Grange: All-Star game puts Raptors on the clock

Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP
September 25, 2013, 11:43 AM

People are still talking about the 1997 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland. And remember 2005 in Denver? Or how about 2006 in Houston? It was so good that the NBA went back to Houston in 2013.

And who could forget Orlando in 2012? Tony Parker won the skills competition. Breathtaking stuff. Well—just being honest here—I did. I forgot about all of them about 30 seconds after they happened.

That’s the thing with all-star games—they are the popcorn of sports. Kind of fun at the time, sometimes surprisingly good, but they have no lasting nutritional value. They mean nothing.

Which isn’t to say that the plan by MLSE (owners of the Toronto Raptors) to host the 2016 NBA All-Star Game isn’t a worthy undertaking. The Toronto Sun reported that the deal is done, although NBA sources have told Sportsnet that “there are still a few things to iron out” before it’s locked down.

In any case, incoming MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke made landing the NBA’s mid-season schmooze-fest a priority when he took the job in May. The 2015–16 season marks 20 years of the Raptors franchise in the NBA (has it been that long, Zan Tabak?) so what better way to celebrate it than by having the basketball world come to Toronto in mid-February?

We get it.

NBA All-Star weekend appears to be one of those events that actually drives tourism revenue. A study by the Orlando Magic on the 2012 game calculated an economic impact of $95 million, including $56 million in direct spending. It’s not without risks, however—the event can be a money loser unless local government kicks in to cover costs like renting convention space for the secondary events, and there can be the tricky issue of soothing the hurt feelings of season-ticket holders left out in the cold as the NBA puts its VIPs in their seats for the game.

Still, for the 2012 game an estimated 37,000 visitors spent an average of $1,020 each during their visits and the study found that NBA players alone dropped $440,000 in O-town. I can only imagine the damage that they’ll do given Toronto’s inflated prices: “Bottle service for all my friends!” I predict a run on oversize fur coats if the weather is even close to seasonal. If I were a fox, mink or beaver I’d be very nervous about the whole thing.

But as for the All-Star Game itself being some kind of transformative, image altering event? Don’t get your hopes up, Tim Leiweke.

I’ve covered several All-Star Games and their effectiveness in conferring basketball bonafides on the host city is negligible. The first one I covered was in Atlanta in 2003 and it didn’t exactly turn Philips Arena into the place to see and be seen for Hawks games.

Atlanta drew an average of 12,000 fans that year, second-last in the NBA. The Hawks were terrible. I am convinced there were more after-party people passed out in the lobby of my hotel when I went out for an early-morning pick-up game than turned out to most Hawks games that season.

So any idea that landing the game will have any impact on how the basketball world looks on the Toronto Raptors or the city of Toronto—or even how the city of Toronto looks at the Raptors—should be put to rest.

What the event does do is put Leiweke and Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri on the clock. Presuming the game does come to Toronto the Raptors now have two drafts, two free-agency periods and two trade deadlines in which to transform their team.

It’s simple: When you throw a party you don’t leave week old dishes in the sink and soap scum in the bath. But as of now the Raptors are a team in need of a house cleaning. The last representative they had at the NBA All-Star Game was Chris Bosh, who is currently entering his fourth season with the Miami Heat.

It’s hard to imagine anyone on their current roster making the 2014 showcase in New Orleans, although it’s a reasonable goal for Rudy Gay to aim for as it would save him the embarrassment of being the only player in the NBA earning more than $15 million a season to have never been an All-Star (his 2007 Las Vegas Summer League nod doesn’t count).

Can the Raptors improve enough in the next two seasons that they would have a player or two playing at home for the 2016 All-Star Game? Jonas Valanciunas has shown glimpses of that type of potential, but it’s no certainty the 21-year-old will get there in time.

Can they be bad enough this coming year to draft someone who could be good enough to be an All-Star in 2016? Can Leiweke convince soon-to-be NBA commissioner Adam Silver to rig the ping-pong-ball machine so that the Raptors can win the 2014 draft lottery and repatriate Andrew Wiggins?

Those are the really pressing questions as the franchise pushes ahead to put itself on the NBA map in some shape or form in time for its 20th anniversary.

With luck it could be a crowning moment for Canadian basketball, with the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and soon-to-be drafted Wiggins playing at home in front of the world. But it will take more than luck for the Raptors to have anyone in uniform to join them, and have something to celebrate on their anniversary other than the NBA’s annual lost weekend.

Everyone loves a party. Let’s hope Toronto basketball fans have something to celebrate.

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