TORONTO – Two thousand miles away, an old Western Conference rival had empathy for Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo over this medical mess with Jorge Garbajosa. RC Buford and Colangelo aren't buddies, but they happen to be two of the elite executives in the sport. Together, they have a history for mining the globe for the game's best talent.
Most of all, Buford believes they share this now: Toronto's fight to protect its investment in its injured Spanish forward is a scrap that should matter to everyone in the sport.
"This is a huge dilemma for the league," Buford said Thursday night.
Garbajosa, 29, fractured his left fibula and ankle in March for the Raptors, and team doctors were uneasy with him playing in the late summer for Spain in the European Championships. Raptors doctors declared that more surgery would be needed to make him right, but their peers in Spain insisted that wasn't the case.
Eventually, Colangelo consented to let Garbajosa play out of respect for his nationalistic passion, but only once the Spanish federation took out a $1 million insurance policy to cover the two years and $8.3 million left on his Raptors contract.
Beyond that, Colangelo couldn't understand Spain's urgency of playing Garbajosa last summer, especially considering the country already had qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Garbajosa struggled through the first seven games before team doctors and specialists declared that his left leg still was damaged and he would be lost to season-ending surgery for a second straight time.
Colangelo won't publicly discuss it, but Buford was unmistakable about the stakes that transcend Toronto. These are multimillion dollar investments – franchise cornerstones, in some cases – and every summer teams are losing control to what many often consider selfish-thinking national federations and suspect medical staffs.
In recent years, Buford has had serious problems with the way that France and Argentina have pushed Spurs stars Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to play with serious injuries. Once, Buford said, Parker was cleared to play with a broken finger.
This past summer, Spurs officials were beyond livid with the Netherlands' handling of Spurs center Francisco Elson.
"Even after Francisco broke a bone in his eye socket, he was still cleared to play," Buford said. "If he had gotten hit in that eye, it would've been easily blinded. Even among the national teams, you have a real inconsistency of care with no set of agreed-upon guidelines between FIBA and the NBA. The quality of care is different between an NBA team and national teams, but it's even different among the national teams themselves.
"In the especially poorer countries, they don't always have the national team doctor at the tournament with them, and they're using a freelance doctor who may have or not have experience with sports injuries, nor the understanding of the risk-rewards of clearing a guy to play who has a $100 million contract."
Between the Raptors and Garbajosa, the acrimony over this issue has intensified. For Colangelo, who has constructed a talented roster that includes two Spaniards, an Italian, an Argentinean and a Slovenian, his relationship with the international basketball community is imperative. After all, Colangelo is the first GM to hire a high-ranking European executive, Benetton Treviso mastermind Maurizio Gherardini, into senior management.
What's more, Garbajosa played four seasons for Gherardini in Italy. Rest assured, there's a fight coming over recovering the insurance money, and which team – the Raptors or Spain – is responsible for putting the 6-foot-9 Spaniard at risk. There's a chance this won't end well.
"I'm sure this has impacted the medical trust that exists between Toronto and its player, and that's such a fragile trust that once that ice cracks, it can impact other players' trust of medical treatment," Buford said. "It can impact other trusts in relationships between coach and players and management. This is a very, very fragile thing that Toronto is going to deal with.
"Because of what's happened here, I hope this will make everyone understand the frustration that they're going through, and that'll force the league to address the risks and rewards through some kind of agreement that's more in line with the issues facing today's NBA."
As T.J. Ford struggles to stay on the floor with injuries, Calderon keeps showing he's indispensable to Toronto. With Ford out, the Raptors won three of four games with Calderon running the offense. Calderon pushed his scoring to 12 points, passed for nine assists a game and turned over the ball just four times in 156 minutes. As a restricted free agent next summer, Calderon, 26, is rapidly turning himself into a coveted commodity.
"We will protect our assets," Colangelo warned Thursday, trying to push the rest of the league into believing that signing Calderon to an offer sheet will be a waste of time. Colangelo insists there's no way he'll let Calderon leave, but the price is rising in Calderon's sophomore season.
"I'm not thinking about any of that right now," Calderon said. "I love playing on this team, with these guys, and I love Toronto. I don't want to go anywhere else."
As for Navarro, 27, it hasn't taken him long to make a case as one of the league's best rookies. After drafting him five years ago, the Wizards traded his rights to the Grizzlies this summer, where new GM Chris Wallace knew that bringing the best friend of Pau Gasol to town would appease his disgruntled star. So far, it has worked. Since moving into the starting lineup five games ago, Navarro dropped 28 points on Washington and had 16 points and 11 rebounds against the Nets.
"It helps to get minutes," Navarro said. "Having Pau here has really helped the change in culture and language and all the adjustments that I had to face coming to Memphis." As good as Calderon and Navarro are going to be, the talk of Spanish guards is teenager Ricky Rubio, a 17-year-old with the flair that reminds some of a young Pistol Pete Maravich. He's expected to be in the 2009 NBA Draft, a player that one league GM said "could end up one of the first players taken because he just does things that are so unique."
2. For years, the slam dunk contest on All-Star Weekend has deteriorated into a dreadful conga line of two-bit wannabe stars. This year, Dwight Howard told Yahoo! Sports' Johnny Ludden that he's considering taking vengeance on a league that didn't appreciate a near 7-footer's creativity in the event.
Somehow, the 2007 judges in Las Vegas responded to his slapping a sticker 12 feet high on the backboard with a low score, and Howard vowed that he wouldn't return in 2007. Now, Howard has blossomed into an MVP candidate and maybe could've come to the conclusion that the silly event is beneath him now.
"If I have my legs at that time of year, I definitely want to do it," Howard said. "I've been working on stuff since the dunk contest last year. I already have my dunks set. Hopefully, this time the judges will pay attention. I don't want to let them know what's coming, but hopefully they won't judge me by my height."
The NBA doesn't need the Gerald Greens of the world winning the contest, but here's a prediction for your 2008 winner: the Raptors' remarkable rookie Jamario Moon, the 27-year-old YouTube sensation.
3. As the father of two teenage basketball stars, Celtics coach Doc Rivers had to suffer through several summers of miserable AAU basketball events. They've insulted his sensibilities, but Rivers is warmed by how much the likes of Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, et al, are bringing back into style unselfish team basketball.
"For years, the AAU generation, fans come to watch them take every freakin' shot," Rivers told me. "Then you get to the LeBrons, the Garnetts, the Duncans, you can't have it enough. It's good to see guys who've figured out that they have to win playing basketball and that the game's a competition, it's not a show. "You see (that) every game (in AAU). I went to a game this summer where it was the top two seniors playing and it was a show. It was not a competition. You want it to be a competition."
4. Speaking of bad AAU basketball, the Knicks' performance on Thursday night – a 104-59 loss to the Celtics – was one of the most disgraceful that I've ever seen in the league. As one Atlantic Division player called and said on Thursday, "How can you quit on national TV like that? You know all of your boys are watching that game. I bet TNT doesn't put the Knicks on for another 10 years."
Remember, Isiah Thomas promised that he'll be the first to tell everyone when it's time for him to leave, when his vision has been invalidated. Well, I think we can all trust him to do that. Yes, just let us know.
5. How about Malik Rose's miserable night on Thursday, where this proud professional lost to the Celtics by 45 and a proud alumnus heard his Drexel Dragons lost 85-38 to George Mason. Truth be told, I wouldn't mind a George Mason-Knicks game. It's always great when the good mid-majors get together.
RULES' D-LEAGUE TRAVEL LOG OF THE WEEK
"So, we won our opener," Albuquerque T-Birds coach Jeff Ruland said, "and we get up to make a two-connection flight to Fort Wayne. We win by 19 and jumped a bus for Des Moines and drive all night to get to the Bates Motel at 5:45 a.m. We sleep in and go to a shootaround except there's a girls basketball game that nobody tells us about. Anyway, we're winning by 10 in the fourth quarter, but we lost that one."
And, no, it doesn't hurt that the Suns have sent down first-round pick, Alando Tucker, for the 2-1 T-Birds' trip to Boise next week.
- Bryan Colangelo