Under The Bleachers: Toronto’s Big Audition

Over the next few days, the best players in the NBA (and Kobe Bryant) are assembled in Toronto for the NBA All-Star Weekend – three days of festivities on the hardwood that can also serve as 72-plus hours of showing players that Canada’s only NBA outpost should be a place every free agent considers.

While Toronto has been part of the league for 20 years, it’s only recently that the Raptors have become a consistent playoff contender, the kind of team free agents would even consider joining when they have their pick of several options.

The brain trust responsible for building this team has established a winning culture and attitude within this organization and that reflects well around the league. Last summer, Toronto got a meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge, the biggest free agent on the market, something that wouldn’t have happened even three years ago. Now it’s time to take the next step – to go from getting the meeting to landing the big fish (or whatever fish they’re angling for) and this weekend can help make that happen.

Dropping in for 24-48 hours a couple times a year isn’t enough time to get a real read on a city; you get to try a couple recommended restaurants, see how good the hotel is, experience one or two days of weather and roll out.

But having three days with minimal expectations and plenty of time to check things out in earnest can give some of these players an opportunity to really find out what a metropolitan city Toronto is and that the Raptors are a team on the rise with the potential to be ultra-consistent over the long haul.

Three days of packed houses at the ACC, plenty of killer meals and parties around town and Drake playing host/tour guide is a pretty good sales pitch and looks even better when combined with the talented roster the Raptors have assembled and the tremendous respect general manager Masai Ujiri commands around the league.

It also doesn’t hurt that the American dollars these athletes rake in go a little further in The Six right now either.

No matter how you frame it, Toronto should be a place players seriously consider during free agency.

It’s a major market, but the Raptors don’t endure the same scrutiny as players in places like Los Angeles or New York or Chicago have to deal with because the Maple Leafs are Priority No. 1 and hockey as a whole is No. 2. At the same time, you have an entire country behind you and you can’t get that anywhere else.

From Squamish to St. John’s, basketball fans in Canada support the Raptors; maybe not first and foremost and without liking anyone else, but their games are on from coast-to-coast, which is something you can’t get in any other city.

The Raptors are a playoff team, but they clearly still have room to grow. They have quality players and two all-stars, but not a true superstar. The fans are vocal and supportive and not just of the marquee names either; dudes like Jerome Williams and Popeye Jones got serious love playing in The Hangar because of their passionate style of play.

The city has everything you could want, but you can escape it in a heartbeat too, either by driving out of the city or jumping on a plane. There are other pro sports teams, tons of celebrities and true world-class amenities; lots of people to see, places to go and things to do and all of that needs to be showcased this weekend.

Over the next 72 hours, Toronto has a chance to make a lasting impression on the best players in the league, both as a city and as a franchise.

If done right, the 2016 All-Star Weekend could contribute to helping the Raptors remain a perennial playoff team going forward.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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