Sports

Making the Grade

Toronto’s Raptors are winning fans with a hot star and a playoff berth

John Nicol May 1 2000
Sports

Making the Grade

Toronto’s Raptors are winning fans with a hot star and a playoff berth

John Nicol May 1 2000

At the conclusion of the Toronto Raptors’ last home game of the regular season, right after their come-from-behind 85-84 victory over the Chicago Bulls, a party broke out at the Air Canada Centre. The music was loud, hundreds of purple balloons fell from the ceiling and thousands of fans stood by their seats, cheering and whistling and stamping their feet to the beat. Down on the court, long after their veteran teammates had hit the showers, smiling Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady batted balloons into the crowd and soaked up the atmosphere. And like the adoring fans, the two young Raptor stars watched a package of highlights being played on the scoreboard video screen high above. There was Carter, in flight, hammering down another thunderous dunk. There was McGrady, rising from a forest of defenders to block an opponent’s shot. And there, in a nutshell, was the Raptors’ season.

What a difference two years make. The Raptors were in such disarray after the 1997-1998 season that general manager Glen Grunwald felt compelled to stand at centre court, apologize to the fans and promise he and the team would make amends. They did. Thanks to Carter, McGrady and a strong supporting cast, the Raptors—in their fifth season since joining the NBA—are in their first playoff series this week, against the New York Knickerbockers. And perhaps more important to the long-term health of the franchise, the Raptors have finally made a dent in the crowded Toronto sports market. Sure, they lag behind the Maple Leafs in the hearts of local fans at this time of year, but their TV ratings have climbed encouragingly, licensed-merchandise sales are up sharply and the team sold out 19 of its last 28 games at home. Having suffered the usual expansion pains for the first four years, the Raptors found marketing magic simply by being competitive.

In the National Basketball Association, as in other pro sports, big-name players drive the big wheels of commerce. In Canada, for instance, companies that sell backboards and basketballs estimate they will finish the year with a 20- to 30-percent jump over 1999, and they attribute most of that windfall to Carter. It was his star power, they say, that got attention in a country that had not shown much interest in the first four years that the Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies played in the NBA. “Vince has made the difference,” says Torontonian Bernie Angelow, a longtime basketball fan. “It might be true that because he’s big in the States he’s big here, but he’s created quite a buzz in a hockey town.”

Carter’s impact is felt in the United States, too. His monster slams and game-winning three-pointers have become staples on late-night sportscasts all over North America, and he was featured on the covers of several major U.S. magazines. The native of Daytona Beach, Fla., was the number 1 vote-getter in fan balloting for the all-star game, and rewarded the voters with an electrifying—and winning—performance in the game’s accompanying slam-dunk contest. He then had to suffer the inevitable comparisons with Michael Jordan—their high-flying, high-scoring styles, the fact they both attended the University of North Carolina. But the 23-year-old Carter professes discomfort with comparisons to an icon, and also with suggestions that he is single-handedly responsible for the Raptors’ improvement. “I’m just one small part of what’s going good around here,” he insists.

Friends and family have helped Carter, a six-foot, six-inch guard-forward in his second year as a pro, handle the demands of stardom. His mother, Michelle Carter-Robinson, a retired teacher, says she is not surprised by his accomplishments. “He is very goal-oriented,” she said after an outing with her son at a central Toronto high school. “The students here asked about his goals, and he said he had to set new ones because he made the Olympic team, the all-star team and the playoffs.” Kevin Albrecht, managing director of IMG Canada, Carter’s management firm, says the key to the player’s popularity is “he’s just a really nice kid. He greets everybody with that great smile and a good firm handshake. When you meet his mom, you know why. It’s like meeting Walter and Phyllis Gretzky—you know why Wayne is the way he is.”

The Raptors’ turnaround is in stark contrast to the fortunes of its expansion twin, the Vancouver Grizzlies. They suffered through another dismal year on the court, fired their coach and were sold to Chicago businessman Michael Heisley. The only sellout crowd for the Grizzlies occurred when the Raptors came to town. “That’s because of Carter,” says Jay Triano, the Grizzlies radio analyst and Canada’s men’s basketball team coach. “Shareef AbdurRahim, Michael Dickerson and Mike Bibby are stars here, but Carter is an international star playing in Canada, exposing even more kids to the sport.”

While the Grizzlies have been assembled largely through the draft of college players, Grunwald rebuilt the Raptors through a series of trades and free-agent signings. He acquired stalwart front-line players such as Antonio Davis, Charles Oakley and Kevin Willis, and guards Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry—playoff-experienced veterans to complement the raw talent of McGrady and Carter. And it was coach Butch Carter (no relation) who gave 20-year-old McGrady the opportunity to blossom into a more complete player. While insiders blame a late-season swoon—during which the Raptors lost eight of nine games—on the fact that some veterans were unhappy with the team’s offensive scheme, there has generally been a productive chemistry among the players. Davis, for one, says he has seen teams with more talent perform worse. “What we have here are tremendous people,” adds Davis, acquired by trade from Indiana to play centre. “We want to win for each other—and that’s what it’s all about.”

That’s what it’s all about—for now. Carter is under contract for another two years. “I hope I’m here for as long as my career,” he says, “however long they keep me here in Toronto.” But McGrady could leave as a free agent this summer. He told Maclean's that, “whatever I decide to do after the season, the fans have to understand it’s a business, and I have to do what’s best for me.” And since many of the veterans are aging, it’s possible that this spirited, overachieving group of players may well be playing their last games together. For the growing legions of Raptor fans, the future is now.