Europeans warm to playing for chilly Toronto

By Josh Hargreaves

TORONTO (Reuters) - Southern Europeans on the Toronto Raptors NBA team agree that the city's multicultural feel makes it a great destination for foreign players, as long as they pack a snow shovel and long underwear.

Unlike warmer NBA cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, Toronto has a months-long winter season where the average temperature routinely falls as low as minus nine Celsius.

One year, officials had to call in the army to help deal with a major snowfall that crippled the city.

"It's one of the best cities," said Spanish player Jose Calderon, who joined the Raptors in 2005. "But I have to be honest with you, with a little better winter it would be the best."

Toronto is one of the NBA's most northerly venues, and the only one in Canada. As more than half of the city's population of some 5.5 million were born outside the country, the European athletes are easily able to find comforting reminders of home.


Calderon, who came to Toronto after playing in Spain's premier basketball league, said he knew little about the city before joining the Raptors and was glad to have found a local restaurant that offered a taste of Spain.

"It's a really nice place. The chef, one of the owners, is from Spain and he's a friend of mine. It's great to have a place where I can get some good Spanish food," said Calderon.

Toronto boasts the largest population of Italians outside Italy, something that appeals to the Raptors' Andrea Bargnani, the Italian center drafted first overall by the team in 2006.

"Just going on the street you meet a lot of Italian people that talk to you in Italian, it's like you're at home," said Bargnani.

"The only bad thing about the city is the weather, it's pretty cold. Otherwise I would say it is definitely the best NBA city for international players, no doubt about it."


Toronto entered the league in 1995 and has never advanced beyond the second round of the NBA's four-round playoff.

Bargnani's compatriot Marco Belinelli, who is in his first year with the Raptors, was skeptical about playing in Toronto after spending two seasons in California with the Golden State Warriors.

"Last year I was (playing for Golden State) and I was thinking that Toronto was terrible," said Belinelli. "But now I have changed my (mind). Toronto is an incredible city, I'm very happy to be here."

The Raptors acquired Turkish forward Hedo Turkoglu from Orlando last July, bringing the number of international players on their roster to five. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, with seven, have more international flavor in their lineup.

Turkoglu acknowledged that the quality of the city was a factor in his decision but said the talent on the roster was the key consideration when joining a new team.

"Of course it's important to pick where you live. But you know, I've always picked the team first (to determine) where I'm going to play. In the end, if the city is good like Toronto, I can't say no to that," Turkoglu said.

(Editing by Frank Pingue and Clare Fallon)