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Multicultural Toronto becomes a drawing card

The Toronto Raptors haven't always been a destination of choice for free agents or emerging talent on its own roster. Its perceived points of differentiation - higher taxes, snowy winters and pesky border agents - were deal breakers.

And you couldn't get ESPN, the ubiquitous U.S. sports channel.

But while the Raptors have had mixed results on the floor since president and general manager Bryan Colangelo arrived in February, 2006, they have been winning the battle of perception.

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"What we needed to do was make the international nature of the city a positive instead of a negative," said Raptors vice-president and assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini, an Italian who was first to join Colangelo's internationally flavoured front office staff, which includes a Nigerian and a Canadian in addition to the standard-issue U.S. content.

"We needed to characterize Toronto as an international place and Bryan has been very clever to do that."

Wednesday, the Raptors announced a five-year, $50-million (all currency U.S.) contract extension for Andrea Bargnani, the centre from Rome Colangelo selected first overall in the 2006 draft.

Thursday or Friday, it's expected Hedo Turkoglu, a 6-foot-10 forward born in Serbia and raised in Turkey, will be introduced after agreeing to a five-year, $53-million deal as befits his status as perhaps the most desirable free agent on the market this summer.

Turkoglu, who played the previous five seasons for the Orlando Magic, is the first major free agent the Raptors have been able to sign from another NBA team.

And it wasn't long ago the Raptors couldn't keep the talent they drafted. Bargnani signed the moment he could.

"I'm really happy to be here in Toronto," Bargnani said.

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Bargnani earned his extension by averaging 18.9 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 46.8 per cent from the field over the last 46 games of the season.

"From day one when I came here, I never really felt the transition. I felt very good here, the city was pretty, the fans are incredible and there is a huge Italian community and I see them at the arena, on the street, at the restaurants around the city. This is the best city, for me, in North America."

While its basketball benefits will have to be played out, snagging Turkoglu was a coup, and perhaps the best proof yet that the Raptors re-branding exercise has paid dividends. Having played in Sacramento, San Antonio and Orlando in his nine-year NBA career, Turkoglu looked like he was headed to Portland last week.

At the last moment the Raptors offered a slight - by NBA standards - bump in compensation, but their ace in the hole was that Toronto was Toronto: Diverse, cosmopolitan and urban. There was a Turkish community in place, Serbian, too. Being raised in bustling Istanbul, it was the kind of environment his wife, Banu, was comfortable with and a place they felt good about raising their new daughter.

"At the end of the day, Hedo simply decided that Toronto was a better fit for him and his family," his agent, Lon Babby said earlier this week. "He wants to remain in the East and Toronto is, of course, a uniquely cosmopolitan and international community and it suits him and his family best … Toronto's offer was better [financially]than Portland's was, but that wasn't the driver here."

When the Raptors were recruiting Colangelo to leave the Phoenix Suns they were attracted by his NBA executive-of-the-year pedigree, but also an outlook on the game that was global. After joining the club he set out to change the franchise's reputation as a basketball backwater.

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"It was all about Bryan's approach," said Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and chief executive officer Richard Peddie. "He had ideas about what needed to be done to make Toronto a top place that people want to play, and the international aspect of the market is part of that. It's a point of differentiation for us. We can't compete with the weather in Phoenix or Miami or the entertainment business in Los Angeles, but this was an advantage we did have, so use it."

Today, Colangelo shies away from the idea that the Raptors are a European club masquerading as an NBA team - after all Chris Bosh, the Raptors' franchise player, comes from Texas and the majority of the league's talent base is American. But Colangelo allows that creating strengths out of perceived weaknesses was a goal from the outset.

"With respect to the city and the culture, it's one of the top cities in North America," Colangelo said yesterday. "Hands down. There are a lot of very positive things I can draw on. And for the Europeans, getting used to customs, the different currency, it is one less hurdle for them, they're used to that."

Adopting an international outlook was a wise move, given that convincing a certain cross-section of American players that playing in Canada was a good thing was an uphill battle. Chicago native Glen Grunwald became so enamoured of the city during his time as Raptors general manager that he became a Canadian citizen and worked as the president of the Toronto Board of Trade after he was fired in April 2004.

But his players didn't always feel the same. Forward Antonio Davis was the first of their own big-name free agents the Raptors were able to retain early in the franchises' history, but in addition to signing Davis to a $65-million contract Grunwald had to hire a private tutor so Davis' children would be able to keep up with American history, this after Davis voiced his concerns about working in Toronto on a U.S. radio program.

"It's just that Canada teaches a lot of different things," Davis said. "You know, the metric system, when they go to school every day and they're singing the national anthem. Some of those things are going to pass as they're kids. As they grow older, there are some different things they need to learn."

Dave Haggith, formerly a member of the Raptors communications staff and now with IMG Canada, recalls the panic some players would work themselves into when they realized they couldn't watch ESPN, though former Raptors forward Charles Oakley, apparently, became fascinated with curling.

But even before the Raptors began looking for talent in Turkey and Rome and Spain, they were able to adjust.

"One of the things we learned was that if you pointed your satellite dish southwest over the lake from their apartment building, they could pick up ESPN," said Grunwald, now an executive with the New York Knicks. "That seemed to help."

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