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Jump Ball: The Toronto Raptors

What do Chris Bosh, the Air Canada Centre and the Toronto Raptors mascot have in common? They’re about the only three things that most people will recognize from last season’s Raptors team. Just about everything else has been overhauled, and that means a very exciting start to the 2006–2007 campaign.

At number one on the just-can’t-wait-to-see-it list is Andrea Bargnani, a seven-foot Italian power forward making his NBA debut. This spring, Lady Luck blessed the Raptors with the first pick overall in the draft lottery (they were an 11-to-1 shot for the spot), and General Manager Bryan Colangelo gave Bargnani the nod.

Rookies have been a shining light throughout the team’s history. Fans will recall that both Damon Stoudamire and Vince Carter won Rookie of the Year honours with the Raps, and Charlie Villanueva who was runner-up in the voting last year. Bargnani, already a veteran of the European league with Italy’s Benetton Treviso, may well add to the legacy.EXECUTIVE DECISION
Next on the list of new faces is GM Bryan Colangelo himself. Credited with turning the Phoenix Suns from sad sacks into 62-game winners, he was voted NBA executive of the year for the 2004-2005 season. He joined the Raptors last spring and his first significant move was the acquisition of Bargnani. With that pick, Colangelo began a transformation that’s given the Toronto Raptors a markedly European accent (appropriate, it might seem, for the only NBA franchise outside the U.S.).

Colangelo acquired Spanish forward Jorge Garbajosa as well as Slovenian forwards Uros Slokar shortly after. The new GM even looked to Europe to pick up an American, swingman Anthony Parker, the reigning two-time European league MVP and possibly the best basketball player outside the NBA. Other new and noteworthy players include playmaker T.J. Ford (for whom Colangelo traded Villanueva) and big man Rasho Nesterovic, who fills the team’s gap at centre.

Even the look of the Raptors is new. At press time, the organization was about to unveil new uniforms for the team. (Rumour has it that the purple of the logo is now red, and the dinosaur icon is simply a claw mark.) Which is not to indicate the demise of the fan-favourite mascot. One of the most energetic in the league, the Raptor will still be around, rollerblading down flights of stairs, bouncing off trampolines in dunk contests at half-time, and generally keeping the energy level high and fans guessing.BACK IN THE GAME
What remains familiar with the Raptors is, most notably, all-star forward Chris Bosh, newly signed to a $65 million, four-year contract extension. His play last year (with a team-leading 22.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game) cemented him as the cornerstone of the team. With the help of the off-season personnel acquisitions, 2006–2007 could easily be a personal best for the three-year veteran, who starts his fourth campaign with high hopes.

Morris Peterson (“Mo Pete” to fans), a veteran of the league and the team, remains in the starting lineup, too. Always slightly overshadowed by the glitz players, Peterson is a hard worker who can be counted on at both ends of the court. Last season, he posted career highs in rebounds and points per game (4.6 and 16.8 respectively).

If all this pays off for Colangelo the way his moves worked in Phoenix, the Raptors can look forward to a much better season than last (when they posted a record of 27-55 and missed the playoffs for the fourth year). Regardless, in a curious twist for a hockey-loving city, Toronto fans are amazingly supportive of their basketball team. In spite of a disappointing record, the team draws crowds that rank in the top half of NBA attendance.

This month, the Raptors give a glimpse of what to expect in the year ahead when they start the pre-season on October 9 in Washington, and begin their hosting duties against Boston on October 11.STARTING LINEUP
These pre-season home games at the Air Canada Centre offer the first chance to see the new-look Raptors in action. The international exhibition game against the European league powerhouse Maccabi Eite Tel Aviv pits new Raptor Anthony Parker against his former teammates. Tickets are $23.80 to $205.30; call 416-366-DUNK.

Oct. 11: Boston Celtics (7 p.m.)
Oct. 15: New Jersey Nets (1 p.m.)
Oct. 19: Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv (7 p.m.)
Oct. 22: Cleveland Cavaliers (6 p.m.)

TIP! Check out the view from your seat before the game: click on Raptors 3D Seats at www.raptors.com for a computer-animated 360-degree look.

Before the big game, fuel up at some area dining options that will appease any appetite. Check out 6 Menu Options.—Robert Maurin

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