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Laying the Groundwork for the NBA in Toronto

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Laying the Groundwork for the NBA in Toronto
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Antonio Davis would join the Raptors much later, but has become a huge part of team history.

As the Toronto Raptors approached their scheduled home opener at the SkyDome on November 3, 1995, club President John I. Bitove could congratulate himself on having pulled off a remarkable achievement.

Bringing NBA basketball back to Toronto, where the long-forgotten Toronto Huskies had tipped off against the New York Knickerbockers in 1946, had been an arduous process, fraught with obstacle after obstacle. It had not been such a struggle a half-century ago, when the Huskies became a charter member of the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the NBA. In fact, Toronto had hosted the new league's first game on November 1, 1946, when the Knicks beat the Huskies, 68-66. The Toronto franchise folded at the end of the 1946-47 season, however, and the NBA wouldn't return to Canada for nearly 50 years.

The current franchise traces its roots back to April 23, 1993, when the NBA announced that it had received a formal application from Professional Basketball Franchise (Canada) Inc. (PBF). The ambitious group's president was Bitove, the son of a leading Canadian food services family and president of Bitove Investments Inc. (His father, John Bitove Sr., had approached the NBA about a franchise in Toronto during previous expansions.) The PBF group also included Allan Slaight of Standard Broadcasting Limited; Borden Osmak, a vice president of The Bank of Nova Scotia; Phil Granovsky of Atlantic Packaging Limited; and David Peterson, former premier of the Province of Ontario, who served as chairman.

Originally, Bitove and Slaight were each to own 44 percent of the franchise, with the bank holding a 10-percent stake and Granovsky and Peterson 1 percent each. The ownership group later cut in former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas, who received a 5-percent share from both Bitove and Slaight. Thomas later became a club vice president and the architect of the Raptors' roster.

The NBA's expansion into Toronto was unique for two reasons. First, it marked the league's first step beyond the borders of the United States. Second, PBF was only one of three viable prospective bid groups in the same city. In previous expansions the NBA had been faced with choosing between competing cities, but never with such a strong internal rivalry for a franchise within a single market. There was little doubt, however, that Toronto wanted and could support an NBA franchise-top-caliber exhibition basketball games had twice drawn more than 25,000 fans to the SkyDome, in 1989 and 1992.

The door to Canada had been nudged open the previous year by the Palestra Group, led by road construction magnate Larry Tanenbaum of Toronto, who was joined in his application by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Labatt Breweries, both of whom were also founding partners in baseball's highly successful Toronto Blue Jays. The NBA was not considering expansion when Palestra put down an unsolicited application fee of $100,000, but the possibilities presented by the untapped Canadian market were irresistible.

Also joining the bid process were rock concert impresarios Bill Ballard and Michael Cohl, who had NBA legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson in their camp and support from Metro Toronto to develop a new arena on civic lands.

In July 1993 an NBA expansion committee, headed by Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, came to Toronto to meet with the bid groups, examine their plans, and visit their proposed arena sites. The PBF contingent made an immediate impact, based upon its criteria for a downtown site: it was to be on the subway line-giving Torontonians access without having to fight winter conditions-and close to the financial core of the city to entice major businesses to buy corporate boxes, a key element in the financial plan of 1990s sport franchises. Neither of the other bidders proposed a site that was so centrally located.

In the end, it was the arena plan that led the NBA expansion committee to recommend on September 30, 1993, that PBF be conditionally awarded a franchise for the 1995-96 season to become the 28th team in the league. The NBA Board of Governors endorsed that decision on November 4 and set a record expansion fee of $125 million, about four times the amount levied for the previous expansion. It was agreed that Toronto would play its first two seasons in the SkyDome while its own building was being completed.

The battle was still far from over, however. There was a chance that the franchise agreement would be revoked over the thorny issue of an Ontario provincial betting game, Pro-Line, which among other things allowed bettors to wager on the outcome of NBA games. The league's longstanding opposition to such a scheme ran up against the province's unwillingness to do away with a game that could put some $100 million into Ontario's coffers, some of it earmarked for hospitals. It took three months of sensitive negotiations involving the league, the PBF, and the province to resolve the dispute.

The province finally acknowledged the boost an NBA team would provide to the local economy through taxes-$81 million the first year alone, according the the Metro Toronto Convention and Visitor Association-and the creation of 4,000 jobs necessitated by construction and related activities.

The Toronto club took on responsibility for various youth and community programs in order to offset dropping basketball from the betting slips. For its part, the NBA, eager to gain the Toronto market and wanting to preserve good relations with its new constituency, contributed $1.5 million to medical research, donated $2 million in television time to promote tourism in Ontario, joined with the Toronto team to create a charitable foundation, and agreed to hold the 1995 NBA Draft in Toronto.




The Name Game...

After meeting all of these conditions, PBF could finally get down to the business of creating a team identity. It instituted a nationwide "Name Game" contest to name the team and develop team colors and a logo.

The Name Game became one of the most popular such enterprises in league history, generating more than 2,000 entries. The final top-10 list was dominated by animal names: Beavers, Bobcats, Dragons, Grizzlies, Hogs (Toronto's nickname is Hogtown), Raptors, Scorpions, T-Rex, Tarantulas, and Terriers.



The team's first GM Isiah Thomas helps unveil the New look for the Toronto Raptors.

On May 15 the PBF finally had an identity. No doubt fueled by the enormous success of the movie Jurassic Park and the popularity of dinosaurs with youngsters who would grow up to be fans in the target market, the team's new moniker, the Toronto Raptors, was unveiled on Canadian national television. The franchise's logo (the work of NBA Properties) featured an aggressive, sharp-toothed little dinosaur dribbling a basketball. The team colors were to be bright red, purple, black, and "Naismith silver" (in honour of Canadian James Naismith, who invented the game of basketball in 1891). More than $20 million in Raptors gear was snapped up in the first month. By the end of 1994 the logo was hot in the marketplace, and the Raptors, still a long way from their first game, were seventh in the league in merchandise sales.

Shortly after their name was announced, the Raptors made several additions to their management team. On May 24, 1994, Isiah Thomas burst through a large paper Raptors logo to be introduced as the team's vice president of baskeball operations. Thomas had long been admired by Bitove, who had attended Thomas's alma mater of Indiana and had then followed the start of his Pistons career closely while studying at the University of Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit.

In September 1994 Bob Zuffelato, a 33-year veteran of coaching, player development, and scouting, was hired to direct the talent search, with the help of a pair of video experts. Former Denver Nuggets vice president Glen Grunwald, a member of the 1981 NCAA-champion Indiana Hoosiers, was hired as Thomas's assistant in November.

Later that year the Raptors' original downtown site, next to the Eaton Centre shopping complex, was deemed too small to accommodate the new arena. Bitove wanted a construction site large enough to house an additional 22,500-seat hockey rink, which would assure more event nights and give the structure more financial viability. This was accomplished by acquiring from Canada Post the historic Postal Delivery Building at the south end of downtown, east of the SkyDome and still served by the subway system.

Uncertainty about the arena obviously didn't deter ticket sales. At the end of 1994 the Raptors reported 50-percent deposits on 15,287 seats for the inaugural season. In February 1995 it was announced that the building would be named the Air Canada Centre. Revised plans called not only for an arena to be completed by fall 1997 but also for 200,000 square feet of adjacent office space.

The Raptors officially became an NBA franchise on May 16, 1995, and the work of building the team began in earnest. Toronto held its first free-agent camp at Seneca College, under Brendan Malone, a longtime assistant with the Pistons and well-known to Thomas. Although Thomas was well aware of Malone's abilities on the basketball court, he had never pictured him in a head coaching role until he listened in on the motivational talk Malone had with the crew of career minor leaguers and journeymen who had turned up in search of the NBA dream.

Five days after camp closed, Thomas introduced Malone as the team's first head coach. Thomas wanted someone who was not only a teacher but also had the maturity to deal with what would inevitably be a number of losing seasons. Malone, for his part, emphasized defense and rebounding as a key for the new club.




And On to the Draft...

The NBA held a coin flip between the Raptors and the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies to determine the order of selection in both the expansion draft and the college draft. The Grizzlies won the flip, electing to pick sixth in the college draft (Toronto would pick seventh) and give Toronto the first pick in the expansion draft. Prior to the expansion draft Toronto had signed its first player by agreeing on contract terms with Vincenzo Esposito, an all-star forward from the Italian League.

The 1995 NBA Expansion Draft was held on June 24. Toronto's first pick was veteran Chicago Bulls guard B. J. Armstrong, although Thomas made it clear that Armstrong's wishes to be traded to a contender would be honoured. After the selection of Armstrong, the Raptors and the Grizzlies alternated picks until one player had been taken from each of the existing 27 NBA teams.

Thomas filled out the Toronto roster with a combination of veterans and youngsters. He acquired proven players in the Portland Trail Blazers' Jerome Kersey, the San Antonio Spurs' Willie Anderson, the Milwaukee Bucks' Ed Pinckney, and the Miami Heat's John Salley. He also picked promising young players such as Dontonio Wingfield from the Seattle SuperSonics, B. J. Tyler from the Philadelphia 76ers, Keith Jennings from the Golden State Warriors, Oliver Miller from the Detroit Pistons, and Tony Massenburg from the Los Angeles Clippers. Others selected included Andres Guibert from the Minnesota Timberwolves, Doug Smith from the Dallas Mavericks, Zan Tabak from the Houston Rockets, and Acie Earl from the Boston Celtics.

In the 1995 NBA Draft held at SkyDome in Toronto, the Raptors' first-ever draft pick (seventh overall) was 5-10 point guard Damon Stoudamire from Arizona. The pick surprised most of the 20,000 in attendance, who were expecting the Raptors to take Ed O'Bannon from UCLA. "They'll know who Damon Stoudamire is by the time I'm through playing," the young recruit said confidently. In the second round Toronto picked University of Michigan guard Jimmy King, the fourth member of the vaunted "Fab Five" to be drafted into the NBA.
 

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