The chubby face with the signature flattop on the cluster of posters is familiar enough to make basketball junkies and longtime locals stop and do a double take.
Since the summer, makeshift shrines of a ghost of the NBA‘s past have been popping up across downtown Vancouver. They are spotted on telephone poles and construction-site barriers, sandwiched in between concert promotions.
The caption on one of the black-and-white posters is a question, one that people in the basketball world have been asking for 17 years.
“Have you seen this man?”
That man is Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, the former franchise player for the Vancouver Grizzlies. He played six seasons (1995-2001) in the NBA—all six in Vancouver’s infamous teal-and-maroon uniforms. He was one of those rare players who could be characterized as both a folk hero and a bust.
“I mean, he’s Big Country,” said Hall of Fame center and Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing with a laugh. “He was soft-spoken, quiet. But he walked tall and carried a big stick.”
Twenty-three years ago, he was one of the most memorable storylines in the 1995 NCAA tournament, breaking backboards while leading Oklahoma State to the Final Four.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated Press
That same year, the expansion Grizzlies made the baby-faced 7-footer their first-ever draft pick—sixth overall, one selection after Kevin Garnett. Blessed with a soft touch and good basketball instincts, Reeves was a larger-than-life center with a nickname to match.
“Well, first of all, I think the name is catchy,” said George Lynch, Reeves’ former teammate in Vancouver. “It was perfect for him because he was a country boy from Oklahoma.”
What made his shtick lovable for some was an old-and-tired story to others. While the NBA’s other Canadian startup at the time, the Toronto Raptors, boasted high-risers in Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, many considered Vancouver’s franchise player to be an underachiever—slow, drafted too high, often out of shape or injured and the recipient of too much money.
During Reeves’ time with the Grizzlies, the team won only 22 percent of its games and never made it to a single postseason. The Grizzlies’ stay in Western Canada ended when the team relocated to Memphis in 2001.
Big Country appeared in only two preseason games in Memphis before a chronic back injury forced him to retire. He reportedly returned to Gans, Oklahoma (population: 300), according to Gary Kingston of the Vancouver Sun, where he disappeared from the public spotlight.
“I definitely thought about him a lot over the years, especially because all the other star players of the Grizzlies went on to play in the NBA many years after they relocated,” said Vancouver native and filmmaker Kat Jayme.
Jayme was seven years old and just starting to get into basketball when the Grizzlies landed in British Columbia. Reeves was her favorite player, inspiring her to not only play the game, but two decades later to make a documentary about him. In her two-year attempt to find Big Country, a journey that spanned two countries and thousands of emails and phone calls, she quickly discovered that the man she was looking for did not want to be found.
“I tracked down other reporters from the States, and former teammates like Shareef [Abdur-Rahim] and [Mike] Bibby, the Grizzlies’ ball boy, our mascot, ex-coaches, our former GM, Stu Jackson, the former owner of the Grizzlies, Arthur Griffiths,” said Jayme, now 29.
“And none of them had been in touch with him or knew where he was.”
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Fans initially embraced Big Country. Kids all over Vancouver, all of whom were new to professional basketball, would copy his haircut or wear his jersey.
“I had love for other players, but for some reason, Big Country stood out to me,” Jayme said. “Maybe it was because he was hard to miss, being the biggest player on the court. Plus, he had the best nickname of them all.”
Off the court, he was the antithesis of the average professional athlete.
“The story I tell people when they ask me about Big Country is how he talked more passionately about farming and farm animals than he did basketball,” former teammate Blue Edwards said with a laugh.
Despite his size and skill set, Big Country was notoriously inconsistent. Injuries, weight problems, a questionable work ethic and lack of passion were the consistent knocks on his game.
“The only thing that I would question about Bryant Reeves would be his commitment to being fit,” said Edwards, who’s now the head coach of his alma mater, Greene Central High School in eastern North Carolina. “He was a good scorer, a good rebounder and passer. And he did those things very well when he was in shape. Now, he was never in the best of basketball shape until the last month of the season.”
Reeves would report to training camp overweight and out of shape. According to Edwards, he always said he didn’t have a gym or anybody to play against near his offseason home in Gans. A diet that Lynch called “interesting” would consist of plenty of red meat, potatoes and cheeseburgers. Big Country was also known to chew tobacco.
As his waistline grew—he started the 1998-99 lockout season at 315 pounds, according to Mike Wise of the New York Times—his productivity and health significantly declined. By his final season in 2000-01, he was in and out of the starting lineup, averaging career lows in points (8.3) and minutes played (24.4).
By the end, fans in Vancouver would boo Reeves for every mistake.
“It was challenging for him because he was the marketing face for the franchise, and that’s a big role to step into for anyone,” said Debbie Butt, who worked in media relations for the Grizzlies at the time. “He also had to take a lot of heat from the basketball management group. He had to work hard, and when he wasn’t performing, he was held accountable.”
Big Country played in only 395 games, leaving behind a career that seemingly could have been so much more.
“He gave it his all. As a player, that’s all you can do,” Ewing said. “Unfortunately, he got injured and wasn’t able to play as long as he would have liked.”
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Even before the age of social media, keeping tabs on past NBA stars was not all that difficult. If they weren’t NBA owners, they were GMs or coaches. If they weren’t in broadcasting, they were politicians, businessmen or reality TV stars. Even the NBA’s modern-day recluse, Tim Duncan, can now be spotted on Instagram from time to time.
But Reeves, who’s now 45 years old, is different. He has distanced himself from the NBA fraternity and any league-affiliated appearances. With the exception of a few newspapers in Oklahoma, he has ignored any media request.
While doing a different feature on the Grizzlies three years ago, a spokesperson at Oklahoma State wrote back: “I get quite a few requests for Big Country, and he has yet to call me back about any interview. I will attempt to reach him for you, but I can’t make any promises.”
Being in the spotlight was something Reeves never seemed to enjoy.
“I would say he was a natural introvert,” said Butt, who still exchanges Christmas cards with the Reeves family.
Lacking any real information about Big Country since he left the NBA, speculation and rumors abound. Some reports suggest he’s now morbidly obese. Others say he’s a farming tycoon. Some wonder whether he’s hiding out in Oklahoma because he’s too embarrassed by his underachieving NBA career.
His former teammates have heard the talk.
“Well, I think it was his back. From last I heard, he could barely get up out of bed,” said Lynch, who is about to start his first season as the head coach at Clark Atlanta University. “I don’t know if you talked to him or seen him, but that was what I heard about 15 years ago.”
Next month, people may get their answers when the documentary Finding Big Country is released. The posters distributed around Vancouver are marketing efforts from Jayme, who directed the film, and producer Michael Tanko Grand.
While the trailer doesn’t reveal whether Jayme found Reeves, the hourlong film promises to take NBA fans in Vancouver and beyond on a ’90s nostalgia journey.
“I hope audiences walk away with a new appreciation and love for No. 50,” she said. “I want to change the narrative of Bryant Reeves, especially in Vancouver. Show them that we actually had a legend in our own backyard.”
Edwards has not seen the film, nor has he been in touch with Reeves since his own NBA days ended in 1999. But he knows what he looks like now.
A few years ago, Edwards was at home in Charlotte watching TV when a familiar face unexpectedly showed up on the screen, sitting courtside at an Oklahoma State basketball game.
“They showed him and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s Big Country.’ And a big old smile came to my face,” Edwards said. “… He was a little overweight … looked like he had a little tobacco in his mouth, and he looked happy.”
Edwards immediately called former Grizzlies teammate Greg Anthony, and the vivid memories of Big Country suddenly came rushing back while they watched that rare four-second sighting.
“That’s the Country I remember right there.”
The documentary premiers at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Sept. 30 and will be released online on Oct. 9 on the Telus Storyhive website.