COLUMN SIX: Arson avoided

Early-days Raptors firing nearly sees lawn torched

Special to the VOICE

In the mid 1990s I mowed grass for an affluent man in Fonthill who was friends with my father. This gentleman told me he had a neighbour who was related to the then-co-owner of the Toronto Raptors. Around about 1997, this owner became ensnared in a power struggle over control of the team with the Raptors’ founding general manager, Isiah Thomas.

Thomas was an NBA superstar for the Detroit Pistons in the 1980s, leading them to two NBA championships. In the early days of the Raptors in the ‘90s, Thomas was the fledgling franchise’s face, an apparent beacon of credibility for a team that had named itself after the “Jurassic Park” movie craze, and featured a large purple cartoon dinosaur as its logo. So, when said owner won the power struggle and forced Thomas out, a slackjawed local youth (me) debated spelling out the word “Zeke” (Thomas’ nickname as a player) in gasoline on said relative’s lawn and setting it alight in the early morning hours.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed and no such criminal act of vandalism occurred. It also proved wise for other reasons. Following his departure from the Raptors, Thomas’ body of work included torpedoing the Indiana Pacers; buying and bankrupting the minor-league Continental Basketball Association; and, as New York Knicks general manager, pairing the aging Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury together in the same backcourt, which for non-basketball aficionados would be akin to serving beef gravy on a bed of bananas (Thomas later left the Knicks under the cloud of a sexual harassment lawsuit).

Still, Thomas’ early stewardship of the Raptors remained an early highlight for a franchise short on bright spots. To quantify this, the case can be made that until about three years ago, one of the top-five moments in team history was the scene in the film “Jackie Brown,” in which Samuel L. Jackson lifts up a Raptors duffel bag and says he’s got the money “right here in my Raptors bag.”

Prior to 2014, the team’s high-water mark was a Game 7 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 playoffs, on a day when star Vince Carter missed the final shot hours after getting off a private jet from his college graduation — much to the chagrin of just about everybody but Carter. The promise of that ’01 team was followed up the next year by a first-round loss to Detroit, in which the Raptors’ ballhandler didn’t know what the score was in the final seconds, and took a three-point shot when only a two was needed (he missed). Afterward, a Toronto sportswriter spotted Raptors forward Keon Clark smoking a cigarette in the shower.

The team would reach the playoffs just twice over the next 12 years.

It’s for reasons like this that last week’s NBA championship is still stunning, even if Toronto was a more focused, deeper team than the Golden State Warriors going into these finals. Yes, the horrific injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson devastated the Dubs. But, with the exception of one quarter, the Raptors controlled the tempo throughout the series, while harassing two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry into subpar 34 percent three-point shooting in six games. That’s no small feat against a team that has revolutionized the league over the last five years with its pace-and-space approach.

The past may be prologue, and that saying is on steroids with the Raptors. As a reporter or general hanger-on, I witnessed more bad basketball in the former Air Canada Centre than I care to remember. I once watched Carmelo Anthony defeat the Raptors on a buzzer-beating fallaway and then devour a styrofoam container full of chicken fingers in his locker afterward. One morning I was granted access to the off-limits players’ lounge, where I sat with then-coach Jay Triano and talked about him growing up in Niagara Falls and playing basketball at A.N. Myer. These were dark times in Raptorland, post-Chris Bosh, when Triano was viewed, in some quarters, as nothing but a token Canadian coach.

Times changed radically in 2013, and many will still point out it took a brash American to do it. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment hired Tim Leiweke as their CEO, and the former Los Angeles-sports-concern honcho went right to work. While it wasn’t just the Raptors he overhauled — his groundwork with the Leafs led to the hiring of Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas, and he deftly turned MLS squad Toronto FC into a contender —the Dinos experienced the biggest impact. His hiring of team president and wily dealmaker Masai Ujiri in June 2013 remains the flashpoint for their success.

And while the performer Drake’s involvement with the Raptors can be at times described as frivolous, there’s no denying its marketing impact. It took Leiweke to bring him aboard, after reports said the Toronto rapper had previously lobbied previous management for some sort of involvement with his hometown team and been rebuffed.

The winning began the following season, but ended in disappointment in the playoffs. Following a tough, one-point Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, in which Kyle Lowry was stuffed by Paul Pierce at the buzzer, I was walking out of the media area looking at my phone when I very nearly collided with Drake and his crew of “Chubbs” and others coming around the corner.

Having been in sweaty media scrums around the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant —or making sarcastic remarks to Rob Lowe in bars— I’m not a particularly star-struck person. Yet what the Drake encounter made me realize was that the Raptors were at least trying to be that glamorous NBA team, the kind envisioned from the Los Angeles Lakers’ “Showtime” lore.

But as is often the case in the NBA, there’s a big difference between style and substance. That’s why after too many years of getting just close enough to be James’ whipping boy in the playoffs, Ujiri pulled the trigger on last summer’s blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard. After firing head coach Dwane Casey, Ujiri didn’t hesitate to ship out fan favourite DeRozan for a far superior player.

Of course, the consternation was instant. In a city supposedly shunned by top NBA players, why trade a highly-productive one who loved the city so much he once proclaimed “I am Toronto,” for a laconic-looking superstar coming off a severe quad injury, rumoured to be focused on ultimately returning to his hometown of L.A.? 

The answer is as simplistically brutal as life itself. If you can’t execute at an expected level, there’s a good chance you’ll be replaced by someone who can — whether they’re a nice person or not. The trade-off in perception was Ujiri’s gamble, and it just paid off with a mostly unexpected NBA championship.

So, even if Leonard walks to the Los Angeles Clippers when he becomes a free agent at 6 PM a week from Sunday (my personal guess is he stays with the Raptors on a one-year contract), it was all well worth the risk. Whatever happens, the longtime narrative of the Toronto Raptors has changed forever. They are losers no more, no longer reliant on throwaway lines from Quentin Tarantino movies for their achievement lists. The NBA title is also another nail in the coffin for the erroneous belief among some that pro basketball would never survive in Canada. While hockey may always remain king, it will remain so the way football is king in the United States—with plenty of room for other sports. This Thursday, up to nine more Canadians could join the NBA ranks through its annual draft. One of them, RJ Barrett, is projected as a future superstar.

It’s a new day in Canadian basketball, and a hell of a long way from being aggrieved about Isiah Thomas.

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