by Frank McLean
Right now in Toronto all the excitement is for baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays who went from a 50-51 record in July to break out and win the American League’s East Division crown. Something they haven’t done since 1993.
Looking down Blue Jays Way and across York Street to the Air Canada Centre the Toronto Raptors are hoping lightning strikes twice and they can provide the same excitement to the city the baseball team has.
The reason for the Blue Jays turnaround was a makeover in the off season by their general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who signed free agent catcher Russell Martin for his defense and the face of a proven post season winner. Picking up Erik Estrada and during the season, David Price, Ben Revere and Troy Tulowitzki didn’t hurt either.
The Raptors did a remake of their own over the summer. Getting swept four games straight in the first round of the playoffs will do that. Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri started with the free agent signing of DeMarre Carroll. He is their Russell Martin, a winner who can play solid defense and provide clutch rebounds. He also brought in free agent Cory Joseph from the San Antonio Spurs, a graduate of the Greg Popovich school of winning NBA Championships. Proven winners both of them.
Throw in draft picks Delon Wright and Norman Powell plus the pickup of free agents Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola and Ujiri has changed the whole dynamic of this team.
For the Blue Jays, the change you could see even on television was that not only were they winning in the second half off the season, but they were having fun with it. Everybody was supportive. The new players were able to fit in.
With the Raptors in the beginning of their training camp in Burnaby, BC this week you can see that Carroll is fitting in. He was the main cog in the remake, replacing fan favourite and class act Amir Johnson.
Earlier this week Carroll told the media at training camp, “This is a very easy team to join. We’ve got a lot of young guys. It’s kind of like a college team. A lot of these guys joke a lot. They’re cool. We sit around and talk.”
That camaraderie is one of the big reasons the Jays have turned the corner.
Watch how the young pitchers sit in the dugout and talk to Price and Mark Buehrle during a game asking questions about how you play the game. Always talking baseball, that’s how young players develop in any sport and that dynamic is starting to show at Raptors training camp.
Carroll doesn’t just talk about the game to those who want to listen, he also leads by example.
“I don’t go out there and say, you do this you do this”, Carroll said. “I just show them more than telling them. I think that’s the big thing I got to do.
“Once I do get more familiar with them maybe I can be like, you do this.”
If Carroll can help speed up the development of the Raptors younger players by showing them how to be professionals on and off the court, that will be a bigger plus in getting this new look team to jell and maybe even ‘BE A CONTENDER’.
But let’s not forget about Cory Joseph. He has only been in the league for just four seasons, but he has something very few players with that much time in the NBA has – AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP RING.
When you play for Greg Popovich and the Spurs, you learn the right away and there is right way and a wrong way to play the game. In San Antonio, if you don’t play the game the right way, you don’t play.
Also there is a Spurs way to act off the court as well. When was the last time you saw a member of the Spurs in trouble with off the court actions. You don’t and Joseph is bringing that culture with him to Toronto. Just like Carroll, he is another leader by example.
It’s going to be a long process and the Raptors will start that long road on Sunday with their first preseason game in Vancouver at GM Place against the Los Angeles Clippers. Management and fans can only hope that these changes bring a long post season run and the Raptors can capture that same excitement the Jays have brought to Toronto and all of Canada alike.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.