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British Columbia In search of Big Country: Documentary by Grizzlies ‘superfan’ seeks out her reclusive hero, Bryant Reeves

A still from the documentary Finding Big Country, which premieres Sept. 30, 2018, at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Steve Owst

How could a man so big vanish so thoroughly?

Bryant Reeves was hard to miss as a star player for the Vancouver Grizzlies NBA team based in B.C. from 1995 until a 2001 exit for Memphis. Seven feet tall, the affable Mr. Reeves weighed between 275 and 300 pounds. He was nicknamed Big Country.

The native of the Oklahoma town of Gans – population 302 in 2016 – was the first draft pick for the Grizzlies. The NBA team had a losing record that the current B.C. Sports Hall of Fame vice-chair says today complicates efforts to celebrate them. “Theirs is not a story of NBA championships or even NBA playoffs,” says Tom Mayenknecht, a former communications vice president for the team. “The Grizzlies didn’t provide a lot of those stories.”

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When the troubled team was moved to Memphis in 2001 – the NBA’s first franchise transfer in 16 years – Mr. Reeves, who played centre, went along, but never really played much thereafter, because of back injuries. He retired in 2001, taking the funds from a contract extension worth more than US$60-million.

Mr. Reeves vanished so well Mr. Mayenknecht, now the principal of a brand-marketing agency, wouldn’t have known where to send him a Christmas card. Many retiring pro athletes linger in the spotlight. Mr. Reeves quit fame in what Mr. Mayenknecht describes as a “cold turkey” fashion, adopting a low profile.

But Vancouver filmmaker Kat Jayme, a self-described Grizzlies “superfan,” was not content to leave Mr. Reeves in obscurity. She set upon a search chronicled in her new documentary Finding Big Country, which has its debut Sunday at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Clearly there’s lingering Grizzlies appeal in Vancouver. Two Finding Big Country screenings during the Vancouver film festival are sold out. As of Friday, a festival spokesperson said a third added show was almost sold out.

As the title of her film suggests, Ms. Jayme wanted to track down the towering player central to the team she adored as a child. She was 7 when the team launched in Vancouver, and fascinated with basketball in general and the Grizzlies in particular.

This will be a spoiler-free account of what happened after she began her search in 2014. It’s worth noting, though, that the film isn’t titled Not Finding Big Country. And it can be said that the film offers a thoughtful and, oddly, moving bookend to Mr. Reeves’s story in Vancouver, where he drew local attention but also interest from across Canada. He was part of a relatively small club of NBA players in this country. When the Grizzlies hit the court, there was one other NBA team in Canada – Toronto’s Raptors, who continue to play.

In this 2001 file photo, Vancouver Grizzlies Bryant Reeves and Boston Celtics Mark Blount take the tipoff to start their game in Vancouver.

CHUCK STOODY

“When I was digging and doing the research, I learned that no one had talked to Bryant, and he was my favourite player and so that’s when I really started to dig deeper." Ms. Jayme, a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s film production program who also oversaw production of various projects for the National Film Board, wanted to be the first Vancouver filmmaker to find him.

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Ms. Jayme, whose filmography includes short fiction and a documentary called Paradise Island, which was screened at Cannes in 2015, says she came to her search from a place of love, untarnished by the team’s losing record because she largely regarded the Grizzlies with childlike eyes.

“As a kid, I was just so mesmerized and excited to be there and watching these NBA players in my own backyard,” she says. “It was only in my research that I realized [they] were the worst team in the NBA.”

She began her search for Big Country by checking Google, and calling former team staff as well as journalists, but learned little more than that the player was in Gans. She was reluctant to just head there and knock on Mr. Reeves’s door, so she began reaching out to his family and friends to try to make a connection.

Berry Tramel, a columnist with the Oklahoman newspaper, wrote this month about discussing the elusive Mr. Reeves with Ms. Jayme. “He’s a hard man to reach,” Mr. Tramel wrote. “He just doesn’t pay a lot of attention to things like phones and digital communication.”

Eventually, Ms. Jayme and her team went to Gans for five days in November, 2017, though they arrived without any assurance that Mr. Reeves would talk to them. “I knew I wasn’t going to stop until I gave it my best shot,” Ms. Jayme says.

The 45-minute film was financed by TELUS Storyhive, which provides grants, training and distribution for filmmakers in B.C. and Alberta. She was awarded a grant of $100,000, which was added to an NFB grant and tax credits to pay for production.

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Ms. Jayme is in “superearly development" for a larger film about the Grizzlies in general that she expects is a year away from completion. “There’s still a lot to be covered when it comes to the Grizzlies.”

Mr. Mayenknecht has yet to see Finding Big Country but is glad for the renewed attention to the team. “Despite the losing records that became synonymous with the franchise, it was entertainment NBA style and a lot of people still miss that,” he said.

He says there’s a case to be made for the NBA returning to Vancouver, at some point, and Finding Big Country and Ms. Jayme’s next Grizzly film may help that discussion as the NBA considers Pacific Northwest expansion.

“It gets people reconnecting with the [NBA] story and it generates interest. It also gets water-cooler conversation going about what the future holds when it comes to the NBA in a city like Vancouver,” he said.

Another still from the documentary. Filmmaker Kat Jayme is in 'superearly development' for a larger film about the Grizzlies in general that she expects is a year away from completion.

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