Volume 91, Issue 78

Wednesday, February 18, 1998

aspartame pop


The Edge: Air Canada Gardens

The Toronto Maple Raptors is the new name sports fans have playfully dubbed the basketball team after the owners of the Maple Leafs, led by Steve Stavro, assumed full control of the city's NBA franchise.

The move came as a bit of shock, in light of the bitter squabbling the two teams have recently engaged on the prospects of sharing a new downtown arena. Big heads and egos ensured an agreement was never going to happen. The Leafs, with their die-hard fans, weren't going to make compromises for the Raptors, an unproven commodity in Toronto. So, the Raptors said 'to hell with the Buds' and went ahead with their plans of building the Air Canada Centre.

Since the ground of the new Raptors' nest was broken, turmoil has gripped the infant organization – growing pains, if you will. The two principle actors responsible for bringing the Raptors to Toronto, owner John Bitove Jr. and General Manager Isiah Thomas, were both chased out of town by Alan Slaight, Toronto's rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge. Slaight never cared about the team and was eager to dump his interests in the franchise from the outset.

Thomas' departure was greatly detrimental to the team's success. The Raptors were his team and he gave the franchise instant credibility. It was Thomas who made the unpopular division (at least at the time) to draft Damon Stoudamire instead of Ed O'Bannon. It was Thomas who convinced players like Carlos Rogers and Walt Williams to stay in Toronto. When Thomas jumped ship, all of them wanted out as well and it was in the Raptors' best interest to get rid of them. Surely the team wasn't going to improve with a roster full of players who didn't want to be there.

After setting a new NBA expansion record for wins over the team's first two years of existence, the Raptors appeared in the pre-season to be on pace to possibly grab a playoff berth this season – a goal which Thomas had set before the team had even played a game. Instead, the Raptors have been underachievers this season, plagued by untimely injuries and bad breaks. As a result, they sit in the cellar of the Eastern Conference.

Thomas' team couldn't cut it, so now it's time for a new era – the Maple Raptors. With Thomas out of the way, the Raptors will now be able to start from scratch. Someone had to stop the bleeding and that's when the Maple Leafs stepped in.

Stavro and his business group are the only ownership group who could make the Raptors financially viable. It has been well established that the Raptors would have been buried by the costs involved with being the sole tenant at the Air Canada Centre.

Thomas knew the Raptors couldn't survive if they went it alone and said it was the major reason he didn't want to continue with the franchise. The numbers didn't crunch, continuing with the construction of the Air Canada Centre just didn't make sense. A debt-ridden Raptor franchise would have hurt the team's prospects of signing big money players, which, in turn would have hurt the product that they put on the hard court.

The Maple Leafs takeover of the Raptors was a blessing for both franchises. Both teams will have more money to throw around. Money they wouldn't have if they had gone their separate ways and built there own arenas. That translates into keeping and attracting better players – which in turn makes for a more exciting and competitive product.

In another decade or so, maybe both the Leafs and the Raptors will finally shed their reputation of ineptness. Until then, Toronto fans will just have to keep their fingers crossed and try not to fall off the wagon, because it certainly will be a bumpy ride.

To Contact The Sports Department: gazsport@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998