To the dismay of many Toronto Raptors fans, forward Andrea Bargnani remained a member of the team as the trade deadline passed on Thursday, Feb 21.
So when the Raptors hosted the New York Knicks at the Air Canada Centre the following night, the crowd loudly voiced displeasure from the moment Bargnani entered the game late in the first quarter.
Bargnani, who had been a regular in the starting line-up since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, but now relegated to a bench role in seven games since returning from injury, popped off the bench to give Rudy Gay a short rest.
Ironically, Gay was acquired by the Raptors to fill a leadership role that was never embraced by Bargnani since being selected first overall in 2006.
The ACC crowd, not as a whole, but a significant portion, is known to jeer former Raptors players who roll into town with their new team.
Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh are always welcomed back with a healthy dose of boos that continue throughout the game for a hundred different reasons–the most significant being the feeling that elite players, entering their prime years, leave Toronto for greener pastures.
But for the first time, Raptors fans have turned on one of their own.
Bargnani may have been doomed from the day he was drafted. A relatively unknown commodity in North America, the 7’ forward from Italy had been playing professionally for Benetton Treviso.
As a tall player with perimeter skills, Bargnani drew comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and at the time, Bargnani seemed the perfect complimentary piece to man the Raptors’ frontcourt with Bosh.
That pairing did not go according to plan, as Bosh was eventually traded to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010 after agreeing to a free-agent deal in Miami.
While Bargnani was appreciated for his ability to stretch the floor and knock down 3-point field goals, fans of the team grew frustrated with his deficiencies as a defender and rebounder. Perceived as lazy, indifferent and unmotivated, Bargnani never emerged as a leader, nor did he live up to the expectations often thrust upon a first-overall pick.
Leading up to the trade deadline this season, General Manager Bryan Colangelo finally appeared willing to let go of Bargnani–a player that he has stubbornly supported and defended.
As such, many fans–desperate for the organization to finally turn the page on Bargnani–were disappointed when a deal did not materialize.
But in almost every other respect, the organization has turned the page, showing fans that they want to win now and bring a playoff game to Toronto for the first time since 2008.
On Friday night (Feb. 22) the Raptors took the court in front of a full house at the Air Canada Centre, remarkably just five games behind the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks, despite a horrible start to the season.
The atmosphere in the arena was electric, filled to the brim with a crowd rejuvenated and full of hope since the acquisition of Gay.
Throughout the game, this mood occasionally turned hostile toward the home team as the crowd shifted gears to boo Bargnani and make him feel uncomfortable.
Finally attention was turned to the appropriate place in the last minute of a match that had the feel and intensity of a playoff game. The fans rose to their feet, roaring as Kyle Lowry drove into the lane to make the go-ahead bucket in a 100-98 win.
Bargnani, who went scoreless in 13 minutes, was on the bench, for the moment forgotten by a crowd basking in the glow of a thrilling victory.
Like it or not, Bargnani is a Raptor for the remainder of this season. But instead of voicing displeasure toward him, let Bargnani’s play do the talking.
If he continues to play like he did against the Knicks, he will quickly find himself back on the bench and it will almost be like he isn’t here anyway.