UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Raptors adopt international flavor of city that surrounds them

It's entirely possible that, at various times in the Toronto Raptors' 2009-10 season, play-by-play man Matt Devlin will say something that sounds like this: Calderon dribbles into the frontcourt, over to Belinelli ... Bargnani gets it on the block. Turnaround from 12 feet. ... Rebound by Nesterovic, kicks it to Turkoglu, from downtown ... Good!

At which point viewers in the greater Toronto area will wonder when Rogers Cable went shortwave and added a Radio Free Europe station to their package.

But as long as Devlin and Raptors radio man Paul Jones keep the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs understandable, in between all the League of Nations names, the team's fan base should catch on pretty quickly.

That may not be so easy on the most micro basketball level, where the really important words are all spelled with X's and O's.

"My biggest problem when we start training camp," Raptors coach Jay Triano said, "is going to be what language to speak when I address the team."

Signing Turkey's Hedo Turkoglu in one of the offseason's most high-profile moves merely added to the Raptors' critical mass of overseas talent. Italy's Marco Belinelli was acquired last week from Golden State in a trade for Devean George. He joins countryman Andrea Bargnani, the 7-foot center and 2006 No. 1 pick heading into his fourth NBA season.

Jose Calderon of Spain is the highly efficient point guard. Slovenia's Rasho Nesterovic is back after a one-season detour through Indianapolis. Forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu, an energetic March pickup from the waiver wire, is of Ghanaian descent, though he was born and raised in London. Backup point guard Roko Ukic is from Split, Croatia, a 24-year-old who has played with KK Split, Tau Ceramica, FC Barcelona and Lottomatica Virtus Roma. There was talk this summer of bringing back guard Carlos Delfino, the Argentine who spent 2007-08 with Toronto before heading to the Russian Super League last season. You half expect to hear that Bryan Colangelo, the team's president and general manager, is wooing Chinese guard Sun Yue, released last week by the Lakers, just to spice up the stew.

It all makes sense, actually, given how driven the NBA and commissioner David Stern are to grow the game globally. Toronto remains the league's only entry outside the United State's borders. And while all 30 teams operate with what you or I might consider funny money, only the Raptors routinely trade in currency that's candy-colored, with a Queen on the twenty.

"I don't think it's anything that we specifically tried to address, saying we need to be more international," said Triano, a native of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and a longtime player and coach of Canada's national team before replacing the fired Sam Mitchell 17 games into last season. "I really don't have an answer, other than, the one thing that's unique about Toronto is that it's so diverse in its culture. There's a little Italy, a Chinatown -- it's got a little bit of everything. When you come here, you get to see so many cultures together, living in the city."

Lots of cities have ethnic neighborhoods, but the Raptors' front office has a decided overseas and innovative bent to it. Colangelo arrived in February 2006 from Phoenix, where Euro-trained Mike D'Antoni excelled as coach of the Suns' open-court style, and has been active for years in FIBA activities. Maurizio Gherardini was hired three months later, the former GM of Italy's Benetton Treviso who became the first European to hold a senior management spot in the NBA. Masai Ujiri, a native of Nigeria, is one of the team's assistant GMs. The foreign influence, already part of the franchise's past, grew stronger.

"We ended up having Delfino and Nesterovic," Triano said, "and we had Anthony Parker -- we almost thought of him as a European player because he spent so much of his playing days over there and knew the system." Parker, recently signed away by Cleveland after playing three years with the Raptors, played five seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv and one with Virtus Roma after brief NBA stays in Philadelphia and Orlando.

"Those guys came over and they seemed to have the same type of bond that teams over in Europe have, where it wouldn't be uncommon for six or seven or eight of them to go out for dinner together when they land in a city," Triano said. "Sometimes in the NBA, that's a rarity; guys seem to go their own way. But our team seems to do that."

The Raptors are the first team to openly tilt their roster in a particular direction. Charlotte and coach Larry Brown, for example, are believed to favor North Carolina connections. Teams in Boston, Salt Lake City and Minnesota occasionally have been accused of seeking out white players, at least to stock their benches. San Antonio has gotten the best mileage out of its imports, building three NBA championships around Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands), Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and Tony Parker (France). But no team so far has stocked itself with so many non-American products.

Some have portrayed it as a defensive maneuver, based on Toronto's spotty history at luring or retaining U.S. free agents. Most players grow up in the States, dreaming of playing for teams in the States, not cultivating much of a taste for foreign tax codes and tricky spellings.

"That could be true," Triano said. "The North American players who have played in Toronto, though, I think it's just a matter of being educated by the city and playing here a couple times. Charlie Villanueva, a big free agent this summer, narrowed it down to three teams [before leaving Milwaukee for Detroit], and I believe Toronto was one of them. Because he'd been here before [as a Raptors forward in 2005-06]. You come to this city, you start to like it."

The big question is whether NBA fans, if they didn't have high-def TV and couldn't read the names on the backs of the jerseys, would be able to identify the Raptors by their style. Will anything about Toronto's game shout "international"?

"That will fall on me," Triano said. "With my experience in playing overseas and coaching the Canadian team, and [assistant coach] Marc Iavaroni playing in Europe, I think there will be a European flavor to what we do. But I think a lot of other teams are catching up to that -- the drive and the kick, the screen-and-rolls, surrounding them with guys who can knock down shots.

"One thing is, they expect long practices. One of the players said to me, 'Yeah, a two-hour practice is extremely common.' Now the length of the NBA season says you can't always afford to practice that long. But these guys have grown up being coached. Not that North American kids haven't, but a lot of times, they get put into the AAU programs where the emphasis is on the games and the [individual] performance, instead of the coaching and the team."

While a Euro style generally is thought to be entertaining at the least, it also has given rise to the cliché regarding toughness, a charge, Triano said, was addressed in Toronto by adding Reggie Evans and Antoine Wright. The Raptors also signed guard Jarrett Jack, drafted USC forward DeMar DeRozan and still will rise and fall on the play and future plans of four-time All-Star forward Chris Bosh. The Dallas native is widely seen as the biggest Class of 2010 free agent most likely to change teams, based on the Raptors' location and results (33 victories last season, just two playoff berths and a combined 64 games under .500 since Bosh arrived in 2003).

Triano isn't so sure. "I think we've done the job in the offseason. Now it's just a matter of playing the right way," the coach said. "If I had to guess, and I've known Chris a long time, he doesn't know what he's going to do. I don't think he has a master plan right now, like a lot of people are speculating. ... He's a 25-year-old kid who, like you and I at one time, maybe doesn't know what he's going to do next month, let alone in 2010."

Triano said Bosh, coming off his second 20-point, 10-rebound season, is fine toting the Stars and Stripes in the Raptors' parade of flags.

"Jose and Chris are very good friends," he said. "He's gone over to work Jose's camps. They're very tight. I know Chris talked to Hedo before he signed and is excited that we got him. So bottom line, guys are good basketball players and competitors -- they see somebody who's going to help them get to a higher level, they're going to accept it."

Regardless, maybe, of cuisine, currency or international phone surcharges.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.