Half empty, half full

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:57 AM ET

The lights were turned off and the music was cranked up and when the starting lineup was introduced amidst the noise at the Air Canada Centre, it was impossible to see all the empty seats.

Some of them sold. Many of them not.

This is Year 11 for the Raptors and this was an opening night of promise, disappointment, hope and despair.

Another new season tipped off just after 7 o'clock with almost no atmosphere and just over half the seats with bodies in them. That, by itself, is a stern yet telling sign of the difficult place the Raptors find themselves in after too many stumbles.

Happy days are not yet here again. As halftime neared there wasn't a section in the building that didn't have an empty seat or 20. One glance around the ACC and there wasn't a section that didn't scream that basketball is again the great sporting challenge in this city.

And strangely, amid all the doom that surrounds the Raptors, the dour predictions, the unsold seats, the late-arriving crowd, the passion that doesn't unite us, there was all kinds of reasons to begin to believe last night.

Or maybe, to re-phrase, all kinds of reasons to stop the constant doubt and badgering.

For too long, we've looked for a sign, another sign, to believe and with the first basket of the Toronto season and the first basket of his career -- a three-pointer to boot -- Joey Graham made a nice first impression.

In sequences, not always for extended periods of time, so too did Charlie Villanueva, and maybe even moreso in the second quarter, did the unheralded point guard, Jose Calderon.

It has been awhile -- an eternity almost -- since the Raptors had a point guard who actually was a point guard. No one knew what Rafer Alston was. Alvin Williams, when healthy, always has been a hybrid. Even Damon Stoudamire was better with the ball than moving it.

Calderon, the rookie from Spain, showed a keen eye and a unique energy in the second quarter and a clever creativity. And that has to mean something. It isn't embarrassing, say, the way Rafael Araujo was embarrassing last season.

At different times, and in different ways, at least Villanueva and Graham looked like NBA players when they didn't look like rookies. Which means at times there are two more NBA players on the roster than there was a year ago.

"Our inexperience down the stretch hurt us," said coach Sam Mitchell, who watched the Raptors lose a game they could have won, 99-96 to the Washington Wizards last night.

He could have gone one step further with his commentary. He could have said his experience hurt them down the stretch also.

Rose, for example, probably would like to have the final minute and 37 seconds back. First time he had the ball, he turned it over. Next time he had it, he committed an offensive foul when he guarded by the 7-footer, Brendan Haywood. Then, trailing by three, he took the last shot of the game, a three-point attempt that had no arc.

That sound you heard was the ball clanking off the rim.

But at least they were in position to have a shot. At least they provided some excitement. At least, the kids looked like they're all right which may not -- as Rob Babcock pointed out to his chagrin -- translate to any more victories.

And some problems couldn't be hidden amidst the empty seats. There isn't a centre anywhere to be found here. Araujo played five minutes. Loren Woods started and played 17 minutes. Somebody who isn't a centre played centre for the other 26 minutes.

Which meant the Wizards could score inside just about any time they felt like it.

In the final quarter, with the game on the line, the Raptors turned mostly to their future star, Chris Bosh, in an attempt to pull out the win.

Bosh, for the record, is two years younger than Joey Graham, three years younger than Calderon, four years younger than Matt Bonner.

The kids, in this case, are older than the vet. But since when did anything ever make sense about the Raptors, empty seats and all?


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