Larry Riley (left, with GM Stu Jackson in 1995) was director of basketball scouting for the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies.
Vancouver Grizzlies coach Brian Winters (from left), chief of scouting Larry Riley and GM Stu Jackson discuss their new team after participating in the expansion draft with the Toronto Raptors in 1995.
A decade before he drafted Stephen Curry, Larry Riley learned a lot about the NBA and what you require to build a contender.
“Without question those years in Vancouver were as instrumental in forming who I became as anything in my career,” he says in his Hoosier twang over the phone from Atlanta this week, where he’s senior adviser to Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk.
One of the Grizzlies’ first hires was the team’s director of player personnel, who worked from 1994 to 2000.
“It turned out well for me because of the experience that I had and it elevated me. And it destroyed some other people and it could have destroyed me,” Riley said. “But it didn’t and it turned out well.”
Riley believes things could have been so different for Vancouver’s NBA team, whose six-year odyssey launched 25 years ago this month.
But most of the damage that ended with Chicago-based billionaire Michael Heisley moving the team to Memphis in 2001 was self-inflicted, he insists.
“I’ve thought about that from time to time,” he said. “It would have taken a real effort, but if the team had not been sold to Mr. Heisley, if it had stayed two more years, maybe one, the team would have turned the corner. Then a playoff team and they’d still be there today.
“You can blame him in some ways, but you can also blame us because we had the philosophy that we’re going to build the team through the draft and we’re going to do it more slowly. And then you obviously look at Toronto and they flipped their roster faster than we did.
“You could argue in that first draft that Big Country (Bryant Reeves) wasn’t what he was supposed to be. … You look at that first draft. It’s crazy but the first five players in that draft were all extremely good players and then at No. 6, which is where we were, there was a drop-off.”
Damon Stoudamire, who the Raptors selected after the Grizzlies picked Reeves, was the obvious other option at No. 6, but in the end Riley said they figured if they were building the team slowly, they could find a point guard later and that Reeves would be a solid piece in the post.
“We felt — whether you can see it was incorrect and you could say that with legitimacy — that if we drafted a centre who was going to be our centre for the next 10 years, that was the way to go.”
But Reeves put on weight and never developed the way the Grizzlies hoped.
Riley had been to a lot of places and seen a lot of basketball before he finally landed in Vancouver. And yet, the six years he spent in Vancouver had more impact than any other job.
Some of that was because he’d decided to change a flight in January 1997 at the last minute, a decision that proved to save his life — the plane he was meant to be on crashed, killing everyone aboard — teaching him a lesson about treating everyone around him with respect .
But more broadly, his role as general manager Stu Jackson’s key lieutenant exposed him to a broad swath of responsibilities.
“That did more for (my future) than anything else,” he said. “My first experience in the front office was in Vancouver and it was tremendous.”
For the Grizzlies, he watched NBA games, he scoured Europe and of course U.S. colleges. Beyond the nuts and bolts of running the scouting department, once the team swung into game action he did a lot of talking to agents and other teams.
“We were getting beat in Vancouver and my stomach was churning and I didn’t like it,” he said. “But being in Vancouver and working toward an objective, we had a lot of good people. There was agony but it was a pleasure to go to work. And then the learning experience.”
The Grizzlies and their expansion cousins were given the chance to build out their rosters during an expansion draft the summer before their debuts in the 1995-96 season. It was slim pickings, with most players never playing for their new teams.
The Grizzlies found three players who would be strong veteran contributors in that first season — point guard Greg Anthony, sixth man Byron Scott and swingman Blue Edwards — plus a couple other veterans they’d had hopes for but who struggled with injuries more than they played in Kenny Gattison and Gerald Wilkins.
“The overall philosophy at that time was to get a centre, and then, in all honesty, the second was to get a point guard. And then you fill out the roster, which clearly, it took a while,” he said.
They drafted Mike Bibby in 1998, a year after drafting Antonio Daniels. Both went on to have solid careers but neither proved to be a true star. And, of course, they drafted Steve Francis in 1999, a player who’d said before the draft he’d refuse to play for the Grizzlies, a vow he carried through on.
“You could argue that we screwed up and drafted too many point guards,” Riley said. “There’s some validity to it.
“That expansion draft was about balancing a budget and not getting stuck at the end with a bad contract, which I remember well. Both Toronto and us were trying to avoid the Oliver Miller contract,” he said. Miller was a skilled centre but had huge problems keeping his weight down, regularly tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds.
“That’s the most vivid memory I have of the expansion draft.”
The Raptors ended up selecting Miller with the final pick of the expansion draft. He bounced around the NBA for a total of eight years but played another seven both in Europe and in smaller leagues around the U.S.
Both Jackson and Riley were out the door in the spring of 2000, not long after Heisley took over. Heisley moved the team to Memphis a year later.
The team had an almost immediate makeover, with Bibby traded to Sacramento for Jason Williams and Shareef Abdur-Rahim traded to Atlanta for a package of players, including the just-drafted Pau Gasol.
“That’s what put them over the top,” said Riley. “But who’s to say we would not have drafted Gasol in Vancouver and gotten the same result? And you know that (Gasol) would have been tremendously embraced. I mean, it’s just one of those could-have-been scenarios.”
Riley defended Jackson, who took a job with the NBA after resigning in Vancouver and now heads up men’s basketball for the NCAA’s Big East Conference.
“Stu is a good basketball man and his record doesn’t show it. He was just outstanding to work with. He knows the game, he knows coaches, he knows people who can get jobs done,” he said. “I think we ran out of time. You can say that’s a lame excuse. OK. … But I don’t think the business failed because of Stu Jackson.”
Another could-have-been scenario was the Grizzlies adding Steve Nash, a player he would come to learn about.
Nash was taken by the Phoenix Suns 15th overall in the 1996 draft, when the Grizzlies grabbed Abdur-Rahim third overall. The Victoria point guard was expected to be a solid pro, not play on a path toward all-time greatness.
When the Suns added Jason Kidd during the 1996-97 season, Nash’s future with Phoenix became doubtful. There was plenty of clamouring in Vancouver that maybe this was the local hero the team needed.
At the 1997 draft, the Suns told Jackson that they’d trade Nash to the Grizzlies, but only if they gave up the fourth overall pick. Jackson wasn’t interested. And Riley insisted their judgment at the time was correct.
“I don’t recall a good trade (offer) where we could have gotten him,” he said. “The reason I say that is I don’t remember all the details and it’s one of those things that you throw away and say, ‘To hell with it.’ I do that, I get things that come across my desk, so to speak, and it’s no good and you just throw it in the trash.”
After he was let go by the Grizzlies, Riley was hired by the Dallas Mavericks and their legendary coach Don Nelson to work as an advance scout and as an assistant coach.
Nash’s breakout season, his third in Dallas, just happened to be Riley’s first with the Mavs. Michael Finley, who the Mavericks had drafted late in the first round in 1995, and Dirk Nowitzki, drafted in 1998, were also on the team.
“That was an awfully damn good group,” he said, laughing. “Nowitzki used to rage me on, he’d say, ‘Yeah, you didn’t draft Nash and you had a chance!’ He never let me forget it. Steve wasn’t sticking a fork in me. It was good-natured ribbing. Dirk never liked me forgetting.”
In 2009, after nearly a decade as Nelson’s assistant coach in Dallas and then Golden State, he became the Warriors’ general manager. Stephen Curry was his first pick. Two years later, he picked Klay Thompson.
A lifetime of watching basketball, combined with lessons learned in Vancouver, led him to draft one of the all-time greats. And while he was moved out of the GM’s job in Golden State in 2012, the rest is history.
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