The National Basketball Association went international for the first time* when the league expanded into Canada in 1995 with the Toronto Raptors and what was supposed to be Vancouver Mounties until the Royal Canadian Mounted Police objected to the nickname…which was changed to the Vancouver Grizzlies. Following six so-so seasons in British Columbia, the 1998 NBA lockout and the weakening Canadian dollar (resulting in a drastic drop of attendance) led the Grizzlies to move out of Canada.
Initially, the original site for the Grizzlies’ relocation was St. Louis, but after the NBA stopped that move, the team eventually landed in Memphis, Tennessee. The Grizzlies will play their 15th season in Memphis this October, but few know that these Grizzlies, though the nickname was inherited, were not, unofficially, the first sports team in Memphis to use this moniker.
25 years before the NBA Grizzlies took the court in Memphis, the city took in another Canadian castoff that landed a trio of football’s biggest stars just months before…the Toronto Northmen of the World Football League, a short-lived operation that played in 1974 and part of 1975.
According to Wikipedia, “Perhaps one of the biggest of the “founding fathers” (of the WFL) was a Canadian movie producer, John F. Bassett. A former tennis prodigy (his daughter, Carling Bassett, landed on the women’s pro tennis tour for a while, by the way) and owner of the World Hockey Association’s Toronto Toros, Bassett had been mulling over starting his own professional football league when he happened to meet (WFL founder Gary) Davidson and was given a franchise for Toronto, which Bassett nicknamed the Northmen. The fledgling WFL garnered major publicity when the Northmen signed three Miami Dolphins players, fullback Larry Csonka, halfback Jim Kiick, and wide receiver Paul Warfield, to what was then the richest three-player deal in sports, an astounding $3.5 million to start in 1975. The pact was a guaranteed, personal-services contract, so the trio would be paid even if the WFL did not survive its first season. However, (Csonka’s, Kiick and Warfield would never play a down of WFL football in Canada after) Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced that no U.S.-based professional football league would be allowed in Canada in competition with the Canadian Football League under the Canadian Football Act; upon which a change in venue (Memphis) and nickname (Southmen) was announced by Bassett. From the beginning, Memphians disliked (the name) Southmen and the team was informally known as the Memphis Grizzlies. The name appeared to come from the team’s logo , a representation of a bear backed by the sun (pictured above).”
Though the debut season of the Southmen/Grizzlies in 1974 was a good one on the field and at the gate, the financial state of the rest of the WFL teams could be aptly described as…well, grisly. The league was in such shambles money-wise that by the time Csonka, Kiick and Warfield joined the Southmen in 1975, the World Football League folded just before week 13 of that season. The success of the Southmen/Grizzlies led John Bassett to try to obtain NFL membership for his existing WFL Memphis team, but he was rebuffed by the league.
By the way, though “Grizzlies” was not the official nickname of the Memphis Southmen, two other nicknames of World Football League teams are used by existing sports franchises today: The Chicago Fire, which lasted only one WFL season, is now the name of Chicago’s Major League Soccer club; and the WFL team that was the Shreveport Steamer when the league folded in 1975 joined the league midway during the 1974 season when the Louisiana city acquired the financially strapped Houston Texans, who moved out of the Astrodome after playing 11 WFL games. And when it comes to that “Texans” nickname, it has surfaced in five different pro football leagues since the 1950’s: the National Football League (Dallas 1952, Houston 2002-present), the American Football League (Dallas 1960-1962), the World Football League (Houston 1974), the Canadian Football League (San Antonio 1993-1995), and the Arena Football League (Dallas 1990-1993)
*-The National Basketball Association was created through a merger between the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America in 1949. One of the inaugural franchises of the BAA in 1946 was the Toronto Huskies. If you count the BAA into NBA history, then the league would have re-entered the international market in 1995.