Solomon Alabi stepped out of the weight room and paused when he noticed a batch of reporters waiting to discuss his return to Toronto. He folded his arms and lowered his eyes, then slowly walked 10 metres across the empty basketball court. "I made it," he said, a shy grin creeping across his face.
Nobody relishes being shipped to the NBA's Development League, what with its unglamorous locales, puny media profile, and the selfish nature of the beast: every player hopes to ditch their squad and get called up to the big leagues as soon as possible.
The Nigerian centre was the last Toronto Raptors to leave practice at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday afternoon, but then, he was also the last to arrive, after speeding northeast all morning from Erie, Pennsylvania, where he spent the last few weeks playing for the Erie Bayhawks, the Raptors' D-League affiliate. The 7-foot-1 centre was welcomed by his old teammates who shouted his nickname, Solo, then bugged him about needing a haircut.
And so began the 22-year-old's second chance to prove that he belongs. During seven games for Erie, he averaged 8.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 22.7 minutes. Passing isn't a big priority for smaller guards looking to prove their worth, he noted, suggesting those numbers weren't completely indicative of all he can do. "So much of the game down there is small and his minutes weren't high, so we just figured at this point, it was better to have him come back," Raptors coach Jay Triano said of Toronto's decision to recall its second-round pick from last summer's draft.
Alabi's first opportunity to play may come on Friday when Toronto hosts the Denver Nuggets (although he yet to play a single minute in the regular season). Triano said Denver's noted defence and veteran core should pose a challenge for his team, which has lost three of its last four contests. After defeating the Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday, Toronto lost two in a row with sub-par efforts. Wednesday's heartbreaker against New York Knicks also went the other team's way, but could give Toronto some momentum considering the notable achievements, including a career-high 41 points from Andrea Bargnani.
"I was in the zone but they weren't good shots," said Bargnani, taking a humble view of his success. "Coach puts me in the low post against [Wilson]Chandler, against the smallest guy, so it was not that I was making crazy shots or something unbelievable, I was making easy shots around the paint."
A win for Denver would be the 1,000th career win for Nuggets coach George Karl. His team, now 13-8, has been foiled in its last two attempts, including a 105-89 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. Toronto's lucky streak of having star opposing players sit out with injuries could also continue if Carmelo Anthony is scratched, as he was Wednesday (right knee).
Benched or not, Alabi will just be happy to be in a Raptors uniform - although he almost missed the call to return. He had turned off his cell phone because roaming charges were getting expensive. After getting nothing but voicemail, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo tried his agent, who passed on the welcome news.