INTEREST in the National Basketball Association, which opens its regular season today, assumes an added dimension this year with two Canadian expansion teams: the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. (See related story, far right.)
Their arrival is timely, since next season the NBA celebrates its 50th anniversary and first-ever game, which was played in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knicks on Nov. 1, 1946.
The NBA fully expects a warm welcome for its 28th and 29th franchises. Basketball was invented by a Canadian, Dr. James Naismith, and NAFTA-era attitudes may lessen any sensitivity Canada may have to America's heavy sports presence there (19 US teams in the National Hockey League and a five-team US division in the Canadian Football League). The NBA's entry into Canada may be a first step toward wider international expansion.
As the NBA lifts the curtain on Canada, other developments are in the background. A new collective-bargaining agreement should extend the league's labor peace into the next century. A referees' lockout finds fill-in whistle-tooters muddling through. Two new arenas open for business - the FleetCenter in Boston and the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore. A new policy calls for teams to turn down the volume of some of the league's louder public-address systems.
Personnel changes involve both coaches and players. Pat Riley has taken his GQ silhouette to Florida to bark orders at the Miami Heat instead of the New York Knicks, where Don Nelson (formerly of Golden State) now assumes command. Doug Collins leaves the broadcast booth to coach the Detroit Pistons, M.L. Carr takes over the Boston Celtics (see story, right), and Rick Adelman switches from Portland (1988-'94) to the Golden State Warriors.
Controversial forward Dennis Rodman, formerly with San Antonio Spurs, has landed with the Chicago Bulls. Cleveland guard Mike Price has been traded to the Washington Bullets, and 6 ft., 11 in. Kevin Garnett of Chicago steps directly from high school into the pro uniform of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Houston Rockets, with Hakeem Olajuwon, will attempt to win their third straight NBA title. Like all expansion teams, the Raptors and Grizzlies are expected to struggle to escape last place.