Not much to cheer for

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:39 AM ET

From a distance, it looked like a home game on the Raptors' pre-season schedule. But the reality was quite different. Maccabi wouldn't have been supported any better if the game had been played in downtown Tel Aviv.

Welcome to Toronto where national loyalties, at least as they apply to sports, are hard to figure.

From the warmup to the last-second shot that gave the Israeli team an improbable victory, a wide majority of the crowd of 17,000-plus in attendance at the Air Canada Centre loudly backed Maccabi against the home team.

"I thought before the game that the place would be full of Raptors fans, but they cheered for us in the critical moments of the game and it helped push us to win the game," surprised Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said.

UP TO SPEED

Obviously Gershon is not up to speed on Toronto sports fans. Most of us have roots, however vague, in some far-off land. Yet, no matter how deep our roots or bountiful our lives are in Canada, we become rabid anti-nationalists when a team from the "old country" comes calling.

Just ask the Canadian national soccer team. Or Team Canada in basketball. Bring in an opponent from anywhere in the world and they become underdogs in our own country. It has happened many times for our soccer team, especially against European teams.

And, when we hosted the world basketball championship in 1994, Team Canada got bushwhacked by Greece at Maple Leaf Gardens, which was populated almost exclusively by Greek supporters. They partied all night on the Danforth.

Given that the house was papered by the Israeli community, it's quite understandable that the team from Tel Aviv was well-supported. The Raptors knew that going in and, for the most part, accepted it as a fact of living and working in one of the world's melting pots.

"That's to be expected," said exasperated Raptors coach Sam Mitchell, who was more concerned that his club blew a 14-point lead. "We understood what (the game) was all about. My concern is not about fans and who they were cheering for. My concern is to get this team to understand, night in and night out, what you've got to do to win."

Chris Bosh also knew what was in store from the fans. "Being in a culturally diverse city, I expected that," he said.

What neither Mitchell nor Bosh -- nor any other Raptors -- expected was to lose.

Twenty-seven years ago, Maccabi defeated the Washington Bullets in Tel Aviv, the only time they had beaten an NBA team. Until yesterday. The most recent time an NBA team lost an international game was in 1988 when the Soviet National team defeated the Atlanta Hawks in a tournament in Moscow.

"I hope our guys are starting to learn that it doesn't matter who you play or how good you think you are," Mitchell said, "there are good players around the world. Just because you're in the NBA doesn't mean there aren't people out there who aren't just as good or better.

"You just have to tip your hat to them. We got them down by 14 and they kept fighting back."

This is a watershed moment for a team like the Raptors, coming off a lousy season and heading into what could be an even worse campaign if they don't get their act together. Suffice to say, their collective confidence did not need a defeat at the hands of a team from outside the NBA, no matter what their motivation or credentials.

On the other hand, this embarrassing defeat still may serve as a rallying point because, let's face it, this is a low point.

"If it kills me, we're going to get better," Mitchell said. "If I have to die trying, that's what's gonna have to happen. We're going to have to get better. That's all I know."


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