This year's version of the Toronto Raptors is a jumble of unheralded, underrated guys who have boatloads of character. It's a refreshing collection of Johnny Hardhats who come to work every single day. And if one of them can't make it, someone else is there to work just as hard to fill that spot and keep it. No ego, just work. The presence of this team-first attitude is surprising to long-time fans of the Raptors, who are used to having a breathing problems in the Air Canada Centre because of the ridiculously massive ego of Vincent Lamar Carter. Along with his mother Michelle, who made TSN's top 10 "Reasons Why Raptors Fans Hate Vince Carter", they seem to be somewhat of a package deal. Even the Williams's's's, Eric and Aaron, who might have had 1 quarter of PT while in T.O., had plenty of time to criticize the fans of the team they play for... but I digress. We're "in the now" now, and the now has never looked so good. This mixture of seemingly ego-deficient guys has quietly claimed the franchise's first Atlantic Division Title, and are currently in a first-round playoff battle with Vince "8 for 24" Carter and the Nets. Their team has reached near-perfect synergy by having a different guy step up and knock down shots when their MVP, Chris Bosh, is not on point, which he almost always is. When looking at this team, I see one with limitless potential, some players with very different backgrounds than others (notably their healthy European contingent). It seems, however, that most of them have one thing in common. They have had a previous franchise give up on them, or not realize their true potential or value. Somewhere in the deep, dark hallows of the NBA, they were waiting for their opportunity, but somehow got thrown around or neglected. Well, their opportunity has collectively presented itself in Toronto. This notion is why I have a.k.a' d this team The Forgotten: the mysterious athletes who need not shine in the limelight. These guys are so obscure that they make a B-Ball fan say, "Who just dropped 30 on the Nets?"
Third-year point guard T.J. Ford, in his first year with the Raptors, might have best captured the attitude and personality of his team in his response to a simple question. When asked about what kind of adversity and hardships his teammates have faced, he looked around the floor at the practice facility and remarked, "Lets see, we got Rasho (Nesterovic), never really got a huge chance in San Antone, umm... We got Luke (Jackson), Cavaliers gave up on him.... Who else? Oh yeah, we got Juan (Dixon), Blazers and Wizards gave up on him... we've been through plenty." Ford himself has already been through rehab for a season-ending back injury in his short career. The aforementioned warriors might not be gamebreakers, but they are valuable role players that no team can do without. It's just a shame -- or in the Raptors' case, a benefit -- that The Forgotten were indeed forgotten.
The Raptors roster reads like the cast of "Lost", in that they haven't been found. They are trapped on a metaphorical island full of talent, and feasting on the subtle fruits of success. Former NBA-bench warmer turned Euroleague Allstar (two-time Euroleague MVP) Anthony Parker wants to ensure that the success doesn't cease. This forgotten first-round draft pick in '97 by -- who else -- the Nets bounced around the comfortable benches of Philly and Orlando (he never actually played in Jersey), before saying "nuts to this" and heading for Europe. He's been hot lately, putting in a 26-point performance in Game 2 and shutting down Vince "13 for 43" Carter. Then we have T.J. Ford, who saw his stock in Milwaukee fall drastically after returning from an almost career-ending back injury in 2005, brought in by Executive Extraordinaire Bryan Colangelo. It's safe to say that he was also forgotten by the Milwaukee Bucks after he was traded to the Raps for young forward Charlie Villanueva. He is starting to be able to show his leadership, and feels at home and comfortable with fellow Texan Chris Bosh. Speaking of Bosh, it seemed like he was one of the faintest stars in the unbelievably bright draft of '03, thrown in the mix with the likes of King James, Melo and D-Wade, not to mention Ford as well. Oh yeah, and Darko, how could I forget Darko. It took him a few years, but Bosh has also earned his own nickname: CB4. But these are the "celebrities" on the team. Not seen much of the time are the Morris Petersons and Juan Dixons, who both have been impressive; Dixon since he came to Toronto late in the season from Portland, MoPete since forever. The only remaining player from the Raptors' playoff team of '02, Peterson has made a strong contribution even after being demoted to coming off the bench, and he is looking to work out a new contract with the Raptors in the off-season. Perhaps the most forgotten member of this squad is not a player, but the head coach Sam Mitchell. Last year, the 44 year-old player's coach was voted worst coach in the NBA by Sports Illustrated. Now, after being written off and forgotten about, he has gone from apparent worst coach last year to, umm, Coach of the Year this season. It looks like he has picked it up considerably from last year. Kudos to SI, by the way.
A few on the roster have achieved success at the collegiate level (the aforementioned Peterson with MSU, Dixon with Maryland, NCAA Champions), and internationally (Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa [Gar-bah-HOS-ah] with Spain at the 2006 Worlds), and only one has had the joy of winning an NBA ring (Nesterovic). The only thing on their mind is getting back to that greatness that they once rose to, only with the Raptors this time. When that time comes, I'm not saying it'll be this year (they'll have to play some considerably better games to overcome a 3-1 series deficit), the Forgotten might become significant once again, and they just might pop up in a sports fan's mind with the phrase "Oh yeah... I forgot about him!" catapulting from his or her mouth.