TORONTO - Andrea Bargnani meant everything to this Raptors franchise once.
Drafted first overall in 2006, he was once the source of hope for an ailing fan base. A mysterious 21-year-old from Italy, he possessed the unique skill set required to become a special player in a league obsessed with upside. A seven-footer who could shoot and put the ball on the floor, he had more upside than he knew what to do with.
As silly as it seemed then to compare a player with no NBA experience, a player most knew nothing - or next to nothing - about to a future hall of famer and soon-to-be MVP, that stopped (almost) no one from doing just that. He was supposed to be the next Dirk Nowitzki.
Bargnani meant everything to his former team until, gradually over seven years laden with false hope and hurt feelings, he meant nothing.
"I don't know what it was," said Dwane Casey, Bargnani's coach for two of his seven seasons in Toronto, looking back at the tarnished relationship between fans and the former first-overall pick. "I thought Andrea needed a fresh start."
One exhibition game into that fresh start, Bargnani will make his first return to the Air Canada Centre on Friday, three months after the trade that sent him to New York.
Catch the game live on TSN Radio 1050 starting at 7pm et.
"We have no ill feelings for Andrea," Casey acknowledged Thursday afternoon following practice. "For him personally and as a friend I'm glad to see him not have to go through some of the things he went through here."
Plagued by injuries and a perceived lack of effort, Bargnani experienced far more lows than highs in Toronto and as a result many fans began to sour on a player they once celebrated, however briefly.
In seven seasons, Bargnani averaged 15.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, shooting 44 per cent from the field and 36 per cent from three-point range. Over his final two seasons as a Raptor he missed more games (82) than he played in (66) and saw his scoring average fall from a career-best 21.4 in 2010-11 - his first as the offensive focal point, sans Chris Bosh - to just 12.7 last year.
By midseason and to the dismay of Casey and several vocal Raptors players, Bargnani was routinely booed by the home crowd.
"You hate to see somebody on your team go through something like that," reiterated DeMar DeRozan, a teammate of Bargnani's for the past four seasons. "Just the [negative] energy, it can do a lot mentally to a player. We tried to keep him up, in good spirits all season but it was tough on him."
Although Friday's game - the first of two preseason visits to Toronto for Bargnani and the Knicks - won't count towards the standings, the atmosphere in the ACC could resemble the return of past Raptors-turned-Raptor villains.
"They can boo him all they want to now," Casey joked. "Fans are going to do what they're going to do and so he should probably put on ear plugs."
Bargnani's return will likely be the latest in a long line of former Raptors to be welcomed back with a chorus of boos and jeers from the ACC faithful. When beloved point guard Jose Calderon made his return to a standing ovation in April, Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank (now an assistant with the Nets) alluded to the Toronto franchise's long history of hostile homecomings.
It all started with Damon Stoudamire, who scored 22 points in 2000 returning with the Blazers two years after forcing a trade out of Toronto. Tracy McGrady poured in 24 points in his first game back a year later, followed by 39 points from Vince Carter in 2005 and 25 from Bosh in 2011. For what it's worth, Hedo Turkoglu was held to 11 in his return, but that should surprise no one.
Soon Bargnani will join that group, matching Bosh's seven seasons as the longest tenured but unlike most of that list, who achieved some individual and/or team success here (Turkoglu being the obvious exception), his Raptors legacy will leave a predominately bitter taste in the mouths of Raptors fans.
He won't be remembered as a 20-point scorer. He won't be remembered for finishing second, behind only Brandon Roy in Rookie of the Year voting. No, instead he'll be remembered for his declining shooting percentages, his modest rebounding numbers, his laissez-faire attitude, the injuries, the general manager who blindly stood by him until the end and a Primo pasta ad that will forever be ingrained into our hearts. Most of all he'll be remembered for what he failed to become.
"I didn't get out of him what [I] was hoping for," Casey admitted Thursday; not the first and likely not the last coach to come to that realization. "I wanted him to be Dirk-like."