ROME -- Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment Ltd., flew 8,000 kms to deliver exciting news to Raptors fans, although his comments probably were not meant to be taken literally.
The Raptors travelled from Treviso in the north of Italy yesterday, where they held a six-day training camp, to Rome and went straight from the airport to a reception at the very opulent residence of Canadian ambassador Alex Himelfarb.
A number of dignitaries and officials made speeches, including Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo, vice-president Maurizio Gherardini and Tanenbaum, who obviously was caught up in the good will of the occasion, suggesting that the upcoming Raptors season may be more successful than almost anyone imagined.
"We're looking for this to be the start of (our) championship season," Tanenbaum said.
The Raptors did improve by 20 games last year from the season before, going 47-35 and winning the Atlantic Division for the first time in team history. Most insiders, however, don't share Tanenbaum's optimism that the Raptors will win it all this season, although many believe that the team does have the talent to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, making it to the reception on time was touch and go for the Raptors, whose team bus was late leaving Rome airport and then ran into a huge (typical) Rome traffic jam on the way from the airport.
But Raptors assistant coach Jay Triano said the bus negotiated the roads quicker than most vehicles stuck on the crowded streets.
"We had a police escort and the police on motorcycles were literally kicking cars to get out of our way," said the former Canadian team head coach.
This European adventure for the Raptors has been as much about spreading the NBA and Raptors brand, as it has been about training and playing pre-season games.
The Raptors play two games in Rome, tomorrow against the Boston Celtics and Sunday against local professional side Virtus Roma, and one next week in Madrid against Real Madrid.
On Wednesday night, a dinner was held in the team's honour by the deep-pocketed and high-profiled Benetton family.
This afternoon, Andrea Bargnani, who was taken first overall last season, will be received by Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, a personal friend of the Toronto forward/centre, at city hall.
Later in the afternoon, members of the Raptors and Celtics will join Veltroni for the unveiling a refurbished basketball court at a local middle school (Scuola Media Satale Bagnera).
Bargnani, who was born and raised in Rome, has been criticized by some members of the Italian media for his supposed laissez-faire attitude about the team's trip to Rome.