Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Toronto's new national agenda
By Blake Murphy Special to ESPN.com
The Raptors have struggled to tap into their national identity in almost two decades in Canada.
The Toronto Raptors began their journey in the NBA in November 1995. The feelings of inferiority among the fan base were born just two and a half seasons later.
Damon Stoudamire was the first draft pick ever made by the franchise and the face of NBA basketball in Canada up to that point. But after two losing seasons with the expansion team and faced with another, the point guard demanded a trade. He wanted out.
He wouldn’t be the last.
Tracy McGrady left in 2000 in search of an opportunity to become a franchise player. Vince Carter, credited with putting the Raptors on the map during his six-year stint, famously followed. Chris Bosh never fully embraced the void left by Carter and was all too happy to ditch Toronto for Miami seven season later, burning bridges on his way out as he complained about getting the “good cable” and that “it’s all about being on TV at the end of the day.”
Those kind of remarks infuriate Canadian basketball fans. Sonny Weems also criticized the cable service. Antonio Davis worried about his children learning the metric system. And Othella Harrington, believe it or not, said the cream in the center of Vancouver’s Oreos tasted funny.
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Each player who has left the country had his reasons, but whatever the rationale, the takeaway was often the same: Canada isn’t a place an NBA star can be happy.
Perhaps that’s why Steve Nash’s stretch with the Phoenix Suns resonated so much with Canadian fans. While technically born in South Africa, Nash grew up here, became the player he is here. If the Raptors’ stars wouldn't embrace the country, perhaps the country could embrace one of its own.
In January 2007, the Raptors, months away from their lone division title, hosted Nash’s Suns and staged a 15-point second-half comeback. But Nash scored 13 points in the final seven minutes, sending the crowd into a frenzy with each basket. He was burying the home team at the Air Canada Centre and ruining a chance to upset one of the league’s elite teams, but the fans loved it. He wasn’t some visiting player. He was one of us.
The dream, then, became to have Nash play in Toronto -- Canada’s greatest basketball export leading what was now Canada’s only team. Canadian fans went crazy in 2012 as then-general manager Bryan Colangelo tried to lure his former point guard home as a free agent. That effort ultimately proved fruitless, but it showed a clear desire among local fans to embrace one of their own.
Jay Triano, a Canadian who served as the Raptors’ head coach from 2008-11, has seen it firsthand.
“I felt it was an honor to be in that position,” said Triano, the coach of Canada’s national team and the only Canadian-born head coach in NBA history. “I think players are happy to be in the NBA. There wouldn’t be extra pressure, but maybe extra demands on their time.”
As it stands, Jamaal Magloire is the only Canadian to have played for the Raptors, in a one-season, 34-game victory lap in 2011-12.
That could soon change. A record nine Canadian players can currently be found on NBA rosters, and it’s hardly a coincidence. Guys like Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett are a product of the first generation to grow up with basketball in this country, and the hope is that more Canadians in the league “will drive more athletes out to the playground and grow that basketball culture,” as Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager of Canada’s men’s team, put it.
When Nash won his second straight MVP award, Andrew Wiggins was 11 years old. Now the Kansas freshman is the unquestioned face of Canadian basketball, and the new homegrown product Raptors fans have chosen as their savior. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is reportedly enamored with the idea of bringing the kid from Thornhill -- 25 minutes away from the Air Canada Centre -- to Toronto, too.
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Perhaps most importantly, Wiggins seems to want to play here. When asked in July who he’d most like to be drafted by, Wiggins said: “I would like to say the Raptors. I want to play for them.”
If attracting and retaining players is difficult, building around a home-grown potential All-Star who wants to play for you is an absolute best-case scenario.
Trading Rudy Gay on Dec. 9 was viewed by fans as a sign that the Raptors were doing what they could to make that happen. The team is still too talented to tank properly, especially given how putrid the Eastern Conference is, but more moves to push them higher in the draft lottery may be coming.
“One thing I can say is we won’t be stuck in the middle, we won’t be in no-man’s land,” Ujiri said last week.
Nineteen years after the birth of the NBA in Canada, basketball’s presence in Canada probably isn’t as large as what was expected. This is unquestionably a hockey country, making the experience of a Canadian basketball fan a peculiar one. Perhaps that’s why, despite being smaller in numbers, Raptors fans are regarded as one of the most rabid and passionate groups in the league. Outcasts in their own country and afterthoughts on a league scale, they’re ready to put everything into a winning team or, failing that, a top Canadian player, as we saw with Nash.
It feels almost cruel, then, that the 2014 NBA draft is dangling a potential merger of those two interests above their heads. But given how things have gone in the first two decades of Raptors basketball, even a 25 percent chance at Wiggins is worth dreaming on.