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Maple Leap
Alexander Wolff
August 20, 2001
By signing for five years, Antonio Davis, an emerging frontcourt star, helped Toronto lock up other free agents and assure Canadians another run at the NBA title
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August 20, 2001

Maple Leap

By signing for five years, Antonio Davis, an emerging frontcourt star, helped Toronto lock up other free agents and assure Canadians another run at the NBA title

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The questions for Antonio Davis came from members of his fan club, Club 33, who had gathered at the Toronto Raptors' Air Canada Centre on July 29 for a postseason party. Their names—Mazdak, Ian, Su, Keyano, Raoul, Lindsey, Daniela, Hans-bespoke the multicultural mosaic of the city they call home, but their questions struck the same note: Are you planning to end your career as a Raptor? Have you had the chance to visit some of Toronto's tourist sites? What can the Raptors do to help the players understand Canada better? Do you like Toronto? What do you like about Toronto?

Given the eager-to-be-affirmed tenor of the queries, you'd hardly know that 18 days earlier Davis had agreed to sign a $64 million deal that should keep him in Toronto through the 2005-06 season. Davis's decision marked the first time a high-profile free agent had chosen to re-up with a Canadian NBA team, and it laid the foundation for an even bigger signing by the Raptors three weeks later, when Vince Carter agreed to a six-year extension worth as much as $94 million.

Earlier last month Davis had taken part in a four-way conference call with his agent, Bill Duffy; Carter's agent, Merle Scott; and Air Canada himself. Davis heard the Carter camp trill the virtues of Toronto and the endorsement opportunities available in one of the largest markets in North America—arguments that had proved unconvincing to such Raptors turned refugees as Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby and Tracy McGrady. After he made his decision on July 11, Davis fielded a congratulatory phone call from Carter's mother, Michelle Carter-Robinson, yet another indication that Air Canada would agree to that extension. By signing their two other free agents, forward Jerome Williams (for seven years and $40.8 million on July 18) and guard Alvin Williams (seven years, $42 million on July 20), and acquiring Hakeem Olajuwon from the Houston Rockets in a sign-and-trade deal for two 2002 draft picks on Aug. 2 (Olajuwon will get $17 million over three years), the Raptors positioned themselves to be among the NBA's elite for years to come.

Yet Davis's decision to stay in Toronto didn't come without bruised feelings. He dallied with the Orlando Magic. (He intends to settle eventually in Orlando with his wife, Kendra, and their six-year-old twins, Antonio Jr. and Kaela.) He weighed an offer from the Chicago Bulls, incensing many Torontonians who wondered why he would consider abandoning the Raptors, who had come within a buzzer shot of the Eastern Conference finals, for a downtrodden franchise, even one based in his wife's hometown. Most rankling of all were Davis's complaints to Los Angeles-based radio talk-show host Jim Rome that his kids weren't being exposed to U.S. and African-American history in school and that they had to sing O, Canada each morning.

With a late-night phone call to Duffy on July 10, Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald made those misgivings moot. He said the team would provide a history tutor for the twins several afternoons a week as well as a relocation adviser to guide the Davises through Canadian laws on taxation and residency. Toronto also ponied up the kind of cash that the Magic couldn't clear under the salary cap and that the Bulls weren't willing to part with.

So plenty of naysayers remain among the eh-sayers, people who suspect that Davis, 32, stayed only because he couldn't get a better deal elsewhere. "Some people will have to be won over," he says. "Canadians are sensitive. They take a lot of pride in their way of life—their government, their taxes. I love to play in Toronto, but I have a family and I was torn."

Davis is miscast in the role of ingrate. His transit from 45th pick in the 1990 draft to free-agent Croesus has been as arduous as any career path in the league. He's a 6'9", 230-pound center-forward—O.K., centre-forward—whose game has advanced incrementally in each of his 11 pro seasons, eight in the NBA. He's regarded as one of the league's good guys, an uncomplaining rebounder, defender, shot blocker and screen setter. He met Kendra through that paragon of rectitude, Miami Heat forward A.C. Green, and the season before last won the Raptors' community service award. During the early stages of the talks with Toronto he pulled Duffy aside and said, "I can't believe I just turned down $50 million."

There may be no better example of Davis's guileless manner than his response to a Club 33 member who asked what he ate before a game. Though Burger King is one of Club 33's sponsors, though Burger King bunting hung from the dais from which he spoke, though the president of Burger King Canada sat right behind him, Davis was unable to shade his reply: "You've got to stay away from fattening foods, fried foods. A lot of guys are eating Burger King in the locker room right before a game. I don't know how they do it. I eat chicken and lots of vegetables."

The sudden attention of the off-season has chipped away at Davis's ingenuousness. "All your life you talk about making it as an NBA player," says Davis, who filed a $50 million defamation suit against a witness in the recent Gold Club trial in Atlanta who claimed that Davis had been provided a stripper for his gratification. "Life was easier when I was coming off the bench. Now I'm an All-Star, I'm under the microscope, and it's a strain. Of course, I don't have any problems compared with the average person. Mine are of my own choosing, and I have to deal with them."

Over the years he has dealt with problems ably enough. Before Davis's senior year at Oakland's McClymonds High, the coach had so little regard for his ability that he urged Davis to forget about playing Division I ball and pick out a junior college. The father of summer-league teammate Gary Payton paid Davis's way to a showcase tournament in Phoenix, where he played so well that scores of letters from recruiters awaited him upon his return home. Davis dumped the letters on his coach's desk.

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