By signing Doug Christie to a seven-year, $22 million contract
extension, the Raptors got more than just a shooting guard who
was one of only four NBA players to rack up 400 rebounds, 300
assists, 100 steals and 100 three-pointers last season. (The
others were Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Mookie Blaylock.)
They got more than just a 6'6" board-crasher who was fourth
among NBA guards in rebounds (5.3 per game). They also got the
rarest commodity in the league: a defender who can actually make
things difficult for Jordan.

Last Dec. 8, Christie held Jordan to 13 points as the Raptors
shocked the Bulls 97-89 in the Skydome. That was probably the
high point of the season for a second-year franchise that won 30
games, nine more than it had the season before. When the Bulls
returned to Toronto on March 27, it was assumed that His
Airness, who has no small taste for vengeance, would have his
way with Christie. Well, the Bulls won this time, 96-83, but
Christie held Jordan to 12 points in 41 minutes.

O.K., two games don't make the 27-year-old Christie a dragon
slayer. But his work against Jordan was instrumental in his
finishing second to Heat center Isaac Austin in the Most
Improved Player balloting. It's also one reason that Isiah
Thomas, Toronto's executive vice president, basketball, has
committed to Christie through the 2004-05 season.

The franchise's other cornerstone is point guard Damon
Stoudamire. "Damon's our man," Thomas says. "We will go as far
as he takes us." Christie and Stoudamire not only form a
reliable backcourt, but they also set high standards for
practicing hard. Their work ethic is so strong that Thomas asked
them to take 18-year-old Tracy McGrady, a 6'8" rookie who came
to the NBA straight out of Mount Zion Academy in Durham, N.C.,
under their wing during the summer. "[Christie and Stoudamire]
remind me of Joe [Dumars] and myself," Thomas says. "All they do
is work and work and work."

The Raptors are also well fortified at small forward, with 6'8"
Walt Williams, who re-signed over the summer for $20 million
over five years, and with 6'9" John Wallace, obtained from the
Knicks. Wallace, the 18th pick in the '96 draft and an explosive
scorer who played just 11.6 minutes a game as a rookie, is
likely to see a lot more action backing up Williams, who fouled
out 11 times last season, tying Shawn Kemp (then of the
SuperSonics) for the league lead in disqualifications. At power
forward Marcus Camby showed flashes of brilliance after the
All-Star break, with enough quickness at 6'11" to create matchup
nightmares up front. His durability is a question, though, as is
his judgment; he was arrested for marijuana possession in the
off-season. Charges were dropped after he agreed to perform 16
hours of community service.

The Raptors will go with Zan Tabak, a 7-foot Croatian, in the
pivot. Tabak averaged 7.7 points and 4.8 boards as a starter in
1995-96, but last year he injured his left foot and played just
13 games. If he doesn't hold up, Toronto can choose from 6'11"
Carlos Rogers or, when he returns in March from injuries to his
left arm and shoulder that he suffered in a car accident, 6'11"
Sharone Wright. Ultimately, Camby might wind up spending a lot
of time in the middle if coach Darrell Walker elects to put his
five best players on the floor. "If Marcus stays healthy,"
Thomas says, "I don't worry about us at center."

Christie believes in Thomas because it was Thomas who saw
something in him that nobody else in the league did. Shortly
after the Raptors obtained him from the Knicks, where he had
languished on the bench, Christie spoke one-on-one with Thomas.
"He told me, 'Go out and play your game. If you make a mistake,
don't worry about it, learn from it,'" Christie recalls. "He
allowed me to put myself back together."

This season the first meeting between the Raptors and the Bulls
will be on Dec. 13 in Chicago. Will Jordan rip Christie? Or will
Christie enhance his growing reputation as a defender? The
Raptors have a lot riding on the answers to those questions.