Let’s Remember Some Toronto Raptors: The short-lived legend of Jorge Garbajosa

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This week’s theme on SB Nation has been given the rather ungainly title of “Sports Moments That Made You Cry.” As with such emotion, there’s just no other way to say it. It’s just out there, all the way. Now, if we’re being honest, I have a hard time thinking of sports moments — good or bad — that have driven me to tears. (I will admit to being a crier in general though, don’t worry.) I’ve felt extreme elation, joy, and relief while watching the Raptors; and I’ve experienced sadness and resignation, of course. But never quite more than that.

For today’s Let’s Remember Some Raptors column, however, I can metaphorically weep for what could have been in Toronto. Our trip here takes us back to the 2006-07, when an unsung Raptors team — led by a young Chris Bosh — jumped out of from nowhere into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Yes, the squad was undone in the first round of the playoffs and never quite achieved all that they could have, but there was a moment there when it looked like the Raptors had found a new path to contention. Then-GM Bryan Colangelo was going to scour the world’s leagues, sign the best international talent he could, and make a go of it in Toronto from a different angle. It probably wouldn’t have worked — it, in fact, didn’t work — but it sure was exciting for a time.

And in that, I can think of no greater source of joy than power forward Jorge Garbajosa. Despite never even playing a full season of games for the Raptors, Garbo became a legend in Toronto. And, sadly, he also became a symbol for all that could have been from that era. If nothing else, it’s something worth crying about.

His Raptors Run

Signed as a 29-year-old free agent, Garbajosa started his season in Toronto coming off the bench behind a lineup built around All-Star forward Bosh, Rasho Nesterovic, Morris Peterson, Anthony Parker, and T.J. Ford. By the end of November, however, Garbo was in the starting lineup and routinely playing over 30 minutes a night (in a Phoenix Suns-lite small-ball run-and-gun lineup). His averages for his rookie season in the NBA don’t jump off the page — 8.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, shooting splits of 42/34/72 — but Garbajosa’s long-range shooting from the power forward spot, along with his spirit and defensive toughness, meant a lot to Toronto.

To understand that, we have to look at the construction of the Raptors in 2006-07. And to understand that, we have to recount the years leading up to it. After their peak in 2001, the Raptors were in a slow and steady decline. They hit bottom after trading Vince Carter, then hiring Kevin O’Neill as coach, and then kicking off the Rob Babcock-led era. That trio of decisions sent the franchise back to the stone age. After a few years of treading water, the Raptors would land at 27-55 in 2005-06 under second-year coach Sam Mitchell and be forced to start all over again. During that losing campaign, Toronto replaced Babcock with Colangelo — fresh off winning the 2004-05 Executive of the Year award — and looked to reinvent themselves.

For the 2006-07 season, the Raptors nabbed the first overall pick, selecting international man of mystery Andrea Bargnani. Continuing the theme, Colangelo brought in Euro big man Nesterovic (from the Spurs), signed Israeli Super League star Parker, and added the already legendary Garbajosa. By this point in time, it was common knowledge that no big name players wanted to sign in Toronto. The Carter trade proved that some players (like Alonzo Mourning) didn’t even want to report to the Raptors. For the squad to find talent, Colangelo rightly guessed it was time to look elsewhere. (Credit where credit is due, it was Babcock who perhaps inadvertently kickstarted this idea by signing Jose Calderon in 2005.)

The plan worked. The Raptors finished the 2006-07 season at 47-35, garnering Colangelo another Executive of the Year award, along with a Coach of the Year award to Mitchell. Meanwhile, Bosh blossomed into an All-Star, and all of the team’s components came together in ways that made sense. Yes, the Raptors weren’t the best team in the league (and they definitely benefited from being in a weak Atlantic Division), but after a few years of directionless ball, it certainly felt like they knew where they were going.

Unfortunately, when the Raptors began their first round series against the New Jersey Nets (featuring Vince Carter), they would do so without Garbajosa. On March 26th, in a game against the Celtics, making what looked like a routine defensive play, Garbo came down on his leg and, well… that was it. To even think about this injury, to hear the toughest guy on the Raptors scream in pain, is difficult. It was about as unfair a turn of events as one could imagine — for Garbajosa, for the Raptors, and for a Toronto fanbase ready to root them on.

Garbajosa’s career in the NBA was pretty much over after that. He did play seven more games for the 2007-08 season, but was then mired in a lawsuit between the Raptors and the Spanish Basketbal Federation. The glow of those international Raptors disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared and the team fell apart once again. Garbajosa never played in the NBA again, the Raptors would bottom out by 2010, and we were left to wonder what would have happened if a completely freak — and tragic — injury hadn’t happened. It’s enough to get a fan choked up.

The Wikipedia Fun-Fact Deep-Dive

Since we went long for that history lesson, I’ll keep this section brief. The best parts about Garbajosa’s Wikipedia page are as follows:

1) He was named Mr. Europa Player of the Year in 2006, which is such a fun title to bestow upon someone, particularly as they head off to North America to give the NBA a try; and

2) It’s alledgedly common knowledge that fans in Toronto referred to Garbajosa as “The Garbage Man”. Now, I’m going to take some issue with this. Was this actually a thing? To be clear, I completely understand the sentiment — Garbo’s strengths were definitely his ability to do the dirty work necessary to secure a win — but did we actually call him the Garbage Man? To me he was always Garbo, and that’s it.

Either way, Toronto will always have tons of love for a player who perhaps is not the most talented player on the floor, but who has the most heart. Garbo put it all on the line every night, played with a high level of fearlessness, and often acted as the lynchpin for a team unsure of itself from moment to moment. Like a New Age Charles Oakley, he gave them that confidence to keep going.

For all that, I must continue to assert that Garbajosa deserves a better nickname the the freakin’ Garbage Man. He’s a living legend!

A Highlight

It’s important to be careful when looking for Garbajosa highlights. The obvious top result in any search through his NBA playing days is the brutal injury he sustained on that cursed night in 2007. So, setting that aside, what kind of highlights can we find for Garbajosa? In this, I will look no further than the following fitting (grainy-as-hell) montage. Let’s remember for all time the truth: Garbajosa really was that dude.

Where Are They Now?

Owing to his stature in his native Spain, Garbajosa’s return to the European Basketball scene was seen as something of a boon. He first signed a lucrative deal to play in the Russian Super League (at the time, one of the biggest contracts around at two years and six million net Euros). And then, naturally, Garbajosa returned to Spain to close out his playing days. After some time with Real Madrid and Unicaja, Garbo called it a career. It didn’t quite work out in the NBA as it should have, but there’s no doubt he retired as one of the most well-known and beloved European players in recent history.

And wouldn’t you know it, in 2016, Garbajosa walked right into another job: president of the Spanish Basketball Federation. There really is just no way to keep the man down.