Chisholm: Leiweke's challenge to make Raptors relevant

Tim Chisholm
4/27/2013 12:37:16 AM
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Relevancy. It has eluded the Toronto Raptors for nearly twenty years. Even more than competitive basketball, relevancy has been the brass ring that the Raptors have never quite been able to reach.

Oh sure they've gotten close. Vince Carter probably brought the organization closest to the precipice, but after the Slam Dunk competition, 'The Graduation', the injuries and the trade demands, what Carter really made relevant was himself, not his team.

Relevancy is, in a way, an ephemeral concept in the NBA. It implies a certain importance within the grander scheme, a force which moves the narrative of the entire league forward, and the Raptors have simply never operated on that high a plain. For their entire existence the Raptors have been peripheral participants in the NBA universe. At times it's felt as if they were doomed to a second-class status as a club that can play within the league but not move within the rarified air of those that truly define what the NBA is all about. They could participate, but they'd be irrelevant.

Well, Tim Leiweke doesn't dabble in irrelevancy.

Leiweke, the former AEG leviathan, was tapped on Friday to take over as the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and he laid out in no uncertain terms that the Raptors - in his view - do not belong on the margins of the NBA. Not with Toronto being the fourth-biggest marketplace in North America and not with Canada representing a massive potential marketplace of 36 million people.

Thus, it was no coincidence that shortly after the Leiweke announcement came a rumour through that the Raptors were considering making a pitch to basketball legend Phil Jackson to come north and run the entirety of their basketball operations.

A move like that would bring relevancy. Big time.

Now, it must be noted that the odds of Jackson actually relocating north are long even in a best-case scenario. While Jackson has made no secret of wanting to emulate Pat Riley's Miami Heat fiefdom with an organization all his own, Toronto would seem an odd place to set up camp, regardless of Leiweke's and Jackson's close ties from their Los Angeles days.

Jackson bleeds basketball pedigree. He has eleven Championship rings as a head coach and two as a player (with the New York Knicks). He is the Titan that helped Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal break through the Championship barrier. He is the sage that turned a once-frosty relationship with Kobe Bryant into the ultimate player-coach partnership. He's an outside-the-box tactician that has never been successfully imitated (even by his own former assistants) and the Toronto Raptors would be elevated on the NBA totem pole just by being taken seriously by Jackson this spring.

That said, the Raptors been so far from the A-list during their brief existence it would be simply stunning to see someone as decorated as Jackson survey a field of options and choose the Raptors as his landing spot, but in Leiweke's view that is exactly the calibre of talent MLSE should be actively recruiting, especially a respect-starved organization like the Raptors.

Of course, Raptors fans have heard this record before. They heard it when Isiah Thomas became the club's executive vice president. They heard it when the club hired Lenny Wilkins as head coach. They heard it when the club hired Bryan Colangelo as president and general manager. They've been told time and time again that a new regime is going to put their club in the map, so forgive them if they aren't exactly taking to the streets in celebration.

However, Leiweke was unequivocal Friday when discussing the state of the Raptors: their irrelevance makes them his first priority. They are bringing up the rear at MLSE right now and their string of Playoff-less seasons inspired some stern words from the new boss, a stark tonal difference to the optimism struck on Monday by the suddenly-vulnerable Colangelo in his season-ending press conference. Leiweke isn't interested in clubs that can qualify for lower-rung Playoff seeds - he measures success in titles, and the Raptors are about as far from one of those as they were when they played in purple pinstripes over at the SkyDome.

As powerful as Leiweke has been during his career-to-date, he's not a household name that's going to bring relevancy to the Raptors organization. Heck, the Raptors only represent a piece of the puzzle that he has to oversee. Still, he doesn't do small potatoes. He's not interested in the Raptors being a fringe NBA outfit. He deals in relevant commodities, and while no one has been able to turn the Raptors into one of those, it will be interesting as always to see someone new try their hand at making it happen.

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