July 1995: Raptors Sign Vincenzo Esposito
For the uninitiated, Toronto has a lot of people of Italian origin. There is a Little Italy, as well as Corso Italia, and the suburb of Woodbridge that is so distinctly Italian it has its own accent. Isiah Thomas, in all of his marketing wizardry, decided that signing the best basketballer Italy had to offer would surely bring the fans down to the SkyDome. The problem? Italians like soccer.
Maybe if the Raptors wanted to draw fans based on the ethnic make-up of the city, they should have done some research into which ethnicities actually like basketball. For example, Serbians love basketball. Anybody who attended a Raptors/Kings game during the Divac/Stojakovic era knows this. Those seemed like away games for the Raptors.
Another suggestion might be to actually make an effort to find a space on the bench for a Canadian. In 1995, the Raptors kept Esposito and cut Rowan Barrett. And it's still happening in 2006 as we draft PJ Tucker and not Denham Brown.
Finally if I were Isiah I might have actually made sure Esposito was any good. El Diablo (yes, that was his real nickname) was terrible. Eposito only appeared in 30 games during the Raptors initial season. During games in which Esposito played the Raptors were 5-25, a .167 winning percentage. Mainly because he only saw the court when the team was getting blown out. He spent a lot of time on Injured Reserve which proved hilarious whenever he would go out onto the court and shoot around before every game (For the record, Dell Curry's kids could have probably taken him in a 3-point contest).
In games that Esposito did play, he was atrocious. While the stats indicated that he only averaged 6.6 turnovers per 48 minutes, it certainly seemed like more. Maybe because every turnover he made bordered on the spectacular. Usually it involved Esposito driving the lane with his head down, leaving his feet and then either getting stripped or whipping a pass as hard as possible at no one in particular. Every one of these drives ended with Esposito looking like a flying starfish. It can't be a coincidence that Esposito remains the only Italian to play in the NBA. The scary news is that it was reported that Esposito was seen at Raptor summer leagues games this year encouraging Andreas Bargnani. Please Andreas, don't listen to him!
But for this Raptor fan, one game in particular sums up the Esposito Experience: December 5th, 1995 versus the Seattle Supersonics. The Raptors had actually beaten the Sonics a couple weeks earlier which was a huge embarassment for the Sonics as they would go on to finish 64-18 and lose to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. During that Raptor victory, Damon Stoudamire recorded a triple-double in what probably still remains the greatest single-game performance ever by a Raptor. Exactly 2 weeks later Gary Payton wanted his revenge.
Payton threw down The Glove that night and when the game became a rout, Coach Malone wisely pulled Stoudamire to give Esposito some real NBA minutes and to protect his star. The trouble was that Payton didn't care who he was playing that night. He played Esposito just as tight as he did Stoudamire. The 6 turnovers in 18 minutes looks bad on the scoresheet but you had to watch the game on TV to witness just how overmatched Esposito was. Think about what happens when Ron Artest plays nerf-ball against his kids and that might approximate the mismatch that occurred.
In fact anybody who happened to be watching the game that night witnessed NBA history as Payton took charges from Esposito on consecutive possessions... at half fucking court!
Vincenzo Esposito was the Raptors original Italian Job. Let's hope the sequel is better. A LOT better.