They may not be the best. They’re not even the most popular. But, they’re still transcendent in their own way. The SLAM PH team comes together to show love to the crazy (sometimes literally) cult heroes of the Association.
Most of my life as an NBA fan has been pretty miserable. I’ve been a Wizards fan for most of two decades, but they’ve never won 50 games in a season nor have made the Conference Finals in my lifetime (since 1979, to be exact).
My favorite players — Gilbert Arenas & John Wall — are both stars who were just not talented enough to have the ‘super’ prefixed to the ‘star’ label. And eventually, both suffered brutal injuries to derail the off-chance they had at making a late career leap.
Yet my desolate devotion to the failures of the Wizards and their B-level stars pales in comparison to that of Filipina-Canadian filmmaker, Kat Jayme.
Her heart gave and has continued to give the entirety of its basketball emotional investment to a team that has not only never made the playoffs — it no longer exists. And since that team was relocated, it felt like that team’s first ever NBA draft pick, her childhood hero, disappeared off the face of the Earth.
That’s because Kat is a diehard fan of the Vancouver Grizzlies and their star big man, Bryant ‘Big Country’ Reeves.
If you don’t have memories of Vancouver’s version of the Grizzlies, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
The franchise most known for its recently concluded Grit N Grind era played its first NBA game in 1995, an expansion season for the NBA into Canada which included both the Grizzlies and 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors.
The NBA graciously gave the Grizzlies and Raptors the 1995 NBA Draft’s 6th and 7th picks, respectively, to try to kickstart their franchises. The draft’s Top 5 picks produced a slew of All-Stars: Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and, with the 5th pick (right before the Grizzlies), Kevin Garnett.
On the clock with their franchise’s first ever NBA Draft pick, the Vancouver Grizzlies selected Bryant Reeves. Big Country, as he was best known by, was a very big 7’0” Center coming off a senior season in which he averaged 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds for an Oklahoma State University team that made it all the way to the NCAA Final Four.
It would seem perhaps that a college star with a nickname like ‘Big Country’ would slide perfectly into the role of poster child for quite literally one-half of a country. But while the ‘Big’ part of his nickname referred to his massive frame, ‘Country’ more so referenced his roots as a country boy from a small town in Oklahoma called Gans.
And I mean really, really small. As of 2017, the population of Gans was at 302, a 45% growth rate vs its Year 2000 population of 208.
That means that when Big Country entered the league, there were twice as many active NBA players as their were residents of Gans. And 0.5% of the Gans population was playing professional basketball.
The fact that anyone could be raised in such a small town, against such limited competition, and make it all the way to the most difficult basketball league in the world is pretty damn insane.
Outside of his massive frame, Reeves had Gans, Oklahoma written all over him. He looked more apt for the part of an oversized farmer than he did a professional athlete; A gentle giant whose charisma (or lack thereof) is akin to the likes of Kawhi Leonard in today’s time. And he topped it off by proudly rocking patented Buzz Cut.
Big Country’s unusual build and small town background was no problem for Vancouver fans. At least at first. They themselves were a misfit organization sitting north of the border, sharing the distinction of Canada’s first franchise since 1946 with the Toronto Raptors.
They accepted each of his awkward dipsy-dos, his clunky 15-footer, and his weird yet shockingly agile jogs up and down the floor. They especially appreciated the genuity with which he played. Despite winning a combined 29 games in their first two years, the Grizzlies and their fans were still hopeful that Reeves could be a core piece to a winning team.
And that was largely because in his first couple of seasons, Reeves was a legitimately good basketball player. Reeves went from averaging of 13 and 7 in his rookie season to 16 and 8 in his sophomore campaign. So even through all the losing, the Grizzlies rewarded Big Country with a Big Contract — 6 years, $61.8M.
Nowadays, a contract at about $10M a year would be a bargain for a young big. But adjusting the salary cap to today’s massive market and Reeves’ contract had him making the equivalent of a rookie-scale max contract in today’s NBA.
The overall reception to the contract was a mixed bag, with most skeptics pointing towards the massive monetary commitment as a dangerous gamble.
“I think there were fans who were confused with the amount he was signed to but if you knew the facts and his stats, you understood that it was warranted,” Kat recalled. “The thing you need to remember about Bryant Reeves is that he played during the era of “big men” in the NBA.”
At the time, the league was moving past the ‘Jordan kills everyone in 6’ era. The only break in between Jordan’s two three-peats were a couple of Rockets team led Hakeem Olajuwon. And between Shaq, Ewing, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, a dominant big seemed like the new recipe to a title in that era.
It made sense for the Grizzlies to lock-in a young, high character mammoth with no prior injury history, right? Reeves was surely going to prove all the critics wrong.
Big Country would struggle through back and knee issues caused by weight problems. After a solid third season in the league, Reeves then only played 169 more NBA games through three more NBA years for a grand total of 395 NBA games in six seasons.
The same number of season the Grizzlies franchise would last in Vancouver. Their total six-season record? A God awful 101 wins, 360 loses.
And all the initial support showered on Big Country turned into a hoard of blame. The appreciation for the uncanny turned into straight up bashing, and the exclamations of “lazy” and “stiff” added insult to Big Country’s slew of injuries.
After travelling to Memphis and playing in the team’s first ever preseason games, Big Country was told his injuries were too severe to continue playing professional basketball.
So that was it. Just like the franchise that drafted him, Bryant Reeves disappeared as well. And not just from basketball, but from everything and everyone.
“Every article I read about the Grizzlies ended with a line about how no one had been able to track down Bryant since the Grizzlies moved to Memphis,” Kat said.
“I told myself I’d be the first one.”
So Kat did what any sensible, regular superfan of a miserable team would do: She mashed together her love for basketball, her expertise for filmmaking and her desire to unearth the mystery of her childhood idol.
She dedicated years of her life trying to re-open the story of a forgotten franchise and their lost star. She called everyone she could, from former Vancouver Grizzlies players like Mike Bibby all the way to the team’s mascot back in the late 90s. All with the hope of Finding Big Country.
In her documentary, Kat narrates her experience in the gruelling search for her basketball idol whilst speaking of her own experience and parallelisms as a 5’0” Asian baller trying to pursue the sport. An overarching achievement for Kat’s film was giving the necessary legs to a forgotten NBA face, one that was trashed and kicked on his way out the door.
“My goal with Finding Big Country was always to make a film that was more than a sports story. In so many ways Bryant reflected this as well. He is more than just an NBA superstar, but a great father, friend, and role model.”
And Kat’s retelling of Bryant Reeves’ career, the humanity that succeeded it, and the impact he had in her life allows a new label to ascend over the ‘bust’, ‘stiff’ or ‘lazy’ that has been attached to Big Country’s legacy this whole time.
Finding Big Country is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Photos from Michael Dinsmore
READ: Cult Hero Week