Raptors are always a story

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

The phone call shook John Lashway in the middle of the night, a contact phoning from inside the police department.

"We just want you to know," the voice said, "we've brought in Alvin Robertson. I think you should get down here."

The Raptors were six days from beginning life in the National Basketball Association and already they were becoming a story.

"I went down to bail out Alvin, who had been charged with assault and had been assaulted himself. But legally I couldn't do it," remembers Lashway, who was then the Raptors public relations chief and since has vaulted to a corporate position with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

"Because I wasn't a Canadian citizen at the time, they wouldn't accept a bond posted by an American. I had to track down someone on staff (Robin Brudner) to do it. And in my mind I was kind of thinking, Toronto, welcome to the NBA."

A few days later, Alvin Robertson began the day making a court appearance at Old City Hall and ended the night on court for the Raptors' NBA debut at the SkyDome. He scored the first basket, a three-point shot against the New Jersey Nets. He led the team with 31 points that night.

He foreshadowed in so many ways what would be the first nine years of this team in this town. There always has been some kind of controversy. There has always been issues. There has always been something to talk about with the Toronto Raptors.

And as the 10th season begins, that remains their charm and -- dare we say this anymore -- their curse.

The Raptors historically have been a better story than a team, more interesting to debate than to watch, surrounded forever by a cast of fascinating and flawed characters we have come to know over the course of nine Toronto troubled seasons.

It began with the brat, Isiah Thomas, who wanted total control and when he couldn't have it or buy it, he instead played like the kid in the schoolyard and took his ball and went home.

If he couldn't play his way, he would try to destroy the game. Somehow -- and this was challenge enough -- the Raptors survived.

They survived Thomas and ownership squabbles and the coaching of Darrell Walker, who brought multi-dimensions to the term inept. They survived Damon Stoudamire's pouting and Kenny Anderson's refusal to show up and Tracy McGrady's insincerity and Oliver Miller's appetite and Doug Christie's wife and Antonio Davis' act as minister of education and Butch Carter's meltdown and Lenny Wilkens' indifference and Kevin O'Neill's lamp-throwing and the incredible rise and decline of Vince Carter and with a backdrop that has never really changed.

Can Toronto survive as an NBA market?

That seemed so much the question in the early years that it became as much a part of the franchise's mantra as all silly stories that have surrounded it have been. Somehow, this has been as much about surviving the elements, the promises, the defeats, the disappointments, as it has been about realizing just how successful the Raptors have become away from the standings.

They play in a state of the art facility. They draw well in a league where not every teams does. They have not become an across-the-board television sensation because they need on-court success to do that.

And so the 10th season begins, with a new general manager, a new coach, a star player who apparently still wants out, with new hope and trepidation. That is the Raptors' version of a double-double. You can't have one without the other.

There is no way to know if Rob Babcock can manage what others before him could not, if Sam Mitchell can make chicken salad out of chicken scraps, to see if Chris Bosh can be built around and Carter can be traded.

A better story than a team. That has always been the Raptors way. At least, with more bad times than good, there always has been something to talk about. As we begin Year 10, that has to be worth something.


Videos

Photos