Raps rockin' on the road

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

Matt Bonner took the stage, guitar in hand.

"Bear with me, I've been playing for only three months and I have no amp," the rookie Raptors forward sheepishly told his teammates and coaches. "So I either can do Cat Stevens or Pink Floyd."

Well, there's nothing like having varied musical tastes.

"I played the Pink Floyd, but it didn't go as planned," Bonner said the morning after the club's annual rookie talent show and team-building session last Monday in Denver. "I was pretty nervous. Everybody was laughing pretty hard. But it was fun."

If the Raptors accomplished nothing else on their three-game pre-season Western trip -- and it was quite a long way to go for exhibition games -- they at least got to know each other better, not only on the court, but off it, too.

That stuff doesn't matter at the pro level, you say? Well, while a little camaraderie can't fill the Raptors' hole at centre, or improve their shooting, or prevent injuries, it does serve a purpose, according to veteran Morris Peterson.

"It's not a cliche, it's not overrated," said Peterson, whose Raptors went 1-2 on the trip with a win in Chicago and losses in Denver and Portland.

"On any level, if you want to win, you have to know the guys who are in the trenches with you.

"It can't overcome everything, but it helps, it really helps. When you're in a tough spot on the court, it helps if you know about the character of your teammates, what kind of people they are. You just get a better feel for each other."

The Raptors now have a better feel for what type of team they are, despite the fact star player Vince Carter missed the Denver and Portland games because he was defending himself against a frivolous lawsuit filed by his former agent.

Rookie bench boss Sam Mitchell said the numerous close games in the pre-season have made him a better coach. And after the Raptors play host to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the pre-season finale at the Air Canada Centre tonight, Mitchell really will start to focus on the plays and schemes he has been keeping under wraps, to be unveiled when the regular season starts next Wednesday.

The just-completed trip also served as a dress rehearsal for the killer six-game Western junket the Raptors will face in the second week of the regular season.

"We might as well get them out of the way," Raptors guard Rafer Alston said. "It's best to catch some of those strong teams in the West early. Would you rather be going to places like Sacramento and Denver in November or in March?"

Sunny approaches like that benefit Bonner and fellow rookie Rafael Araujo. While Araujo has had his struggles, he came up with the most memorable play of the trip: A monster low-post block on Ruben Patterson of the Trail Blazers.

"A lot of guys say I'm not athletic, but I'm trying to prove I am," Araujo said.

When Araujo blocked the shot, the Raptors bench erupted. Those moments are special to Bonner, who admitted that before he arrived in Toronto, all he really knew about NBA players were the stereotypes.

"This is a very welcoming group and I was not expecting that," Bonner said bluntly. "I was expecting, well, a lot of big egos, a lot of guys just collecting their cheques and not really caring. That's the reputation you hear. But it's quite the opposite with this team. Everybody loves the game."

IT'S A START

Loving the game and being friendly to each other aren't the only ingredients required to win a title. But you have to start somewhere. If you want to build a championship team, first you have to build a team.

"Everybody has been really nice to me," said Bonner, with borderline shock.

That niceness didn't stop anyone from laughing at his Pink Floyd. But hey, his Cat Stevens might have been even worse.


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