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THE NBA: 1995-96 : Expanding the Border : Book of Isiah Will Be Rewritten in Toronto

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Detroit Piston guard Isiah Thomas was driving to the basket in a 1991 game against the Utah Jazz when he ran into Karl Malone’s elbow.

Bleeding profusely, Thomas was taken to a Salt Lake City hospital, where he received 42 stitches to close a wound near his eye.

The doctors wanted him to remain at the hospital overnight for observation, but Thomas insisted on finishing the game.

Thomas’ persistence should serve him well in his new job as the vice president and part owner of the Toronto Raptors, who open their inaugural season Friday against the New Jersey Nets at the SkyDome.

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“Isiah is the best competitor I’ve ever been around,” said Raptor Coach Brendan Ma-lone, a former Piston assistant. “Right now he’s channeling those competitive juices into his job.”

Thomas, who helped the Pistons win consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, is determined to build a championship team.

The Orlando Magic has been the NBA’s most successful expansion team, reaching the NBA finals in their sixth season.

But the Magic got lucky, winning the NBA lottery in 1992 and 1993, which enabled them to draft Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber, who was later traded to the Golden State Warriors for Anfernee Hardaway and three first-round draft picks.

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Because of changes in the draft lottery, expansion teams won’t be eligible for the No. 1 pick until 1999.

“I always felt we had to put together five good drafts,” Orlando General Manager Pat Williams said. “Obviously, we got two marvelous breaks which speeded the whole process up. Due to the new legislation, the Orlando rule, they’re not going to get those breaks, so it may take seven years of good drafts. I don’t know any other way to do it. It’s not going to come through free agents, because they’re not going to attract any.”

Raptor President John Bitove, who headed a group of investors who put up the $125-million franchise fee, hopes Toronto’s newest team survives longer than its first pro basketball team.

The Toronto Huskies were one of the original members of the Basketball Assn. of America, forerunner of the NBA. But the Huskies lasted only one season, folding in 1947.

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Although the Raptors will go through growing pains on the court, they’ve already been successful at the box office.

The Raptors, who’ll play their first two seasons in the SkyDome before moving to Air Canada Place, a $150-million state-of-the-art downtown arena near Union Station, have sold a reported 16,500 season tickets in a stadium that has been scaled to 22,911 for basketball.

“We’re third in the league in season tickets, seventh in merchandise sales and in the top five in sponsorships,” Bitove said. “Selling the NBA up here has been I wouldn’t say a cakewalk, but the league is so strong that it’s made selling it easier than some of the other sports. Even if we didn’t sell another ticket or sponsor for next year we’d already turn an operating profit.”

Long a hockey town that lived and died with the Maple Leafs, Toronto developed a love affair with the Blue Jays before the baseball strike.

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“I think the fact that we’re third in season tickets shows that there’s a strong interest,” Bitove said. “We’re going to televise 41 games. Sure, we’re not the Maple Leafs or the Blue Jays, but we don’t deserve to be because we haven’t earned everyone’s respect and been around here long enough, but I think over time we’ll be able to generate the same type of following.”

Malone says Toronto can support an NBA team.

“Toronto is a great sports town,” Malone said. “They love hockey and they love basketball. We brought guys like [UCLA’s] Ed O’Bannon in before the draft for interviews and they’d be recognized in hotels and restaurants.

“They’re really into basketball. They have to know a bit more about the NBA game and its rules, but they’re willing to learn.”

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Malone, 55, who spent nine seasons as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and Pistons, has never been a head coach. He was hired in June after Thomas watched him run a free-agent mini-camp.

Although expansion teams are usually abysmal in their first season, Malone thinks the Raptors, 3-5 during the exhibition season, will be competitive from the start.

“I think we’re pretty competitive right now,” Malone said. “We played eight exhibition games and we were in every game. But the difference between a team that’s competitive and a veteran team is when the game is on the line in the last seven minutes [the veteran team will] execute offensively and defensively.

“Although we’ve only been together for three weeks, we look like we’ve been together for about a year. That’s what impressed me about this team. I think it would be unfair for me to put a goal on them and say we’ve got to win 20 or 15 games. All I’m asking these players to do is go out and play 48 hard minutes every night and give yourselves a chance to win a game.”

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That may be tough with a starting lineup that includes two rookies--guards Damon Stoudamire, the seventh pick in the NBA draft, and Jimmy King, a second round pick from Michigan.

Although Stoudamire, a former Arizona star, was booed at the draft because fans wanted the Raptors to select O’Bannon, Thomas, one of the NBA’s best point guards, wanted to build his team around a point guard.

Former Piston center Oliver Miller, unable to control his weight, will be playing for his third team in four seasons after being acquired through the expansion draft.

Thomas also selected former Piston swingman John Salley from the Miami Heat in the expansion draft. Chicago Bull guard B.J. Armstrong was also taken in the expansion draft, and he was traded to the Golden State Warriors for swingman Victor Alexander and forward Carlos Rogers.

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* WESTERN CONFERENCE: The Rockets have won two championships in a row, but if the Suns can remain injury-free, they might be the team to watch. C6

* ROUNDUP: When season opens, it will probably be without regular referees. . . . Mourning rumors continue. . . . Tarpley status up in the air. C7


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