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Surprise! NBA in Toronto might actually make it

8/3/2001

They aren't exactly two of a kind, or separated at birth, or any other line
to suggest that these are Siamese sports folks. They're simply an unlikely
pair of like thinkers.

Juan Antonio Samaranch. Antonio Lee Davis.

The common thread: Toronto was neither's first choice.

Difference is, Juan is gone now. He picked Beijing over the seat of Canadian
cool for the 2008 Olympics and then retired. The other Antonio? He went the
other way last week. Reduced the mansion in Orlando to a summer home and
established long-term, red-and-white Roots in the shadow of the Hockey
Hall of Fame.

Glorious news for the Toronto Raptors, if not free.

An entire league assumed for months that Davis, like all metric-fearing NBA
giants, would bolt back to the States at the first opportunity. He wasn't
even hiding his Magic lust. Yet the Raptors, capitalizing on Orlando's cap
constraints and the absence of any other legitimate rivals, managed to do
what few thought possible. They reached terms with Davis on a new five-year,
$64 million contract.

That's not all, either. The Raps also got an oral commitment from Jerome
Williams for seven years and $41 million, came to terms with Alvin Williams and dumped Charles Oakley and Zeljko
Rebraca to chase away the luxury-tax demons.

Added up, under any numeric system, those are some weighty moves. Expensive,
too, but the sort of questionable spending you can justify, given the
potential payoff between now and next summer. Yes, we're talking Vince
Carter. Suddenly, it isn't such a one-handed windmill that Vince will
automatically drift back down into our airspace when he becomes a free
agent.

Word out of the Carter camp is that No. 15 was "pleasantly surprised" to see
the Raptors keep their own for a change. Nothing is guaranteed, of course,
but you get the distinct feeling now that Carter will, at the very least,
take Glen Grunwald's call Aug. 1. That's the first day the Raps' GM can
offer Carter a contract extension.

Carter, like all rookies from the class of 1998, is eligible to tack six
seasons onto his original contract between Aug. 1 and Halloween. Without
Davis and the Williams lads, there would be no sense dialing the phone.

Yet even if Carter does wait, holding off until next summer, well-founded
hope remains. Merely maintaining the team they had -- which, remember, came
within one Carter jump shot of a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals --
comes across as major improvement in the wake of last July's Tracy McGrady
defection.

Bringing back Davis, insists A.D.'s agent Bill Duffy, "will help them get
over that stigma."

We could nitpik and point out that Davis didn't so much choose Toronto as he
finally conceded that mystical Central Florida wasn't worth the dramatic
reduction in salary. Or we could focus on the fact that Grunwald overpaid
Davis and Williams, just for the right to stay on Carter's radar.

But we won't. David Stern's kingdom is already a poorer place having swapped
heavenly Vancouver for (still searching for a remotely complementary word)
Memphis. Some of us who only pretend to be Canadian don't even want to
whisper about the domino effect of a Davis departure. Because we all know
that would have sealed Carter's exit and -- loathe as we are to ever endorse
a Dick Versace hypothesis -- inevitably torpedoed Canada's NBA experiment.

Don't forget that the forthcoming season will see the Raptors
receiving a $2 million stipend from the league to deal with the up-and-down
exchange rates. Also intriguing are the plans for NBA/Raptors TV -- a 24-hour
digital basketball channel slated for rollout later this year. Strict
broadcasting regulations prevent Canadian cable from offering ESPN
or NBA.com TV to its viewers. The Raptors, with the league owning 30
percent, have thus hatched their own network to spread the roundball gospel.

Impressive, eh?

There are other favorable puck comparisons, too. The Raptors, who came in
under the cap in every year of their existence, expect to dole out more than
$50 million in salaries in the 2001-02 campaign. That'll be well over the
expected $42.7 million cap ceiling but safely below the estimated luxury-tax
threshold of $53-56 million.

The local religious institution, meanwhile, is forecast to spend between $55
and $60 million on nearly twice as many players. That would be the Maple
Leafs, naturally, in a sport without a salary cap ... and thus the ability
to start making actual transactions on July 1.

"Antonio feels strongly they can be the best team in the East," Duffy says
of the Raptors, "and that did weigh heavily in his decision."

So, no, Toronto didn't get the Summer Games from the outgoing IOC president.
This Antonio, though, wasn't a bad fallback. If he leads to keeping Carter
in the Home And Native Land, what Toronto got is the next-best thing.

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular
contributor to ESPN.com
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