Pro Basketball Comes to Canada

Hours before game time, in the dim light of an otherwise empty SkyDome, Carlos Rogers of the Toronto Raptors is alone on the basketball court.

Pro Basketball Comes to Canada

Hours before game time, in the dim light of an otherwise empty SkyDome, Carlos Rogers of the Toronto Raptors is alone on the basketball court. From varying points around the three-point line, an arc drawn 22 feet out from the basket, Rogers launches shot after shot, trying to master an aspect of the game that is usually reserved for smaller players. At six feet, 11 inches, Rogers can dunk with the best of them, and he is more comfortable playing closer to the basket. But his coach wants him to develop an outside shot, so the 24-year-old, who learned about life and basketball on the mean streets of Detroit, will do whatever it takes. "Coming out of the playgrounds has its advantages," Rogers says when, after 40 minutes, he finally grabs a towel and heads toward the dressing room. "Those guys from the suburbs, they don't have the desire to go, go, go," he explains. "They already got everything, they're satisfied. But me, I had to make it, or I would have had to go back to the street."

The National Basketball Association is a package deal. It brings with it the star power of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, the pummelling beat of rap music, the pizzazz of halftime dance teams, the gravity-defying wonder of a game played 10 feet off the ground, and a whole bunch of guys like Carlos Rogers. On the narrow confines of the hardwood floor, the players - enormous yet graceful - have refined a game they learned as kids on the playground. They give NBA basketball its edge, swapping moments of otherworldly athleticism with unprintable trash talk and boastful swagger. Starting Nov. 3 at cavernous SkyDome in Toronto and Nov. 5 in the lavish new GM Place in Vancouver, Canadians will finally see firsthand what has made the NBA the fastest-growing sports league of modern times. "Every time that Shaq or Michael or David Robinson comes to town, it's going to be a spectacle that people haven't seen before," says Vancouver Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson. "It'll be like a Rolling Stones concert or something."

The NBA's enormous popularity is relatively new. In the early 1980s, poor management, a league-wide drug problem and a lack of TV coverage threatened its survival. The league governors then hired lawyer and marketing whiz David Stern as commissioner, and he quickly implemented a salary cap and a comprehensive drug policy. But things really turned around when Stern redirected the marketing focus. To succeed in show business, he needed stars, so the league stopped selling basketball and started selling Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan.

Stern's initiatives paid off handsomely. The league now has four-year network and cable TV deals worth $1.5 billion, and it sells a staggering $4 billion worth of NBA licensed products - from caps to video games - worldwide. It has also taken on grand aspirations: to help basketball supplant soccer as the world's number 1 sport. NBA teams now play some preseason games in Europe and Japan, and Dream Teams of league all-stars crushed all comers at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and the World Championship of Basketball in Toronto and Hamilton two years later.

The league has also expanded, adding teams in Miami and Charlotte, N.C. (1988), and Minneapolis and Orlando, Fla. (1989), for a then-record $44 million each. Still, the NBA - concerned about diluting its talent - was cool to Canada's expansion aspirations until Toronto construction magnate Larry Tanenbaum forced the league's hand. In 1991, Tanenbaum and some partners tried to buy the Denver Nuggets and later the San Antonio Spurs. The league wanted those teams to stay put, so in 1992 it accepted Tanenbaum's application, complete with a nonrefundable cheque for $135,000, for an expansion franchise. Two other Toronto groups and one from Vancouver made similar applications, and in November, 1993, the league awarded the Toronto franchise to a syndicate headed by John Bitove Jr., whose family is in the catering business, and broadcast mogul Allan Slaight. The Vancouver bid, headed by Canucks' owner Arthur Griffiths, was accepted in February, 1994.

After a scramble to sell enough season tickets - a minimum of 12,500 each - to meet league demands, the two teams began the task of acquiring players. The pickings were slim under the expansion draft rules, mainly high-salaried, aging veterans, malcontents and fringe types who were no longer wanted by their teams. And although both the Raptors and Grizzlies did find some hidden gems, they were quick to warn new fans not to expect too much for the first couple of years. Vancouver coach Brian Winters said it has been a struggle to establish offensive and defensive schemes. "We are bringing in players from all over, and trying to acclimate them to our system," says Winters. "It's not easy," Raptors coach Brendan Malone concurs: "I'm going to need a good sense of humor this season."

The fans are not the only ones who will need patience. "My biggest concern is what happens to the players if we lose seven in row," Malone says. "I just don't know how these guys will react." Neither do the players. "I've never been on a losing team," says Vancouver point guard Greg Anthony, who spent four seasons with the contending New York Knicks. "It's not a good feeling, but it's something we have to learn to deal with."

Vancouver will rely heavily on the experience and scoring of Byron Scott, a stylish guard who won three NBA titles as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. And the team desperately needs guard Gerald Wilkins, who did not play the preseason because of a back injury. Without Wilkins and his 14-points-per-game scoring average, there are not enough teeth in the Grizzlies' attack. "We have had trouble scoring more than 80 points," says Winters, "and you have to score at least 90 to stay in a game."

The team would also benefit from more production from its top college draft pick, Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, a brush-cut, seven-foot centre from Oklahoma. Reeves was a college star who demonstrated an unusually deft touch around the basket for a big man, but in preseason action he did not match up well against NBA centres. Mychal Thompson, a former star with Portland and Los Angeles who now is an analyst on Grizzlies telecasts, says it takes time for centres to adjust to the heavy going in the NBA. "There are going to be nights when Bryant looks like a world beater, and other nights when he looks lost," Thompson says. "But he has to play. You don't learn anything about playing in the NBA by sitting on the bench."

Off the court, the Grizzlies are gradually getting used to their new surroundings. "It sure is beautiful around here," enthuses Reeves, an avid hunter and fisherman. Some players are already getting involved in their new community. Anthony, for instance, is establishing a charitable foundation in Vancouver that will raise funds for cancer research. He did the same in New York City in support of multiple sclerosis, and in his home town, Las Vegas, for his old school district. "My mom has cancer," he says, "so I'd like to be able to do something about that."

Despite the similarities, the players are discovering some cultural differences. "It takes awhile to get used to the money, that's for sure," Anthony says. "And it keeps changing value." There is the inconvenience of having to clear customs on trips to and from the United States, and many of the players miss the familiarity of their favorite TV station, the U.S. sports network ESPN, and its signature SportCenter news show. Then there are the fans who are, by NBA standards, a bit too polite. Toronto Raptor Rogers says, "We were playing at home, and they were cheering for the other team as well. They've got to stop doing that."

The Raptors took to Malone's system quickly, showing that they could win in the preseason. Among the standouts was point guard Damon Stoudamire, who was booed by some Toronto fans when he was named the team's top college draft pick last June. Stoudamire has since won most of those fans over with his quickness and scoring touch. Being on an expansion team gives him a chance to play right away, and he credits veteran guards Alvin Robertson and Willie Anderson with showing him the ropes. But he is anxious to improve. "We are nowhere near where we can be with this team, but it's still early," he says. "I think that we are going to surprise a few people."

Raptors general manager Isiah Thomas has shown a willingness to take risks on players other teams do not want. Last week, for instance, he was reportedly discussing a trade for New Jersey forward Derrick Coleman, one of the league's most notable bad boys. He took Stoudamire in the draft even though some scouts felt that, at five feet, 10 inches, he was too short for the NBA. And Thomas traded for Rogers even though the young forward had only a so-so rookie campaign last season with Golden State. An all-round athlete - he was a football quarterback and baseball pitcher in high school - Rogers can run the floor and soar above defences. "When I first saw Carlos, I saw a guy who had phenomenal talent," Thomas says. "Given the right environment, he could be very exciting."

For now, the Canadian teams are providing opportunities for mostly American players. Only two Canadians were invited to the teams' camps - Cory Hallas of Almonte, Ont., in Vancouver, and Wayne Yearwood of Montreal in Toronto - and both were cut early. Moreover, there are only two Canadians currently on NBA rosters - Rick Fox in Boston and Bill Wennington in Chicago. But Canadian officials expect that the new franchises will encourage young Canadian athletes to play the game. "It will improve as the Grizzlies and Raptors become established," says Yearwood. "I think you'll soon see more Canadian players at the NBA level, and that is so important for young kids to see."

Both teams sold an extraordinary number of season tickets - nearly 16,000 in Toronto, just over 13,000 in Vancouver. The teams' owners will need the fan support to continue. The two groups each paid $176 million - the highest expansion fees of any sport - to purchase the franchises. They will each carry player payrolls of at least $15 million this season, and both groups are investing in new arenas. Grizzly chairman Arthur Griffiths and his partners, John and Bruce McCaw of Seattle, just paid $163 million to build GM Place, which also houses the NHL Canucks. The Raptors plan to build a similar facility in downtown Toronto. The stakes are high, but NBA commissioner Stern says the investments are sound. "As a league, we have a lot invested in the success of our teams," Stern says, "so we are not interested in seeing this fail."

The fans have heard the warnings and have prepared themselves for the worst. "We know they aren't going to win right away," says Vancouver outerwear manufacturer Bill Hanna, who bought Grizzlies season tickets with his wife, Diane. "But as long as people keep seeing progress, we'll still come to watch." Others appear to feel the same way. With three minutes left in a game against Sacramento, the Grizzlies were trailing the Kings 98-77, headed for their fifth straight loss. Slowly, a cheer began to build among the diehards who had stayed to the end at GM Place. "We want 80," the fans chanted, aware that the Grizzlies had been unable to score that many points so far in the preseason. "If nothing else," Grizzlies general manager Jackson said after his team broke the 80 barrier, "it shows our fans have a sense of humor."

The players know they will play a big role in the game's success in Canada. "I guess you could call us basketball ambassadors," joked the Grizzlies' Anthony. But no one on either team seemed worried that the game might not catch on. "The hoopla will come," said Toronto's Rogers. "When the fans get to know the game and know what to expect, they will appreciate it. Right now, they are used to watching hockey guys check people, beat each other up, and that's exciting. But this, man, this is totally different."

Maclean's November 6, 1995