Toronto is standing tall through growing pains As city warms to NBA, Raptors stay competitive

November 18, 1995|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

There aren't a whole lot of expectations for the Toronto Raptors, one of two expansion teams that entered the league this season. So one would think that playing for Toronto would be a no-pressure job, a chance in which a team consisting mainly of NBA castoffs could ease through the season without perhaps the urgency to win right away.

Run that scenario by former NBA All-Star Isiah Thomas, the team's vice president of basketball operations, and you are greeted with a slight scowl.

"This organization, there will be pressure to succeed and pressure to perform," Thomas said. "Anybody that wants to ease into the situation, will ease their way out of here."

So as the NBA provides basketball outside the U.S. border for the first time this season, the Raptors are under scrutiny from one of the best point guards to play the game. While Thomas can't be happy with the team's 2-7 record going into tonight's game against the Washington Bullets, he at least can be pleased with a team that has been close in most of its games, and last night broke a seven-game losing streak by defeating the the Minnesota Timberwolves, 114-96.

"My role with a lot of these guys is to try to share my experiences with them, and there are certain stages of development that you have to go through," Thomas said. "There are ups and downs. And my role is to make them understand that these down times are necessary, and that you have to just learn and grow from it."

The Raptors are going through their stages of growth with a rookie point guard, Damon Stoudamire, leading the way.

When the NBA draft was held here in June, the selection of Stoudamire drew loud boos. Yet all indications now are that Thomas made the right move.

"This is what any rookie would dream of, to be able to come in and play right off the bat," Stoudamire said. "I'm benefiting a lot getting this experience, maybe more so than if I had gone to any other team and had to come off the bench.

"I think it was all difficult at the start. But as an expansion team, I think we're adjusting pretty well."

Toronto is still a hockey town, with fans crazy about the Maple Leafs. And the fans have shown that they can get behind a winning baseball team, as they did when the Blue Jays twice were World Series champions. The Raptors have sold 16,000 season tickets while playing at SkyDome.

"We don't have people just shutting their eyes and closing their ears and saying, 'We don't want a part of it,' " Thomas said. "At our games we have people paying money and sitting way, way, way up at the top."

The fans might be showing their support, but not their knowledge.

On opening night the team handed out placards reading "BRICK" to fans sitting behind the baskets and the fans waved them wildly when the Raptors were on the free-throw line. Even on Wednesday night, in a close game against the Houston Rockets, forward John Salley was pleading with fans to quiet down because they were waving cards and other items with Toronto center Oliver Miller shooting free throws.

"I don't think they know too much about basketball," Stoudamire said. "At first it was real laid-back, the game would be going on and everybody would just be sitting there. But I think the more they see the game, the more they will appreciate it."

Thomas agreed.

"I would liken it to having a big chocolate bar," he said. "And you're giving people who have never had chocolate their first taste of chocolate. Given that, with the support that we've had, it's been phenomenal."

And that's from fans who have yet to see a team that can win consistently.

"We're trying to instill some pride, and instill some unity," Thomas said. "From an effort standpoint, our guys are competing and playing hard. I think the guys are doing a great job and starting to buy into what we're teaching here."

* NOTE: Bullets forward Rasheed Wallace, who missed last night's game in Boston because his mother had a stroke, will rejoin the team today. Wallace's mother, Jackie, was in stable condition yesterday in North Carolina.

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Toronto Raptors

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7:30

Radio: WTEM (570 AM)

Outlook: This is the Bullets' first game against the Raptors, one of two NBA expansion teams. Toronto is 2-7 but has been competitive. Damon Stoudamire, picked higher in the first round than many had expected, has proved to be a solid point guard for Toronto.

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