“When I played for the Spurs we were in Game 7 in Dallas, and they ran a play like that and he hit the game-winner, from the same corner. Pump fake, jumper, three. I was guarding the in-bounder, and Pop was mad I let it get to the corner. And I just remember that shot in Philly in that series, when I was growing up, and he hit it. He actually hit it. And I was like, you have to hit it this time, huh? You have to hit it this time.” — Raptors guard, and Toronto native, Cory Joseph.
He was only nine years old, but Cory Joseph remembers. Of course he does. If you are a Toronto Raptors fan the franchise has few signposts that haven’t been buried by the sands, and the shot is one of them. Vince Carter, Game 7, Philadelphia. He caught the inbounds pass, left side. He pump faked once, and let it fly. It was the closest the franchise had ever come to winning a seven-game playoff series, and it was the high point for the franchise, ever. It was graduation day, except the Raptors never ascended that high again.
The funny part is that when he tells the story, Joseph makes a Dallas-San Antonio Game 3 a Game 7 without noticing, without missing a beat. He doesn’t note that this time Carter was closer to the corner, and behind the arc. In the moment of the telling it was the exact same shot, preserved in amber, as eternal as the idea of a dinosaur to a child. Joseph was one of a city of children who watched it sail long, just a little, and had their hearts lifted and broken.
It’s been 15 years since the miss, 16 years since Vincent Lamar Carter won the dunk contest, and nearly 12 years since he was traded to New Jersey for a bag of rocks. God, that trade. Now the All-Star Game is in Toronto, and the Raptors are second in the East, and the NBA world is coming here. Vince Carter, though, never really went away.
The argument lasted a long time, and continued even after it was exhausted. Vince quit and left, and the prosecution and the defense—such as it was, in the early days—spent a decade arguing the specifics in bars, in living rooms, on the subway, anywhere. All you had to say was Vince, and it would start.
And every time he came back after the trade, people booed with a vengeance. It hurt his feelings at first.
“It’s like your child leaving, and your kid’s growing up, and now he’s going off into the real world,” says Carter, on the phone from Memphis. “I always wanted to hate—sorry, that’s not what I want to say—for so long, I wanted to ask, all these people who said they hate me, and you suck, I want to ask them why? And here’s the answer: Because that’s just the sports thing to do.”
Not exactly, but we’ll circle back to that.
“Everyone you talk to says, 'Remember when Vince was here? Remember?'” says Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, sitting in his corner office, as cranes build concrete towers behind him. “A lot of people say that.”
Ujiri has built a good team, and maybe one that can ascend as high as Carter’s Raptors did. He hears that a lot.
“A lot of people just talk about, when you start talking about the Raptors, you know, you guys are going good, you guys are going great. A lot of times they say it reminds them of the Vince days. Because those were hopeful days, right? You could see something coming. And I think it’s the same with us now. You’re hopeful that there’s something coming. And that’s what people take it back to, because those were hopeful days.”
“When Tristan [Thompson] said I was their Michael Jordan...I didn’t know how to react when he said that to me.”
It was hopeful then, for a franchise that had never experienced hope. Richard Peddie was in charge of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment at the time, which owned the Raptors, and he was trying to market a product that people didn’t really understand. The team was founded in 1996, and it was a new thing. Before Vince arrived, an old hockey executive was watching the Raptors play in the SkyDome, and someone walked up to him and asked him what he saw. “All I see,” the old man said, “are a bunch of niggers.”
That wasn’t close to how everyone felt, nowhere close. But this was a hockey town and a hockey country. If you loved basketball in Canada you always knew you were a member of a very small tribe, in the face of a bigger one.
And then Vince came. The team was trying to market awareness, as much as anything; the fan base was being created from scratch, and the club’s measurements of fan avidity were never very impressive. By the time the 2000 Slam Dunk contest was over, irrational exuberance had kicked in. Peddie remembers shopping for a retirement property well outside Toronto.
“The real estate agent said, ‘I’m buying season tickets for the Raptors.’ And I said, are you a big basketball fan? And he said no. Well, do you go to a lot of games? ‘I’ve never been to one.’ Our sales department, all of a sudden, looked really, really good.”
It happened fast. He was the best dunker anybody had ever seen. He led All-Star voting four straight times. The Raptors won the only playoff series in franchise history in 2001, a best-of-five against the Knicks; they went to seven against the 76ers and Allen Iverson. The bars were full, every night. Toronto forced Game 7. Vince insisted on going to his college graduation at North Carolina in the morning, and made the game in the afternoon. He missed the shot.
But he re-signed in Toronto, after Damon Stoudemire left, and Tracy McGrady left. That mattered. Then the decline began. Vince was injured too much. Even when he wasn’t, when he hit the floor, he would act like he was dead. Another form of irrational exuberance surfaced. One day, after practice, he said he wasn’t going to dunk anymore, a clear joke. It was taken deadly seriously, and led the evening sports news.
Peddie promised him a say in the next general manager, and Vince wanted Dr. J, and Peddie hired Minnesota Timberwolves middle manager Rob Babcock. One night Vince called the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith and said he wanted a trade. Smith thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
Everyone knows what Jalen Rose said when he heard they’d traded Vince to New Jersey. He said, “Was it for Richard Jefferson?”
Six years and a month and it was over. The first time Vince came back a local radio station ordered adult-sized baby bibs with his No. 15 on them. The Raptors became a backwater, and the spotlights swirled to somewhere else. The team spent four lonely years out of the playoffs, before appearances in 2007 and 2008.
“I think we made people forget for a little bit, for a while, those two years in a row,” says Jose Calderon, a guard on those teams. “And afterwards, when CB left, it came back. My first year, 2005, everybody was talking about the same thing, Vince. It didn’t matter what you were doing on the court. It was about what happened before.”
Vince hit the game-winner in that first game back and Jason Kidd jumped on his back, and Vince’s voice still rises when he recounts it. He beat the Raptors in the first round when they returned to the playoffs in 2007.
“For people who say that I bailed on them—not the case,” Vince said, before that series started. “That's just like me bailing on my family. But of course, there's a time when you have to move on. I can't live in my house—in their, in her house, the rest of my life. You know what I'm saying? It's time to move on, and start the next phase of your life. And that's how I kind of look at it—it's kind of like I'm leaving my family's house to start the next phase of my life. It's just one of those things.
“Because I can tell you this—many times, I bumped heads with my mom, and I was like, ‘I cannot wait to the day I can get my own place.’ So it's kind of like that. And no, I'm not saying I couldn't wait to the day [to leave Toronto]. I'm just saying that it was one of those things when you grow up.”
Remember what he said a little earlier about going off into the real world? God, he could be hamfisted.
Slowly, the reconciliation came. The booing got boring. In 2014 one of Canada’s two big sports networks produced a package, complete with magazine story and TV piece called, It’s Time To Forgive Vince Carter. It changed some minds. By then, the roots had begun to flower.
Tristan Thompson and Joseph were drafted in 2011. Anthony Bennett went No. 1 in 2013, Andrew Wiggins No. 1 in 2014, with Nik Stauskas, who once played Vince one-on-one as a kid, seven spots behind. They keep coming: Toronto kids, Vince’s kids. When they made the league, one by one, they would run into him and tell him something. Vince, for his part, wasn’t sure how to take it. He can quote them, to this day.
“For them to come back and say, you were it,” says Vince, his voice edged with wonder. “‘I still wear 15 because of you,’ Anthony Bennett. ‘You were our Michael Jordan,’ Tristan Thompson. Cory Joseph was like, ‘I knew nothing else. It was you.’ Andrew Wiggins said the same thing. I’m very thankful for it. And after a conversation with those guys, I always think, I hope they are able to feel the appreciation from me for them? Every day I’m like, I hope I showed that to them. I hope they understood that. It’s new ground for me, because yeah, you have a lot of fans, but they were there. Tristan was in my camp. [Kelly] Olynyk was in my camp. These guys were around me. I hope the appreciation that I have for them for feeling that way comes off to them.
“For people to say that, they say, Canadian basketball, there’s Steve Nash, who was Canadian, and then they consider me. That’s over the top. That amazes me. That gives me chills. I’m thankful for that. Because it’s like an adopted son to Canadian basketball, to Canada in general.”
“I know where I was, watching that dunk contest,” says Joseph, sitting forward on his chair like it’s a couch, leaning towards an invisible TV. “I was at home, right at home, me, my whole family, my friends, locked into the TV. What is he gonna do next? I remember it all. I was nine, and no matter what time it was, I was staying up for that, my parents knew that. They were locked into the TV, everybody was locked into the TV. Same for the games.”
“My first year, 2005, everybody was talking about the same thing, Vince. It didn’t matter what you were doing on the court. It was about what happened before.”
Vince’s fingerprints are everywhere. His old public relations guy, Dave Haggith, who worked for the Raptors before that, is the head PR man for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which is an immensely powerful position in this town. The basketball bloggers who became NBA TV stars, J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas, grew up on Vince. DeMar DeRozan, growing up in Los Angeles, became a Raptors fan because of Vince. When he was drafted here, he was actually excited.
“The franchise got no respect,” DeRozan says. “That was just the feeling, and I never understood it. Me growing up, I was a fan of the Raptors, a fan of Vince Carter. I mean, I remember watching them 9 o’clock games in Toronto on weekends.
“He started something here for me, you know what I mean? Vince started something for me, and when I got to the Raptors, I took it up from him, because I want some day someone to say, man, DeMar started this, I want to take it. I want to be in Toronto.”
The legacy is the argument. Maybe those players would have become players with Antawn Jamison leading the Raptors. But they didn’t. They followed Vince.
“When Tristan said I was their Michael Jordan...I didn’t know how to react when he said that to me,” says Vince. “Like, I read it when he said it, but when he actually said it, oh man. Do I give you my heart? I don’t know, man.”
"We all thought that was the year we were going to the third round,” says Joseph. “But that was an inspiring series, the whole thing. Even though we lost that helped us in Canada basketball. I guess it was the birth of a lot of basketball players.”
The franchise came back to him, and he came back too. In November of 2014 they arranged a tribute video, and Haggith got then-CEO Tim Leiweke to meet with Vince. He walked from the visiting locker room to the director’s lounge, where owners and the elite cloister, and Leiweke said, “Hey, I saw all the great things you did for Toronto, and now I’m really seeing your impact, and I wanted to say you’ll always be a part of this organization. And I personally want to make things right.”
Before they showed the video, Vince steeled himself. He didn’t want to listen to the crowd. He just wanted to experience the scoreboard.
“Looking up at that video, being in that arena where it all took place, was one of the best feeling ever,” he says. “I didn’t care if they booed the entire video, I promise. I was like, isolated, and seeing the young Vince, 21 to 27, and now the older Vince is watching what was created, all those years back…it was unbelievable.”
When it ended they cheered, and he wiped away tears.
“He started all of this,” says Ujiri. “The reason why a lot of these young guys played, Vince, they will say it to you. Only that alone is enough impact. But everyone you talk to to says, remember when Vince was here? Remember? A lot of people say that. And we like that. We have to create winning. Winning creates great history. But in terms of players and the impact a player has on a place and on a city, he’s been one of the top ones. It’s unfortunate how it ended, but I think, I’m sure even Vince realizes, this was great times here. What could it have been?
“He created a path for us, and we appreciate it.”
“Everyone you talk to says, ‘remember when Vince was here? Remember?’”
Vince is an old man now. He sometimes watches clips of himself on YouTube, and marvels at Young Vince. Like any 39-year-old, he misses parts of his younger self, but he thinks the booing, the hatred, made him stronger. Maybe that’s one reason why he’s lasted this long, in this league. He imprinted something on Toronto, but Toronto imprinted something on him, too.
“There was nothing like being in Toronto and playing there,” he says. “We know it’s hockey first…but we were like rock stars. It became the thing to do. I look at it like this: playing those six years felt like being in college.
“Because this was it. Particularly when Vancouver goes away, moves to Memphis, this is it. It felt like college. I say yes, because…you have fans wherever you go, and I felt a lot of love everywhere. But you go to Jersey, people are moving from other places to be there. When you live in Canada, that’s it. There was nothing better. I will say that.”
He was never more loved. He was never a bigger star. He went to East Rutherford, and the Nets were a transient outfit in the middle of a swamp, so close yet so far from New York. He went to Dallas, and his prime was over. He is still prowling in Memphis. He grew up and joined the real world, and found that it was never better than it was here. He knows that, now. Maybe that’s why he cried.
He still won’t admit he quit, not really. Vince still points to the minutes he was getting, which he was getting because his heart wasn’t in it. People understand why he quit, but that essential part of the argument can still go on, it you like. It’s probably best to let it rest.
There’s a court his foundation built in 2003; it’s in a tough neighborhood called Dixon Park, and it’s made of recycled rubber tire. In 2014 an extensive police investigation called Project Traveler culminated in 60 arrests over guns and drugs, in that part of town. Better to have the court than not, but it couldn’t change everything.
Vince couldn’t change all of Toronto, either, but he did enough. Vince taught this city how to love a basketball team, and how to hate a basketball rival. He made parts of this a basketball city, from the executive suites to the playgrounds, and now when playoff games happen the public square outside the arena is filled with a sea of young fans who howl and sing and whose faces look like Toronto. He left, and that’s what defines him. It always will.
But for a time, in a place where basketball was barely there, in the last team in the land, in a place where the lights went out after he left, he was ours.