Eight months after he was hired as Raptor vice president, Isiah
Thomas went to Super Bowl XXIX in Miami. It was there, at the
largest and grandest football fiesta of the year, that Thomas
began fine-tuning the ideas that will shape the future of
Toronto's expansion basketball franchise.
This is an article from the Oct. 23, 1995 issue
During the game Thomas, who led the Pistons to two NBA titles as
a player, sought out Tex Schramm, the first president and
architect of pro football's 1960 expansion Dallas Cowboys. "We
spent a good two hours talking," Thomas says. "I especially
remember one thing he said: 'If you're going to depend on the
draft to acquire talent, you're not going to get it done,
because the expansion process is set up for you to lose.'"
Thomas says he was interested in hearing about how Schramm had
gone to unprecedented lengths of resourcefulness to build his
team. The Cowboys even signed some college basketball players as
free agents, such as eventual five-time Pro Bowl defensive back
Cornell Green and wide receiver Pete Gent, and drafted a
Kentucky forward named Pat Riley as an end (he never played in
the NFL). Thomas, too, has a plan to reinvent the way a
successful expansion team is built. "I won't expose that
strategy, but we have one," he says. "I think we understand the
waters we're swimming in."
There were no water polo players at the Raptors' preseason camp
in early October, but there were three foreigners, one junior
college product and one center who never even played college
basketball. Raptor coach Brendan Malone scouted a high school
all-star game in Toronto in June, and Thomas says the team has a
stack of files on prepsters as thick as its collegian files.
In fact, Thomas was hoping to draft high school star Kevin
Garnett, whom he had scouted personally. But the teenager's
stock soared after a tryout in Chicago, and he was taken fifth
by the T-wolves (the Raptors' first pick was in the seventh
slot). Instead, the honor of being the first Raptor selected in
the NBA draft went to Arizona's Damon Stoudamire, whose
selection drew a round of boos from the draft-day crowd of
21,268 at SkyDome.
"The fans were expecting them to take [UCLA's] Ed O'Bannon,"
says Stoudamire. "The boos don't bother me. They know Ed from
seeing him play on TV. By the time I'm done here, they'll know
who I am."
Or will they? The Raptors' local TV contract calls for 41 of
their 82 games to be aired this season. But last year Canada's
national sports channel, TSN, showed only two NBA playoff games,
claiming there was not a big enough audience. Even the NBA
draft, which was held in Toronto, was carried only by a youth
programming network called YTV. That station aired just one hour
of coverage hosted by two teenagers in jeans who did little more
than gush about how great it was to be there.
The Raptor coaching staff may have as tough a time as the fans
figuring out who's who. The roster will feature familiar faces
like John Salley, Willie Anderson, Oliver Miller and B.J. Tyler
(all picked up in the expansion draft), and a couple of
ex-Golden State prospects in Carlos Rogers and Victor Alexander
(whom the Raptors acquired for top expansion draft pick B.J.
Armstrong). It will also include rookies Stoudamire and Jimmy
King, as well as absolute unknowns such as Vincenzo Esposito, an
Italian shooting guard who has never played a game on American
"We'll probably have 12 strangers on the floor with no
chemistry," says Malone, who spent nine years as an assistant in
New York and Detroit. "But in my mind's eye, I know how I would
like to play, and that's to push the ball up the court and get
the easy basket and, if there's no shot, flow into some sort of
You don't have to tell Malone that that's easier said than done.
Though he has never before been a head coach in the NBA, Malone
is known for his work ethic. When he and Thomas were in Detroit,
they frequently spent hours talking strategy over the phone.
Still, Malone wasn't being seriously considered for the job
until Thomas watched him run a free-agent camp in late July. "I
told Brendan that he was like a beautiful woman in the office
who wears glasses and has her hair pinned up," Thomas says. "You
really don't pay much attention until she takes off her glasses
and shakes her hair and you go, 'Whoa!'"
But unless the Raptors' halftime entertainment is really superb,
it's unlikely--no matter how hard the team works--that it'll
elicit the same reaction from its fans.
BY THE NUMBERS
THE BATTLE TO BREAK EVEN
From 1960 to 1994 the NBA added 19 teams; 15 were built from
scratch, while the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Denver
Nuggets and New York Nets came in from the American Basketball
Association. Some debuted with great success; others wallowed in
mediocrity for years. The Raptors can take solace in the fact
that four of these new teams finished .500 or better within the
first three years. On the other hand, four clubs went seven or
more years before reaching the .500 mark (five, if you count the
Minnesota Timberwolves, who will enter Year 7 without ever
having posted a winning record). From 1960 to 1994 the average
record for an expansion team in its first year (based on an
82-game season) was 24 wins and 58 losses.
Number of Seasons Expansion Teams Needed to Reach .500
Fewest First .500 year No.
'76-77 Nuggets* '76-77 1
'76-77 Spurs* '76-77 1
'68-69 Bucks '69-70 2
'68-69 Suns '70-71 3
*former ABA team that entered NBA in 1976
Most First .500 year No.
'74-75 Jazz 1983-84 10
'61-62 Packers 1968-69 8
'67-68 Rockets 1974-75 8
'70-71 Blazers 1976-77 7
In what will be a season of firsts for the Raptors, it is worth
noting that the first player to officially become a member of
the team, signing a three-year, $1.8 million contract in June,
was guard Vincenzo Esposito, a native of Italy. Esposito is one
of two Italians--the other is Phoenix Sun center Stefano
Rusconi--who will be their country's first representatives in
the NBA. The 26-year-old Esposito averaged 24.2 points per game
and shot an Italian League-best 92.9% from the free throw line
last year for Filodoro Calze Bologna. Raptor coach Brendan
Malone is already comparing the 6'3" sharpshooter to the late,
great New Jersey Net guard Drazen Petrovic, who was Esposito's
idol. Objectively speaking, that's a bit of a stretch. Esposito
is regarded as a project, but if he develops into even half the
player that Petrovic--a tireless worker who became one of the
NBA's best shooters--was, he can be a help to a Raptor team that
needs all the outside shooting it can get. It also won't hurt
Esposito's cause that Toronto has an Italian population of
STARTERS 1994-95 Key Statistics
SF Willie Anderson 4.9 ppg 1.4 rpg 1.4 apg
PF Carlos Rogers 8.9 ppg 5.7 rpg 1.06 bpg
C Oliver Miller 8.5 ppg 7.4 rpg 55.5 FG%
PG Damon Stoudamire Rookie; 7th overall pick, from Arizona
SG Jimmy King Rookie; 35th overall pick, from Michigan
G B.J. Tyler 3.5 ppg 3.2 apg 0.65 spg
F-C John Salley 7.3 ppg 4.5 rpg 1.13 bpg
F-C Victor Alexander 10.0 ppg 5.8 rpg 51.5 FG%