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Constant change
Raptors have been through plenty in trying decade of NBA existence
By BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN

IT'S THE RAPTORS' 10th anniversary. Beware of the exploding candle. It has been that kind of decade. Everyone is pretty well agreed that this season is a milestone.

It's about the only thing they can agree on.

For instance, the very idea of the Raptors was conceived by Larry Tanenbaum during the 1980s as he tried to lure existing franchises to come north and ...

Hold it! "I'd been talking to the NBA for years," John Bitove said in dispute.

Remember John?

He was 32 when the NBA announced in October 1992 that it would open the bidding for a Toronto franchise. At the time, nobody much noticed him as Tanenbaum's Palestra group, and another headed by Bill Ballard, emerged as media darlings.

So, it would make sense that 18 months later league commissioner David Stern announced to the astonishment of everyone except the Bitove group that the latter had been chosen to oversee the birth of an NBA franchise.

"It was fantastic. It was magical. I figured it was something I'd have for the rest of my life," Bitove said. "Then, so many things changed."

Today, he is back running the family business -- a food services giant that employs more than 1,200 people. His dream of a lifetime lasted under three years and just one full NBA season.

In Raptor Time, that's a long time.

Consider that this is a team that has had six coaches, three general managers, five high-profile owners and twice that many rumored buyouts. Jennifer Lopez doesn't change dance partners that often.

"You have to launch the ship every season. You don't know after that," said Glen Grunwald, who -- until being fired in April 2004 -- is the one constant in an ever-changing sea of acrimony.

For 10 years he worked in the front office, including seven as general manager after taking over from Isiah Thomas.

"Sometimes you aren't in control as much as you'd want," Grunwald said, referring to money, salary caps, contracts, player agents, players' mood swings and injuries. "You try to treat people honestly. But it's true that people aren't always as honourable as you would like them to be."

On the court, the franchise has had three superstars: Damon Stoudamire begat Tracy McGrady, who begat Vince Carter. In a league where one player can make the difference between also-ran and champion the Raptors have won exactly one playoff series.

Even when this team came within a game of the Eastern final in 2001 there was always a fatal flaw. The Raptors are to the sports world what Hamlet is to literature -- a Shakespearean tragedy that doesn't end until dreams get crushed.

* Damon Stoudamire is lying on the floor of the Portland Trail Blazers locker room. He's stretching on a towel, watching NBA reruns on TV but singing to the tune of the latest hip-hop CD that he's wired into with earphones.

He is not eager to discuss his Raptor Life. But, after about 20 minutes he demures. "I'm not 21 no more," he said when asked what he has learned during the past 10 years.

"The only thing I regret since I left is the way that I left. I guess I was young; maturing in the league."

He looks about as happy about this discussion as the last time his dentist said: "Open up."

"It's a redundant situation," he said. "The same thing that happened to me is happening to everyone else. Look at Vince (Carter). Every time you hear about the Raptors it's about their star player being traded. We might've pushed ahead 10 years but it's still the same."

Stoudamire is no longer a star. When the Raptors made him their No. 1 pick in 1995 fans, expecting general manager and part-owner Isiah Thomas to select Ed O'Bannon of UCLA, booed. In his second game Stoudamire lit up the New Jersey Nets for 26 points, then followed that in the first month with 20 against both the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves and 23 against Washington. He became Toronto's love child.

"He was the champagne that launched the franchise," Grunwald said. "He played with such heart. He was really affected when Isiah (Thomas) left as general manager. It would've been really interesting to see what would've happened to his career if that hadn't happened. They (the Trail Blazers) tried to make him a point guard when he really was a shooter."

Brendan Malone is now an assistant coach in Cleveland. But on Nov. 3, 1995 he stared up into the cavernous rafters of the SkyDome and couldn't believe his eyes. "What I remember most about that first year were the crowds. There were usually over 30,000 people there. But there was such anticipation that first night; such an extravaganza."

"I remember I'd always come out before the games and check the upper bowl to see how many people were there because you knew the lower one would always be full."

On that first night there were more than 33,000 fans.

"Tonight," screamed the public announcer over the din, "you are a part of history."

A few minutes later, Ed Pinckney won the franchise-opening tipoff, Alvin Robertson hit a sweet three-pointer and the Raptors were alive and ahead 3-0.

It was a moment to freeze-frame in time. A shot to remember forever.

The beginning of a professional basketball franchise in Toronto. The real beginning. The modern beginning.

The Raptors trailed. This is the way opening nights are meant to be. This was a night from John Bitove's dream, a magical, illogical beginning, and with 16.8 seconds to play and the Raptors ahead of the New Jersey Nets by 14 points, the sellout crowd rose to its feet and never stopped cheering.

"I remember one of the ushers who usually only saw hockey come up to me and say how amazed he was at the speed of the game," Malone said.

"That's when I knew we had them hooked."

But, between the curtain-raiser and the April 21 season finale, there would be more subplots and behind-the-scenes bickering than most pieces of fiction.

The year would pit general manager versus coach; player versus coach. When it was over, Malone would be gone and Bitove would not be far behind.

* Larry Tanenbaum studied at Cornell and was student manager for a hockey team that included a goalie named Ken Dryden. The family business was construction; the passion was sports. The bug caught Tanenbaum early. He made an ill-fated bid for an NFL team. He tried to get the Denver Nuggets in the 1980s. The state threatened to sue. Stern steered him to the Nets who seemed primed to move but their eight-man ownership couldn't agree on what to have for lunch, let alone what city in which to have it.

When Tanenbaum tried to get the San Antonio Spurs, Stern suggested he instead persuade the 26 NBA owners to expand and that he -- Stern -- would push them in Toronto's direction.

Which he did --

except that they ended up in the lap of Bitove rather than Tanenbaum.

"It was really David Stern who made the selection, and he didn't want us," Tanenbaum was quoted as saying in a Toronto magazine.

"It wasn't the will of the owners speaking in the decision. It was Stern speaking. He wanted an organization in Toronto he could

control. He knew that wouldn't be Palestra. We'd shown them that we were too strong to be told what to do."

Bitove would beg to differ.

There is a terseness in his voice when it's suggested he got the team on the coattails of another man's dreams. In Bitove's view, he introduced himself to the NBA when he pitched the idea for an international tournament in 1990. He raised eyebrows again when he secured $13 million in private money to stage the 1994 world basketball championship.

He made many vital NBA connections. "It (a franchise) was my dream," Bitove said. He hooked up with Allan Slaight, who brought money and a communications company. His marketing pitch to the NBA was superb. The league loved his youth and his enthusiasm.

"He was the right man at the right time to start the franchise," Grunwald said. "He had the passion and his creativity ... he made it different than the Leafs. That's good ... it reflects the old and the new of Toronto. Both can survive here. The Leafs have a great history and characters. Then John brought in a sport that appeals to a different demographic and appeals to a different culture."

Sounds good. So, what happens?

Today Tanenbaum sits on the NBA's planning committee right next to many of the people who originally snubbed him.

And where's Bitove?

He's selling hotdogs.

This makes sense -- but only in the world of the Raptors.

Between winning the franchise in 1993 and the team's first game in 1995 Bitove's best move, and arguably most disastrous, was hiring Isiah Thomas as general manager. It provided the franchise with instant credibility.

"He was the face of the franchise in Toronto in the early years. He was the foundation because a lot of people -- players and management -- came to Toronto only because Isiah was here," Grunwald said.

But two things were conspiring against Bitove. First was a fundamental shift in the game's economics brought about by a player/owner labour dispute.

"The new collective bargaining agreement ... was significantly more onerous," Bitove said. "The player salaries were going to increase a lot, not that I blame the players -- more power to them if they could get it."

But the salary cap went from $19 million US to $50 million. "You could afford that stuff if you were an established team ... and not building an arena," Bitove said.

Alvin Robertson scored the first points in Raptors history; then in a 109-105 overtime loss in the season finale to the Philadelphia 76ers he provided perfect symmetry to an imperfect year by netting the final basket.

"Damon was our star and we featured him in our offence but Robertson was the guy who set the tone for the hard work," Malone said. "His teammates called him The Raptor. We had a lot of veterans who were mostly on one-year contracts looking to extend their careers so everybody worked hard. We may have lost games, but nobody ever outworked us."

Under Malone, Damon Stoudamire played a lot and was the NBA rookie of the year. Tracy Murray flourished and would be a rich young man as a free agent.

Malone's competitive nature kept the Raptors in games they had no business being in, and fans, some 950,000, flocked to the SkyDome during the franchise's first season.

NEVER QUIT

The team was 13-34 at the all-star break with 17 games decided by five points or fewer. "Don't just look at the record; look at how competitive we were," Malone said. "We never quit."

There was talk of making the playoffs. But behind the scenes Thomas was pushing Malone to play the younger players. Malone balked. Thomas went public. Malone stayed quiet.

"I was told I should play the younger players," Malone said. "What was frustrating about the whole thing was that there weren't that many young players on the team.

"That was the reason for my demise. The front office wanted me to play some of the guys on the bench so that we wouldn't be so successful and get a higher draft choice."

Tony Massenburg, Ed Pinckney and Willie Anderson were traded by Thomas.

"That was a big reason there was a swoon," Malone said. "If we hadn't made those trades we would've won about 30 games."

The team would win just eight more games during the second half, but one of them still sparkles in the memory of both Bitove and Malone.

Raptors 109, Chicago Bulls 108. The date was March 24. "When we beat the Bulls there were over 36,000 people there and that crowd was unbelievable," Malone said. "I can still hear them roar when it was over. After the game, I walked to a restaurant called Grappa I used to go to on College St., with my wife and son, and people were celebrating on the street. It really meant something to the fans to beat the world champions."

Asked what the happiest moment of his tenure as Raptors owner was Bitove doesn't, in retrospect, pick the day he got the team.

"Beating the Bulls," he said. "If I never win a championship or own another team, I'll happily go to my grave knowing that we beat the best team in the world."

The relationship between Thomas and Malone was by now irretrievably lost.

"I didn't feel like a sacrificial lamb," Malone said. "I thought it was an opportunity to be a head coach. Out of training camp I remember some of the people in the management hierarchy saying we'd by lucky to win nine games."

The Raptors (21-61) ended up with the second-best record of any expansion team in history. But, after the season ended, Malone was not surprised he was fired within 48 hours.

"Looking back I had a good experience. I loved Toronto. The fans were enthusiastic. I enjoyed the first half of the season a lot; the second half I didn't because it was a downward spiral into oblivion.

"I did a good job. I should've been given the opportunity to coach that team for the next few years."

* With that first season in the books, Grunwald watched the machinations of Bitove, Slaight, Thomas and Maple Leafs majority owner Steve Stavro as they attempted to find a solution to both the hockey team's and the Raptors' arena dilemma.

Bitove had sold the NBA with a lure of a 22,500-seat stadium when he spearheaded his bid to secure the franchise. Sadly, it would become both his, and the team's, albatross.

Almost everyone agreed the new arena should house both the Raptors and Leafs. Problem is, nobody could figure out how to make that happen.

"The Raptors had a fundamental problem," Grunwald said. "We had promised the NBA that we would build an arena ... it was always a dicey proposition to build it on our own without the Leafs."

Arena, arena, arena. That was the cause of almost all the instability at the ownership level. It was what was between Bitove and Slaight; it was the reason Thomas tried to buy the team from Slaight because he wanted to see if he could build that bridge with the Leafs.

"The fortunate thing was that, unlike the (Vancouver) Grizzlies, despite all the changes we had a strong local ownership," Grunwald said. "The franchise was never in jeopardy of folding ... and when you look at what has happened since Steve Stavro got the team and the arena issue was solved, the management controversies have all quieted down."

Almost everybody has a different story on why that union with the Leafs took such a convoluted path. There was talk of a blood feud between the Bitove family and Stavro. Word was, as long as the two owned the franchises there would never be agreement on a rink.

"I find that funny," Bitove said. "They (the media) blamed it on me at the time. Look at what happened with Stavro and Slaight; look at what happened with (Stavro) and Tanenbaum."

Well, they couldn't -- or wouldn't -- work well together either.

WONDERFUL

"He (Stavro) is a wonderful uncle and I see him at church and on family occasions," Bitove said. "It helps to sell newspapers but it's far from that (Hatfields and McCoys)."

That said, the two couldn't get together on an arena and ultimately it led to a falling out with Slaight, who was getting impatient to get something done.

"The arena was complicated," Bitove said. "We talked to the Leafs. They didn't want to come to our site ... which they did anyway ... I knew they would."

But not until Bitove was gone -- bought out in a power play by Slaight in November 1996.

"We have a very cordial relationship," Bitove said, referring to Slaight. "It was an honest disagreement at the time over whether to go ahead with the arena."

He said there was consideration given to buying out Slaight rather than selling to him. But it seemed bad business, particularly if he couldn't get hooked up with the Leafs. He couldn't see butting heads with that issue for another four or five years.

SADDEST DECISION

So on Nov. 13, 1996 Bitove sat down with his family and made the saddest decision in his meteoric career as an NBA owner. "I had a meeting with my father and my brother and they said they'd be happy to stay in ... I came to the conclusion on my own that if I was thinking with my heart I would like to stay but if I was thinking with my brain it was time to move on."

The move began a domino effect that saw Slaight attempt and fail to sell the team to Thomas. On March 12, 1997, five months after Bitove's departure, the Raptors broke ground on the Air Canada Centre. That November, the franchise's foundations were shaken again when Thomas -- realizing he would not be able to purchase controlling interest in the team and broker a deal with Stavro -- resigned. That was in November 1997, and the front office turmoil spilled on to the court.

"Isiah developed great loyalties and when he resigned it shook the franchise," Grunwald said.

Grunwald said he had ambivalent feelings on his promotion to general manager. "I was hired by Isiah and I would've liked him to stay."

Meantime, he watched Stoudamire turn taciturn and surly.

Stoudamire still defends his old boss.

"Isiah?" Stoudamire said. "We still talk. He's a good dude. I know he can be a kind of an a------ but he was always good to me."

At the time, Stoudamire's play suffered.

"When Isiah left, the players started talking about not wanting to be here," Grunwald said. "He'd drafted Damon ... they had a close relationship. When stuff like that happens you have a problem."

On Feb. 18, 1998, with the team having won just 11 of 52 games, Grunwald pulled the trigger on a deal that stunned the NBA, sending the Stoudamire, the Raptors' franchise player, to Portland along with Walt Williams and Carlos Rogers.

"There have been a lot of changes through the years, and change by its definition is difficult," Grunwald said. "But the most difficult time was when Isiah left. He was so much of what the Raptors were all about. He was popular publicly. When he left a lot of other people decided to leave as well ... When he left we had to build a new foundation."

* That foundation would be named Vince Carter. In June 1998 he became the Toronto franchise. Teamed with Tracy McGrady, he helped the team rebound from a 16-66 record in 1997-98.

Carter would become the club's second NBA rookie of the year and become the most popular athlete in Toronto not wearing skates.

Slaight, meantime, had sold the club to Stavro in February 1998, finally linking up the basketball and hockey operations. On the board of Maple Leaf Gardens is Larry Tanenbaum.

That's the curious thing about the Raptors' first decade. Not just is it difficult to discern whose ox is being gored; it's often unclear whose ox it actually is.

Bitove explains that owning a sports franchise is unique to all other business. "It's totally different because every day there's a whole section in the newspaper second-guessing you."

There is a tinge of bitterness now, as he believes the Toronto media is to blame for the fact the focus of the Raptors' first decade is so much on the boardroom rather than the court.

"It's a hockey town and the established sports media have the hockey bias," Bitove said. "The Maple Leaf ownership has had more than 15 years (of turmoil) but it doesn't get the same play as the Raptors. Some of the hockey fanatics would prefer the team wasn't here."

But they are here. Despite all the bickering, that really was never in doubt. "It isn't a matter of will the franchise survive," Grunwald said. "Unlike Vancouver we always had good local ownership.

"People who said the franchise would fold were wrong about that. That would be underestimating the strength of the game in Toronto. The city has a rich history with the game ... it's not like hockey in southern California, where nobody except some transplanted Canadians support and really understand the game. There's a good grassroots knowledge of basketball here."

It didn't hurt, either, that the team finally had a home, beginning its first full season at the Air Canada Centre in October 1999.

The team finally gave fans something to cheer about on the court, too. In April 2000, behind Carter, McGrady, Charles Oakley and Doug Christie, the team finished third in the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs.

That the Raptors were beaten in the first round by the New York Knicks did not cool the ardour. There was consternation when McGrady left that August for Orlando, but Grunwald's dealings brought in the likes of Antonio Davis, Keon Clark, Jerome Williams and they took them to the brink of the Eastern final in the spring of 2001.

The team beat the Knicks in five games and took Philadelphia to a seventh game in the Eastern semi-final. Carter took the final shot ... and missed. Philly won 88-87.

"We were that close to making the East final, I felt we just needed a tweak to get back," Grunwald said.

Desperately seeking a big man (and doesn't that sound familiar) he gambled in the summer of 2001 that Hakeem Olajuwon had something left. He re-signed Alvin Williams, Davis and Jerome Williams as free agents and got Carter locked into a long-term deal.

"Toronto just had one of the greatest signing periods in NBA history," commissioner Stern said. Grunwald seemed to the Raptors what Pat Gillick had been to the Blue Jays: A team builder.

It was, as all things Raptor, a short honeymoon. The Raptors barely squeezed into the playoffs in 2002, and were no match for Detroit.

"It's the vagaries of sport," Grunwald said. "At the time we lost McGrady; that was one of my biggest disappointments that we couldn't open his eyes to see the benefits of staying here and playing with Vince for longer. I think it affected the franchise for a long time."

The worst was yet to come. The following year the Raptors missed the playoffs entirely. In just over a year Grunwald had gone from executive-of-the-year material to league goat. Expectations can be a dangerous thing.

As Grunwald's star faded, on Feb. 13, 2003, Stavro announced the sale of his controlling interest in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. The man replacing Stavro as chairman of the board was Larry Tanenbaum.

It took him 10 years longer than he figured, but Tanenbaum finally had his basketball team.

GREAT SATISFACTION

"There is great satisfaction today to see the two teams playing together," Tanenbaum said as he basked in the TV lights at the news conference. "That was the dream that we had had back then when we made our presentation to the NBA."

How does he feel about it today, on the team's 10th anniversary? Tanenbaum declined to be interviewed. Allan Slaight and Steve Stavro did not return telephone calls.

Grunwald? He was fired last spring on, of all days, April Fool's Day. He remains in Toronto, living north of the city with his wife and three kids -- without regret or rancour. The latter, in the world of the Raptors, may be the ultimate victory.

"It's pro sports, it's volatile," Grunwald said. "It's highly emotional. There's tremendous pressure for on-court success. I was there for 10 years ... it's a good ride but not a long ride."

HEY FANS! Do you have a quirky sports item? Include your name and city and e-mail it to me at: bill.lankhof@tor.sunpub.com or fax it to: 416-947-2454






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