Jury out on Raps' appeal

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:19 AM ET

Torontonians may prefer a blue-collar home team, but the fans still love it when a superstar comes to town.

With Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat visiting the Raptors last night, there was a sellout crowd of 19,800 at the Air Canada Centre for the first time since the opening game of the NBA season.

Of course, it was so cold outside, maybe some of the patrons simply heard the word 'Heat' and agreed to pay anything to get indoors.

Even so, Toronto's fascination with Shaq, the most famous centre in basketball, seems to have increased this season. The media crowds surrounding him have been bigger than ever.

Maybe it's because there's no hockey. Maybe it's because Shaq plays for the Heat now, which means he's the focal point when he comes to town, instead of the attention being split between himself and former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant.

CONFLICTING INSTINCTS

Whatever the reason, people here truly seem to like Shaq, although they still laugh every time he misses a free-throw. Predictably, the instinct to praise always is trumped by the instinct to mock.

With the Raptors averaging 16,678 fans through 21 home games this season, the bean-counters at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., would hope the big crowd last night had something to do with the Raptors having won eight of their previous 11 games.

And there should be a decent crowd this Sunday, too -- despite the awkward 4:30 p.m., tipoff time -- with Canadian Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns on the docket.

But the real test of whether people slowly are warming to this Vince Carter-less Raptors club will come when non-marquee teams such as the Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers arrive for games over the next few weeks.

Traditionally, Raptors crowds tend to get bigger after Christmas, provided the team has not fallen into a disastrous state. Things had been going quite well for the Raptors this month, but last night they hit a brick wall with a 111-96 loss to a Miami team that had been idling, at least by its own high standards.

The Raptors' Chris Bosh put on a stellar show in the first quarter, scoring 15 points. But he played only one minute in the second quarter, mainly because of foul trouble, and Shaq commandeered the momentum.

The Raptors made a mini-run in the third quarter, and Jalen Rose delighted the crowd by throwing possibly the best bodycheck that will be seen in Toronto this season. Rose did his best Wendel Clark impersonation by taking out Miami's Keyon Dooling.

But ultimately, those who paid to see Shaq got their money's worth. He racked up 33 points on 13-for-19 shooting from the field and added 18 rebounds.

Few tears were shed when Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets in mid-December. Most Raptors fans had tired of his superstar act.

DIDN'T TAKE BAIT

When asked the other day if the Raptors are a better team without Carter, Shaq didn't take the bait.

"I don't know," Shaq said. "I told you I'm not in the business of calling players out. I have no idea."

One thing is for sure: With Shaq playing as well as he did last night, the Raptors couldn't have beaten him with 12 Carters on the court at the same time.

Competitively, the Raptors would like to see as little of Shaq as possible. Who wouldn't?

But seeing all the numb butts in the seats last night, the money-men wouldn't mind at all if Shaquille O'Neal provided the opposition for every Toronto home game, won-lost record be damned.


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