THE TORONTO RAPTORS and the dallas mavericks at the Air Canada Centre (40 Bay), Friday (November 2) at 7 pm. $10.50-$155. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
the toronto raptors' 2001 pre- season begins with a growl and a bark. It's mid-October, before the team's first official warm-up game at home with the still-terrible Chicago Bulls. Wired-up forward Jerome "Junk Yard Dog" Williams strolls to centre court to speak to the fans.
The man with the headband, knee-high socks and toothy grin gives the packed Air Canada Centre a bizarre kind of pre-season pep talk, mixing sport with talk of responsibility in the wake of September 11. He runs through the Raptors' formidable list of off-season wheelings and dealings, beginning with Vince Carter and ending with himself.
Then he woofs like a dog.
The Cleveland Cavaliers scout sitting beside me rolls his eyes. A guy in the stands behind me, who ends up spending the entire game heckling departed Raptor Charles Oakley, starts on a tirade about how Oak should "be a Toronto winner, not a Chicago loser." The crowd goes bananas.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2001 Toronto Raptors.***
The Raptors accomplished the impossible this summer, snaring all-star centre Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwan and re-signing not only Vince Carter but also the skywalking sharpshooter's supporting cast of Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams and Jerome Williams. And the Junk Yard Dog was the first to commit to the team.He only came to Toronto from Detroit in February, but the 28-year-old Washington-born Williams signed a seven-year, $40.8-million deal before any of the other players had made their decisions public. The rest of the contracts fell into place soon after.
At Carter's star-studded charity game in August, the shock and elation at having all the familiar players back was palpable. Manager Glen Grunwald was given a hero's welcome as he entered the arena, and in the wall-to-wall purple of the dressing room after the game, the players all talked about the importance of close friends returning to the squad.
"It's still mind-boggling for me," Williams shouts in late September, days before the Raptors training camp begins. "Not only did we get all the free agents we wanted to re-sign, but we got a Dream to think about as well. It's really surreal.
"Normally when teams are in that kind of situation, you lose one or two guys, and that's considering yourself lucky. I don't really know what happened.
"None of us were in contact with the others. I mean, we talked, but never about staying because someone else was staying. Everybody made their own decisions. All I knew was that the Junk Yard Dog had a Dog Pound here in Toronto and I was willing to stay here for them."
His tendency to refer to himself in the third person and the usual sports clichés about "doing it for the fans" aside, it's true that Williams does have a remarkable relationship with the crowd.
His rebounding and cleanup work beneath the basket is impressive, but what makes him a fan favourite is his over-the-top enthusiasm for the game. Carter might be the star and Olajuwan the elder, but Williams is the on-court cheerleader, winding up the crowd with his freakishly exuberant play, thrashing around under the basket for rebounds and getting the entire arena in his corner.
Against the Bulls, he's the first one off the bench, clapping speedy rookie guard Carlos Arroyo on the back when he comes in for a time out. And while Williams's outsized antics might antagonize some more reserved spectators and occasionally seem more suited to his stints in the WWF than the NBA, JYD's clearly made a connection.
After the Chicago game, Carter calls Williams "a spark plug, an exciting player that we all get juiced from." Coach Lenny Wilkens talks about Williams's tenacity beneath the basket and "the raw enthusiasm he brings to the game of basketball." Fans just bark when he steps onto the court.
"I'm a loudmouth and I think people appreciate it," Williams offers. "I'm just trying to bring a bit of excitement back to the game. Who wants to see a bunch of guys looking bored out on the court?"
They've splashed out $234 million this summer to keep their big guns, so it's safe to say there are very real expectations for the 2001 Raptors squad, though the Dog's not saying what will be considered disappointing.
"Disappointing ain't in the Dog's vocabulary," he counters. "We'll only be disappointed if we don't surpass what we did last year. I can't tell you what it was like to be in the dressing room after making it through the first round of the playoffs.
"We now know what kind of team is going to be in Toronto for the next several years. These are guys who have committed to achieving something, and that's special. It shows patience and intelligence, not short-sightedness.
"We're not going to win this thing straight away, but with the kind of talent on this team, it's just a matter of time before something happens. In the meantime, there will be a lot of excitement. That's the only thing I can guarantee."***
Two days before the season officially starts, Williams is back boosting up the crowd at the Raptors' open practice. While bemused fellow players look on, the forward barks and growls his way through another centre-court motivational speech, asking kids to listen to their parents, telling the 9,000 people in the stands that he irons his socks "to keep 'em long and straight" and mentioning that he brings dog food to the team's pre-game meal.It's hardly the behaviour of a jaded, gazillionaire professional athlete -- but maybe that's why it works. firstname.lastname@example.org
the pros are lovin' t.o. The obvious desire of players like Jerome Williams to stay in Toronto and actually accomplish something in their time here marks a strong contrast to former Raptors like Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby and Isiah Thomas, who couldn't get out of town fast enough. Money is obviously a factor, but most of these guys could have earned the same paycheques in a dozen other NBA cities. When a multi-millionaire athlete like Williams says money wasn't a factor in his decision, it sounds a bit rich, particularly if you believe the talk that the Raptors overpaid him to help keep Carter. But Williams genuinely seems to like the city. He's reluctant to shoot off 15-second sound bites about Toronto being a warm and safe place, but when he does finally talk frankly about why he's staying, he's almost as animated as when he starts explaining his recipe for down-home pork chops. ("Fry them hot and don't be stingy with the gravy and the biscuits.") "Guys don't hate Toronto," Williams insists. "And if any of us had left, it wouldn't have been because we hated this city. "I came here and immediately felt comfortable. You're a bit short on soul food, but you've got good restaurants from all over the world, nice clubs and good music. "I hooked up with my man Kardinal Offishall before Vince's charity game in the summer and got him to do the halftime show. He's dope. "When I told people I was going to be here for a long time, people back home would always say, "Toronto's so cold and different.' But, hey, just remember, I lived in Detroit." Of course, all this love will mean squat unless the Raptors move beyond last season's second-round post-season finish.MG