TORONTO -- For the first time since entering the NBA as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2006, Andrea Bargnani played as a visitor at the Air Canada Centre on Friday. Until he was traded to the New York Knicks in July, Toronto was all he'd ever known. The 7-footer joined the Raptors at 20 years old with the expectation that he'd develop into a star. He left at 27 following the most disappointing, least efficient year of his career, one that saw him booed at home after returning from an injury. There was surely lots going on in Bargnani's head as he came back, but he wasn't sharing it.
"I don't know," Bargnani said at morning shootaround when asked about the reception he'd receive. "I don't really think about it. I was lucky to play here for seven years. It's a great organization, great fans and that's all I've got to say."
In all of the time he spent in Toronto, those fans never really got to know him. Even when Bargnani was presented as the face of the franchise, he almost always appeared averse to attention, indifferent and unemotional. Nothing about that was different when he met the media this time. Reporters tried to pull something revealing out of him, he resisted. It just happened in the visiting team's locker room.
Was it just time for a change, as many in the Raptors organization have said?
"That's what happened, so we'll see how that's going to work out," Bargnani said.
Is it good to get this out of the way early in preseason?
"It doesn't make much difference."
As the Knicks took the court to warm up, Toronto play-by-play announcer Matt Devlin's voice could be heard throughout the half-full arena. At that moment he said that the story of Bargnani's time was about unfulfilled expectations. In the scarce seconds between the American and Canadian national anthems, one fan yelled, "You suck, Bargnani!"
While It was far from a warm welcome, Toronto's been much meaner. There were boos every time he touched the ball, but they had preseason intensity. Bargnani played 21 unmemorable minutes, scored 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting and had four rebounds in a 100-91 loss. It was only his second game with the team and no one knows how big his role will be when the results matter.
Postgame, Bargnani didn't have much new to say. He repeated that it was weird to come back, adding that it was just one game and now it's over. Were the boos what he expected?
"I wasn't expecting nothing," he said. "I wasn't in the locker room thinking about what they were going to do. Fans have the right to do whatever they want to do."
Over the course of Bargnani's tenure in Toronto, his three head coaches tried everything with him. They tried tough love, they tried teaching, they tried talking him up. Bargnani played every frontcourt position and spent time as the first, second and third offensive options. Sometimes he produced, sometimes he didn't. If the city learned anything from his time in Toronto, it's that there was no formula for unlocking his potential, just as there was no formula for making him open up.
Nothing new was learned on Friday. As strange a sight as it is to see Bargnani wearing No. 77 for the Knicks, his return felt all too familiar.