So the Toronto Raptors are practicing in a university gym in Oakland, Mich., and players are being led by a team trainer to the downstairs workout room, and it’s Jerome Moiso’s turn. He’s a bit player, a chiseled, laconic Frenchman in the lost years after Vince Carter. He stops to chat with reporters; the trainer doesn’t notice and keeps walking, vanishing down the stairs. Realizing he’s been left alone, Moiso says, his moon eyes wide, “I’m know I’m irrelevant, but damn!”
For a long time, that was the Raptors. Vince left and the NBA kept walking, and Toronto didn’t really matter. The closest thing was probably losing a playoff series to the astroturf faux-franchise Brooklyn Nets.
But this weekend, Toronto is the NBA. Unlike the NHL, the NBA all-star game is the place to be in the league for a few days, the biggest party, the place where celebrities flock. (Floyd Mayweather, they say, has apparently rented a downtown Toronto club for $300,000 per night.) The Raptors, and Canada, are actually at centre stage.
“It’s a good moment for us,” says Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. “To me, we’re set up well for success. And I always say that outside of history and winning, big-time winning, we’ve got everything here. We’ve got great ownership — I know sometimes people talk about Bell and Rogers, blah blah blah, Larry Tanenbaum — but they give us an incredible platform to perform. Our fans, I would argue that they’re top-three in the NBA. The atmosphere in the game, I’d definitely say top-three in the NBA. City? Toronto, a top-five city in the world.
“But until you know it, are you comfortable going? And we have to make it so it’s known that it’s comfortable. DeMarre (Carroll) came here and he loved it. DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry) have been here a long time, and they both love it, and Kyle re-signed. Amir (Johnson) still talks about it here.
“And if you win, anybody will want to go there.”
And as all-star weekend arrives, Toronto sits second in the East, but could use one more star. When Vince Carter was in his prime, he tried to recruit his Orlando neighbour, Shaquille O’Neal.
“I love Toronto, I love Canadians, I love the national anthem,” O’Neal says, before crooning a little bit of O Canada. “But the double tax was too much. And besides, I don’t really like the winters up here. I’m a tropical big man. But I love the city, love to be here, love Caribana, love George’s (Deli). People love the city.
“If I had to do it all over again, I might reconsider. But growing up in New Jersey and then moving to Germany and being in the cold all my life, I just wanted to be somewhere it was warm.”
The tax thing has settled down, but the polar reputation won’t be helped by this weekend. But we are past the days of Keon Clark, of Moiso, of Lenny Wilkens’ lead assistant calling down the bench and calling Jerome Williams “Jermaine,” of the backwater. This is the 6ix now, for whatever that’s worth.
“I’ve always said that Toronto was the best-kept secret,” says Carter, on the phone from Memphis. “They know of us, they know there’s a team there, but they don’t really know what the city has to offer. If you ask a player now that didn’t play in Toronto, what do you think about Toronto, like man, this place is awesome.
“All-star’s going to help, because you’re going to have guys around for a weekend, and that’s going to make a difference. Players now, they’re looking. The precedent has been set back when Chris (Bosh) went to Miami with LeBron. I think it’s different now. It’s not, ‘I can go there and when I go guys will follow.’ It’s what’s already there, is it good enough? That’s the way it’s going now. That’s why I think the all-star game will help them. It’s a building block. You have to start building the core until someone says ‘You know what, adding me to that would be special.’ ”
“I was saying, when Vince was here, everybody wanted to watch the Raptors because of Vince,” says DeRozan, who with represent Toronto in the all-star game, along with Lowry. “And I wanted to put that on people who weren’t fans or paying attention to us, to pay attention to us. And now it’s slowly grown over time, and here we are talking about all-star, and multiple guys in the game.”
This weekend isn’t about that, but it is. There are stars here, rising stars, legends, celebrities, and word of mouth travels fast in the NBA. This core still needs one great player to be considered anything like a contender, and the right great player. Sources indicate the Raptors could get Dwight Howard for Jonas Valanciunas, but don’t seem inclined to go down that path. Carmelo Anthony was lightly shopped in this neighbourhood earlier this year, but nothing developed. A call was made on Blake Griffin before his Toronto punch-up, but the Clippers sound like they’re not ready for that yet.
So for now, Toronto will have to settle for the stars appearing as a cameo, and hope they can see through the cold. This is Toronto’s NBA weekend, finally. It doesn’t really matter, unless it does.