Saturday, 3 September 2011
It sure has been one cold Summer up north.
By TIM DAVID HARVEY
Lets take a trip down memory lane. It was the fall of 2006 and this writer was living in Toronto for a few months after finishing university in his native England. Now this writer was already exposed to basketball since the door frame, pencil marking age of 11. Basketball was his first love despite living in a nation where soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis and motor sport leave little room for anything else to get a look in. Now even though this hoops lover knew everyone from the Kobe Bryant’s to the Michael Olowakandi's of this league nothing would prepare him for what he saw in Ontario.
This writer would witness a hoops hotbed North of America. A country whose star player/celebrity Steve Nash was a recent back to back MVP and a city whose team rose from being frozen out of the playoff picture to contention in merely a year. Sure Steve Nash may have looked more like a guy who surfs or skates boards rather than one who runs back and forth between them but he was the best. This pasty, shaggy haired little guy was and is one of the L's brightest, polished and biggest stars around. Nash is one of the greatest points of all time palms down. He ran things for his nation’s international team back in the day and today he still leads the way for Canada in his sport.
In 2006 the Toronto Raptors now the sole Canadian franchise in the NBA (since the Grizzlies of Vancouver migrated to Memphis) looked hot in the harsh Ontario Winter. No longer hung-over from Vince Carter's departure they where now revitalised led by Chris Bosh and his post Garnett style play. The Raptors shared more in common with Steve Nash than their Canadian roots. The Raps where quickly becoming the Phoenix Suns of the East. They where rebranded, they where quicker, they where more international than their location, they where more entertaining and most importantly they won more. It sure looked sunny for Basketball in Canada with little chance or rain.
A few years later however and the weather changed forecasting a chilly outlook and today it's so cold in the NBA's second home. The Canadian national side in recent years has failed to qualify for the 2006 World Championships and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Steve Nash has got older and as he has aged his number 7 Canada jersey is now being pulled off discount rails instead of being pulled on in international competition. Last year the Canadian side has crashed out of this months FIBA World championship going all John Starks in the group stages. I guess British Colombia will be the closest this nation gets to England for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Still, this incredible nation is still worthy of carrying their torch with pride. The fire is still burning, even if it is a lighter flame.
As for the Toronto Raptors right now they probably feel like a woman scorned. A woman who learned to love once more after all her friends told her it would be alright but then got cheated on again. Last summer it all went South (South Beach to be specific) for Toronto as their second franchise player/hero to villain left via free agency. Chris Bosh made a determined decision he saw as best but really became a CB4 in the eyes of Raptor fans joining 'Team James' and 'Team Wade' by taking his talents and teams hopes to Miami. Now although this move caused a whole lot of heat (that may even make things cooler for Vince Carter) things have been getting a bit cold up in Toronto for some time now.
It seems like the season of 2006/2007 was an exclamation year for the T-Dot, but now they seem so far gone from the best they ever had. As the years went on cracks appeared like the ice on Toronto streets in April. Personnel left and games dropped. First the Raps iron man Morris Peterson bolted and then their coach Sam Mitchell was given the Terrence Howard treatment. Following that more Toronto heroes would fly, from Hedo Turkoglu to Candace Parker's hot shooting brother Anthony, even the efficient 'garbage man', Jorge Garbajosa was recycled. All this did was leave the desperate franchise in need of more saving like the TD bank, consistently and literally speaking.
Nowadays this team really is looking like a bunch of Dinosaurs. If things don't get better for these Raptors the NBA could make their only remaining franchise outside of the USA extinct. Or they may even look better and feel more at home in the new, developing Canadian Basketball League. Sure Toronto is a big-market and vastly underrated city but an incredible town can't make up for a lacklustre team. Vancouver have already suffered this fate, there are no grizzly bears scaring people in Memphis just overweight Elvis impersonators.
Times have gone all Bob Dylan up north and this change isn't necessary something that these people can believe in. If things don't improve soon for club and country Canada may have no team in the Olympics and no team in the NBA. If Toronto is wiped out it's going to take more than a John Hammond to rebirth and raise these Raptors in another location. This team is lost on an island on their own and need to improve Bosh or no Bosh, Carter or no Carter. Now as far as the Canadian national side are concerned there may only be one Steve Nash but in basketball there are still five players that make a team on the floor. Nash is prepared to pass the torch, so who’s willing to carry it? It's time for these squads to put aside old legends that now just hold them back and look for young prodigies to take them forward.
The Canadian side does have talent however, in the form of guys like Ryan Bell, Andy Rautins, Jermaine Anderson, Carl English and the Miami Heat's Joel Anthony but in front of strong role players they need a poster boy, a Kevin Durant, a star player. In terms of iconic status Steve Nash may be to Canada what Yao Ming is to China but it's now time for Canada to turn over a new leaf and find their next dynasty, just like China are doing. Then Basketball in Canada just may start to run as smooth as syrup again. These 'road warriors' have been through a lot and now it's time for them to battle on without their leader.
The Raptors need to find their next franchise player also. Sure the loss if Chris Bosh was devastating as was the one of Vince Carter but Toronto re-fuelled after their loss of 'Air Canada' and they will rebound after losing their 20 and 10 post man. It's up to general manager Bryan Colangelo to deliver however-much like he has before-and raise this team out of the ashes, truly making them the Phoenix of the East once again. If this is done the right way then (just like the resulting aftermath of Vinsanity) there will be a day that Toronto can also do more than just boo Bosh when he returns downtown.
Developing star and internationally known Andrea Bargnani and dunking dynamo DeMar DeRozan are a great start towards a better finish for the Raps. Although these two guys would normally be second options on other teams, if one or both of these guys step up they could take Toronto up the ladder and out of an Atlantic basement which holds no Eastern promises. This inside/outside tandem could compliment each other very well. This talented range could be to the Raptors advantage, taking them all far. Speaking of which, front-court juggernaut James Johnson and speedy guard Jose Calderon are also two dynamic guards in the backcourt with a wealth of underrated talent. They are fast, they can score, dish and are stars in the making. With these four guys and former Phoenix flame, runner and gunner Leandro Barbosa in the works the Raptors still have a good team. They are just a few pieces away from having a decent line-up that can go deep. The loss of Bosh however is still a big one and the T-Dot would welcome a franchise player with a killer instinct that can take them further than the first NBA hurdle of making the playoffs. Then things could really take off in the Air Canada Centre, before other entertainment takes over and 'Rogers' that.
Now it may not look like it these days when group stage stat lines read 0 for 5, or star players walk away for little in return but Canada is still an important hoops nation. Taking Canada out of the basketball equation would be as amusing as taking John Candy (rest peacefully big man) away from a child. This nation is no joke but the old days are still missed, even if they are seen in a distant view like CN Tower. It just doesn't seem like a half decade ago. You see although he's closed to retirement (not too close, mind you) Canada did birth a player who changed the game in Nash and this revolution was televised on more than just TSN. Canada is still also the sole country outside the U.S. to have a proud and successful NBA team. Those franchises in the U.K. and Asia still haven't taken expansion so right now the NBA's biggest market outside of America shares a home with the Maples Leafs on Bay Street. Still believe it or not this hockey loving nation does give a puck about Basketball. Canada just needs to prove this before more of their courts freeze over and become ice rinks. Time to thaw it out.