While Cuban and Bonner love Toronto, many NBA players don't

Jamie Bell, Staff

7/28/2010 6:24:17 PM

While it may not always be an ideal destination for some NBA free agents, the city of Toronto has a big supporter in Mark Cuban. 

The boisterous Dallas Mavericks' owner came to the defence of the city and weighed in on his thoughts about former Raptors All-Star Chris Bosh and his decision to join LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat this summer.

"Toronto is a great city, I love it," Cuban told TSN on Wednesday.  "That said, the reality of sports is that no city can be everything to every player. Every city has lost players who didn't like 'enter complaint here' about it.  Then again, some players are never happy no matter where they are."

Cuban was responding to an interview that Bosh did this past weekend with the Miami Herald in which he discussed how he was originally against the idea of coming to play professionally in Toronto and despite his reported love for the city, he never truly felt at home.

"Toronto's a great place, a fantastic city," Bosh told the Herald.  "It's a metropolitan area, but you could tell you're somewhere different. You could feel it, you could look at it, you can smell it. Everything. All your senses tell you you're somewhere different."

Bosh is just the latest in a long line of professional athletes who have determined that the grass is decidedly greener south of the border.  Whether it be former Toronto Raptor Tracy McGrady complaining that there was too much curling on Canadian television or Kenny Anderson's refusal to play in Canada after being traded to Toronto or Vince Carter demanding a trade and admittedly quitting on the team, Toronto has gotten a seemingly undeserved bad rap from American basketball players as an undesirable destination.

Sadly misconceived notions of the city are prevalent, most famously when former Raptors' big man Antonio Davis lamented that his children would be at a disadvantage when they returned to the States because as he told Jim Rome in a 2001 interview that Canada teaches kids different things in school, such as French and the metric system.
The flip side appears to be how appealing the market is to European and international players.  Although it did not work out how the Raptors had hoped, Hedo Turkoglu shunned the Portland Trail Blazers to sign with the Raptors last season as he felt Toronto was a much more cosmopolitan city.  Despite being traded to the Indiana Pacers, centre Rasho Nesterovic maintained his home in Toronto and stated that he was overjoyed when the Raptors re-acquired him prior to last season.

The Raptors organization is obviously aware of the situation and has made what appears to be a conscious effort to build their roster with as many international players as possible, drafting Italian Andrea Bargnani first overall in 2006 and more recently trading for Brazilian Leandro Barbosa and acquiring Lithuanian Linas Kleiza.

The irony in the situation appears to be how the city is a favourite among road destinations for NBA teams.  The annual Caribana festival often attracts some of the league's biggest names such as Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Alonzo Mourning and Elton Brand, while the multi-ethnic mixture of the population combined with the lively night life makes it a desirable place to visit for many NBA players - just don't ask them to live there.

It has become so rare that an American-born hoopster praises playing in the city, that when one does it becomes a significant news story.

Former Raptor and current San Antonio Spurs' forward Matt Bonner became a cult hero in Toronto by adapting to the city quickly.  He earned the nickname "the Red Rocket" more for his well documented habit of taking the Toronto Transit system to work as much as for his ginger follicles. 

For him the advantages of playing in Toronto far outweighed any possible negatives.

"I came and played my first two years in the NBA here and was so excited to be on a team in a great sports city where the whole country is behind you, where you have Raptors fans from coast-to-coast," Bonner told Off the Record's Michael Landsberg on Wednesday.  "For me the exposure for playing in a 'foreign' country, which wasn't very foreign to me, was just awesome."

Bonner's love of Toronto extends beyond the city as he married a Canadian girl and has applied for Canadian citizenship.

Current Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems have also embraced their home-away-from-home and have earned a rabid group of fans who follow them around the city as they both constantly announce where they are going to be thanks to the social networking tool Twitter.

Sadly for hoops fans in Toronto they are the exception to the rule.  The problem appears to be that most American-born NBA players are much more comfortable with what they know: America.  Many would consider a trade to American outposts such as Milwaukee or Sacramento preferable to Toronto solely due to the fact that they would not have to cross any borders to reach their destination or use any "funny-coloured" money when they get there.

While Raptors broadcaster and TSN NBA Insider Jack Armstrong was born in Brooklyn, New York and coached NCAA basketball in the States, he currently lives in Toronto and is a big fan of the city and he does not understand how Toronto gets such a bad rap from so many players.

"Would you rather play in Salt Lake City or Oklahoma City or Minneapolis or Milwaukee?  Give me a break!" Armstrong told Landsberg on Wednesday 

Certainly it's nothing against the city itself but rather the idea of playing in a foreign country; Toronto is the fourth-largest market in the NBA (after only Los Angeles, New York and Chicago) and has world-class food, theatres and culture. If the city was located a few hours south (in either New York state or Michigan, say) it's quite possible players would be flocking there – it's just that it's in a different country with certain differences in customs, cultures and education.

Players' ignorance in terms of Canadian geography and culture is not necessarily their fault; they were simply never taught that Toronto's similarities to a major American metropolis far outweigh the differences.  Until that changes, there will likely be plenty more players who reject the 'True North strong and free' for the 'Star Spangled' shores of an American city.

"I think it's some sort of stigma," admitted Bonner.  "A lot of people think of Canada and Toronto as the 'Great North' and that it's snowy all year and all these great untruths and myths that are totally false."

While Armstrong too blames the player's lack of understanding for their prejudices towards playing in Toronto, he feels as though there is plenty of blame to go around.

"I think (the Raptors) have to go on the offensive, and educate and do a better job of getting people to understand just how great a market this is," Armstrong told Landsberg on Wednesday.

"When you look at it, this place is one of the World class cities.  It's the fourth largest market in pro-sports (in North America).  It's got so much more to sell than so many markets in the NBA.  That message has to get out there in a better fashion."

Bonner also feels that the seemingly non-stop revolving door for the Raptors at both the roster and coaching levels does the team a big disservice.

"Everyone (with the Spurs) knows that they are going to be there and has confidence that they will be there and there's really not much turnover," Bonner told Landsberg.  "I think when you have the same people, who are all about winning year in and year out, it creates a lot of chemistry."

As Bonner points out the easiest way to rectify this situation is winning.  If the Raptors were a perennial contender it would suddenly become a very viable location for free agents. 

"In the end in order to fix that image it comes down to consistent winning and building some sort of legacy and pride within the organization."

When the Toronto Blue Jays were capturing back-to-back World Series titles they had no trouble bringing top-tiered talent such as Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor into the fold.  If we keep the focus on basketball, it appeared to be a coup when then general manager Glen Grunwald signed Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon away from the Houston Rockets.  While it became clear that "the Dream" was a shell of his former MVP self once he arrived in town, the signing originally was a clear signal that the Raptors intended to be a big player in the free agent market.  The reason Olajuwon felt that Toronto was the right destination for him was that the year prior the Raptors reached the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and following the re-signing of Vince Carter, appeared on the verge of greatness.

In nearly a decade since the Olajuwon signing, the Raptors have made the playoffs only three times and never past the first round.  If the franchise is serious about once again becoming a big player in the free agent market, then they must first make inroads in the win-loss ledger.

Unfortunately it appears to be a bit of a 'chicken and the egg' quandary as the best way to win in the NBA is by attracting star players, with free agency being the quickest way to build a winner as Bosh's current team the Miami Heat have demonstrated. 

In other words, it's not necessarily just the city - it might have more to do with the losing, and until the Raptors prove that they can contend year-in and year-out, they will always be on the outside looking in.