In Stern support

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

HOUSTON -- When NBA commissioner David Stern retires, he could easily get a job with the Toronto Welcome Wagon.

Or perhaps former Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald will give the commish a gig with the Toronto Board of Trade.

In any event, Stern spoke out in his firm belief yesterday that the Raptors organization is in Canada to stay, despite the club's three-year playoff drought and the team's falling attendance.

The Raptors are averaging 16,559 fans per game this season, 18th in the NBA, down two spots from last year, when the club was 16th, averaging 17,155.

The drop has been consistent. In 2003-04, the Raptors were eighth in the league in attendance (18,307) and averaged 18,963 the season before that.

During the 2001-02 campaign, the Raptors drew 19,760 per game, second overall in the NBA, selling out 40 of 41 home games.

This season, despite two visits by New Jersey Nets' Vince Carter and Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson, and one by Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, the Raps have failed to sell out a game.

Those numbers have hoops heads in Toronto worried that, if the trend continues, the NBA will not be long for Toronto.

In 2001, the Vancouver Grizzlies of the NBA left town for Memphis.

But Stern was adamant during a media conference yesterday at the Toyota Center, site of tonight's all-star game, that the Raps are standing on firm ground.

"Toronto is absolutely secure in our league," he said.

"I'm used to going into Toronto and people would say the sky is falling, when it wasn't, because I think there's sort of an under-appreciation in Canada and for what a great city Toronto is, and what a great sports city it is.

"The team (itself) isn't doing so well," Stern added. "I'm familiar with that, I live in New York.

"But it will get better, it always does."

Stern called Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. a "quintessential organization for the future," adding that the Canadian dollar is stronger than when the NBA expanded into Toronto in 1995.

"I've got no concerns whatsoever," Stern said.

NASH DEFENDS GREAT ONE

Victoria's Steve Nash, the NBA's reigning MVP, spoke out yesterday in defence of countryman, Wayne Gretzky, who had been embroiled in a gambling controversy.

"To me, it's not much of a story as far as Wayne's concerned," Nash said. "I think it's a moot story. Who hasn't placed a bet with their buddies? It's not that big a deal as far as I'm concerned."

Varsity Films released the Steve Nash MVP Basketball DVD series yesterday.


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