Uplifting presence

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:13 AM ET

There are nights, as he stands on the Air Canada Centre court during the national anthems, when Morris Peterson looks up to the rafters for inspiration.

The Flint, Mich., native certainly was not raised on the exploits of George Armstrong, Borje Salming or Darryl Sitter, but he has come to understand what the names hanging from the ceiling mean to the sports fans of Toronto, and the names and numbers now mean something to him.

"You definitely feel something when you see all those great players who played for the Leafs and see all the Stanley Cup banners," Peterson said. "Hopefully before I retire, before I'm done playing basketball, we'll have a championship banner up there."

If anyone deserves a banner, it's Peterson.

Nobody has suffered the slings and arrows of the Raptors misfortunes over the years more than Peterson. Last season, in the midst of missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, Peterson set the franchise record for games played (418), and now has played 471 regular season games in a Raptors uniform.

There is an ongoing debate, although it generally is one-sided now, as to whom the first Raptor hung in the rafters at the ACC should be. At one point, that was a slam dunk, of course. Vince Carter owned this town and he certainly brought recognition and respectability to the Toronto franchise.

HONOURED

But Carter turned his back on the team by demanding a trade and ceasing to play hard in his final few months in a Raptors uniform. He basically pulled the chute.

Any momentum Carter had to be so honoured was lost. Now there is talk that the first Raptor honoured with his number and image should be Peterson.

No, he never has been an all star and probably never will be.

He hasn't led the Toronto franchise to any great playoff triumphs or set any offensive records, but Peterson has, game in game out, year after year, been a loyal and hard-working everyman, a lunch-bucket warrior who can give you 20 points a game and guard the opposition's best player -- which is the job head coach Sam Mitchell lays on the low-key MoPete most nights.

"One night I can put him on LeBron James, and the next night Dwyane Wade, and then Allen Iverson," Mitchell said. "And he goes out there and works and never complains.

"We'll have stretches when we'll play New Jersey, Philadelphia and Miami. And he'll have Vince and Richard Jefferson, A.I. (Allen Iverson) and Andre Iguodala and then he's got LeBron," the coach added. "And he never says a word, he never says, 'Why doesn't someone else do it?' For what he does for us, he's great."

Mitchell likes to say that he never runs plays for Peterson, yet the Raptors swingman still puts up significant numbers, numbers that largely are underappreciated.

You think of Morris Peterson and you probably think about a good defensive player and a middle-of-the-road offensive threat.

And while the first part of that equation is true, the second is off the mark.

Last season, Peterson averaged 16.6 points (third on the team behind all-star Chris Bosh and the departed Mike James), 4.7 rebounds and 1.26 steals while shooting 44% -- all career highs -- which also suggests the 29-year-old is still improving.

Add those numbers to his game averages in steals (1.27), blocks (0.18) and three-point shooting (40%), average them out and you get an NBA Fantasy Rating number of 42nd overall, ahead of such luminaries as Jermaine O'Neal, Tony Parker and Peja Stojakovic.

ELITE PLAYERS

But for reasons mostly of his own doing -- the fact that he is a quiet, low-maintenance guy -- Peterson rarely is mentioned in the same breath as the elite players of the NBA.

"Yeah, I talk to him about that all the time," said Bosh, who has established himself as one of the best players in the league. "But he doesn't mind. I think it actually better suits him to be the guy nobody really talks about. But when game time comes, you've got to pay attention to him."

Particularly the other team's best player.

But for Peterson, not being in the limelight is fine.

He is a reflection of where's he's from.

Flint is a scrappy, blue-collar town and that's what Peterson considers himself to be.

"You know my city, you know where I'm from. We're blue collar-type guys," Peterson said. "We come in, punch in, work hard and at the end of the day, we punch out. And that always has been my approach.

"It doesn't matter about the recognition as long as I'm fulfilled in my heart," he said.

Peterson spends most of the off-season back home in Flint, visiting friends as well as his mom and dad, Morris Sr. and Valerie, a principal and teacher.

He definitely is a homebody. One of the reasons he attended Michigan State (where he helped lead the Spartans to the 2000 NCAA Championship) is that it was so close to home. The same for Toronto. His parents attend most of the Raptors' home games.

And when he makes that drive back down the 401 and into Michigan, he sees the devastation the automobile plant closings and layoffs has wrought on his home town. He's certainly not going to complain about having to guard Iverson or Carter, or the fact that he's not getting the ball enough.

Peterson is one of those rare birds in the NBA who prefers doing a number on A.I. rather than scoring 42 points to lead his team to victory.

"There are a lot of guys in the NBA who are expected to come in and average 20 to 25 points and they have a lot of pressure on them," he said. "I just go out there and play basketball and do what I do best.

"You have to make sacrifices for the team in order to get wins and help your team get better," Peterson said. "I don't get mad if I don't score 20 points a night. It would nice to score more, but I just go out there and play basketball. And I never take my playing for granted, and I play hard every minute."

INTEREST

Peterson is the final year of a contract which will pay him $4.56 million US this season. And while there will no doubt be a lot of interest in him throughout the NBA during the next off-season, if new general manager Bryan Colangelo does not sign him to an extension before then, Peterson is not anxious to go anywhere else.

From the moment he first drove into town on the Gardiner Expressway, Peterson has been fascinated with Toronto.

"My first impression was, it was like something out of The Jetsons," Peterson said with a laugh. "With the raised highway and the CN Tower."

The team, unfortunately, has been something out of Lost in Space, but finally, after seven long seasons, Peterson sees the franchise heading in the right direction and he wants to stick around and eventually help the team win a championship for Toronto, a city he has come to love, and a place where he has laid down some permanent roots.

"I've grown to love this city more every year," he said. "I just have more and more fun every year and I've made friendships for life here.

"When I'm done playing, you're still going to see me around."

Perhaps even in the rafters.


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