In NBA lore, there is general agreement that one of the league's best teams, if not its most accomplished or most talented, was the 1970s New York Knicks.
They had talent in Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave Debusschere and Earl Monroe, just to name the Knicks on the NBA's 50th anniversary team named in 1996.
But they had more. When former Knick and former presidential candidate Bill Bradley gave the eulogy at Debusschere's funeral in 2003, he defined the Knicks as providing for each other, "the depth of a sense of belonging."
Jay Triano, head coach of the Toronto Raptors, encountered the same feeling while playing for and coaching the Canadian national team. He's quick to point out that the 82-game NBA grind is different than the short and intense international season, but he's hopeful "a sense of belonging" is something that can take root in the NBA, too.
"I think you can get there," Triano said. "It's not always going to be ideal, but other teams have done it and you can strive for it."
No one is confusing the Raptors with the 1970s Knicks, who rode their good feeling for one another to championships in 1970 and 1973. But riding a two-game winning streak in the wake of their team meeting on Friday, where grievances were bared and solutions suggested, the hope is that they're at least on the road to reaching their potential.
"If there's a formula [to team building] I guess we're at step one," said Jarrett Jack, the reserve point guard who spoke out in the wake of the Raptors' blowout loss to Atlanta last Wednesday, the catalyst for the meeting. "Hopefully we keep building."
The Raptors will have to build some momentum as they host the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight and head to Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back tomorrow before hosting the Hawks on Friday.
Toronto (9-13) is in a three-way tie for the eighth playoff spot in the crowded Eastern Conference.
Jack said the perception that there is a divide between the team's European players and the Americans on the roster wasn't as significant as the lack of team cohesion.
"You need to establish [you're a team]first and I don't think we did that at the start of the season," Jack said. "Now that it's established, you know what to expect from now on. You have to know someone has your back and clear the air with it, leave all the guesswork out of it."
The goal is an environment where successes are celebrated, mistakes covered up, and challenges met collectively.
"It's everything," Jack said. "If I take a charge, someone is going to help me up. If there's a breakdown or something happens, I know someone has my back on the back side."
Around the NBA, there are a handful of teams that might meet the standard set by teams past, says Jack, who prides himself on being a basketball history buff. Boston comes immediately to mind, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Lakers more and more. Triano cites the Spurs teams where David Robinson famously stepped aside to create space for Tim Duncan at the top of the offensive pecking order.
"That's a special place to get to and it takes a special group of guys to understand that sacrifices on an individual standpoint are for the better of the team," Jack said. "But it will help you in the long, long run."
The way Toronto played in an overtime win against the Wizards on Friday, then blew out a struggling Bulls team, was encouraging.
"It's not just nine new guys on the court," point guard Jose Calderon said. "It's not just playing basketball. You have to know each other, too. It's nine new guys on the court and nine new guys off the court too. Maybe we should have [had a meeting]earlier."
Triano hopes a bridge has been crossed, but having come out of a five-game losing streak with two much needed wins, he's not about to get carried away with his club's tentative steps toward team unity.
"It's 82 games, you have to keep an even keel," he said. "But did we find a little something? I hope so. But we have to build on it."
NOTES The Raptors will be wearing their new "Huskies" uniforms tonight; replicas of the ones used by the Toronto Huskies in the 1946-47 season. The Raptors will be wearing them for six home games this season. The Huskies hosted the New York Knicks in the first-ever Basketball Association of America - the forerunner to the modern NBA - game. Toronto lost 68-66 in front of 7,090 fans at Maple Leaf Gardens. Chris Bosh left midway through practice yesterday due to a head cold. He was scheduled to tape CBC's The Hour yesterday. His documentary DVD First Ink is being released today. Andrea Bargnani also missed practice due to a sore ankle. Both would be game-time decisions, Toronto coach Jay Triano said. Jarrett Jack was surprised at the reaction to his decision to stop and tie his shoe with the ball tucked under his arm late in the Raptors win over the Bulls. No Chicago player approached Jack and the local media pointed to it as a sign of a rudderless team. Triano said if an opponent tried to do that to the Raptors "I would expect our guy to go over and knock him on his ass."
NEXT Tueday night against Minnesota [3-17]at the ACC, 7 p.m.
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