maybe so, but these players’ lack of pretence has made their victories all the more redemptive, their losses all the more human. If losing is supposed to be an education, a means to self-betterment, with the Grizzlies it has only brought players and fans closer to the one thing that unites both together in one place at one time: the game.

Whatever the outcome, what more humanity could one ask from sport than the spectacle of a team game in which each player is quietly struggling for legitimacy?

That dogged drive is still there for all who care to see it.

Game time. There he is, in mid-stutter step now, dribbling up the floor, bobbing to the right and left. He looks a little winded, blinks slowly, bringing the ball close, weaving again to the left now. In the flicker of an opening eye, you can see it right there: love.

Quotes miscellany
“Some guys were giving him crap about losing, and he would totally cut them off, like, ‘Give us time, we’re going to be good.’” (All-Star Kevin Garnett, on Shareef Abdur-Rahim last summer)

“We showed that while there’s a lot of season left, we’ve got a lot of fight in us,” said Abdur-Rahim. “Regardless of what anybody says or anybody writes—I know I’m not a quitter and I don’t feel that the guys I play with are quitters.” (Shareef Abdur-Rahim)

“So in a self-conscious way, as close as I get to my teammates and as much as I care about my teammates, at times I put up a guard because I hate to see guys go.” (Shareef Abdur-Rahim)

“Here we go again. I’ve been hearing stuff like this for so long. I don’t know if it makes an impression on anybody anymore. We’ve been through it.” (Shareef Abdur-Rahim)

“God knows you [reporters] don’t want to talk about the team anymore. You’re tired of the one-point losses, the two-point losses, the three-point losses. You’re tired of the blown leads and all that. You’re tired of it. It’s the same old hackneyed story every single time. So you have to find something else and I don’t blame you.” (President Dick Versace)

“I am an indomitable person and you can not put a chink in the indomitability that I have. I’ve had it all my life and it’s not going to change. You just have to be relentless and indomitable and inconquerable and you just have to stay the course and fight the perfect storm.” (President Dick Versace)

“When guys aren’t trying it usually means they’re unhappy with their teammates, that’s one possibility. The other possibility is they’re just unhappy with where they are. And the other possibility is they just couldn’t get over the hump and got their psyches bruised.” (President Dick Versace)

“I think there’s a lot of guys [on this team] who are defeated in their mind …. I just think the core players that have been here for a while and haven’t won year in and year out … at times, I see signs of just almost giving up out there, just letting it go.” (Brent Price)

“Thought is their enemy. They either remember too much or forget everything. Both cause their failure. All they need to do is perform an enormous act of will not to think.” (unrelated story about troubled athletes Pat Jordan, NYT Mag, 11 Feb 2001)

“Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there—and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion. …. We have to learn that sometimes a poor performance reflects not the innate ability of the performer but the complexion of the audience…” (Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker)

“But are all forms of failure equal? And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think? We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail.” (Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker)

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