He had it all planned. In the 1.8 seconds after catching that Dell Curry pass, Vince Carter’s mind was racing, alive with possibilities for what would come after the shot fell. He remembers them all. If you’re a Toronto Raptors fan and you haven’t gotten over it, if you can still remember what you were thinking, hoping and dreaming, don’t feel bad. Don’t feel alone. Don’t feel the least bit silly that nearly 13 years later—an unlucky 13, as we all know—questions about what might have been and what actually came to pass linger, stuck in time. Vince Carter remembers, too.
He thought it was good. For a moment, he thought he was going to pull it off, an unprecedented double play. That morning, he’d walked across a stage in Chapel Hill, N.C., and received a diploma in African-American studies, a degree he’d earned after he left UNC for the NBA following his junior year in 1998. He was already rich and rap-star famous, but he’d signed a contract with his mother, Michelle—a teacher—that he’d complete his studies, and he honoured it. He’d left Philadelphia the night before via a private airport in Delaware on Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum’s jet and made it back without missing a team meeting.
Not that those facts placated the masses. By that time, Carter was living in an electrical storm of sudden celebrity sparked by game-winning shots and legendary dunks. His decision to attend his graduation on the day of the biggest game of his career became a hot-button issue, questioned by teammates—“A graduation? I don’t care what type of private jet was supplied, it breaks your routine,” says Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams today—and debated in the pages of the New York Times. Carter was a northern star that raced across the global basketball landscape so brightly that years later it’s like a fever dream. Back then, the Raptors—the franchise that subsequently gave the world Rafael Araujo, Rob Babcock, Richard Peddie and the idea of Canada as a high-tax basketball outpost—seemed like the future. And if there was a moment when it all teetered on the razor’s edge between fantasy and reality, it was as that shot hung in the air in Philadelphia.
We all know what happened next. Carter missed, ending Toronto’s run a single basket from the Eastern Conference final, and the fever dream popped like a fever blister. Raptors fans have been picking at the scab ever since. The relationship turned bitter and has never softened since Carter was traded to the swamps of New Jersey a decade ago. His career is now coming to a close in Dallas, and in the seasons that followed his departure, nothing matched the highs he delivered as a Raptor. And yet, he’s been gone so long that Canadian basketball fans are beginning to see the fruits of his legacy, as a generation of kids, inspired by his outrageous assaults on gravity, took to the game and have given Toronto and Canada a coming wave of homegrown NBA heroes. Meanwhile, whatever perceived sins Carter was guilty of in Toronto have never again manifested themselves in his long career, even as the Raptors have remained a franchise adrift all these years later. It’s worth asking if maybe, just maybe, Carter wasn’t the problem.
As a professional athlete, Vince Carter is old. Once the standard-bearer for the youth-obsessed NBA, his icy likeness gracing the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s “Next” issue in 2000, he’s now as funky as bifocals and a paunch. He turns 37 on Jan. 26, and only six players in the league are older. Put another way, he’s in the same place now that creaky Raptors teammates Charles Oakley and Kevin Willis were when Carter was carrying the Raptors to NBA relevancy as a 47-win team that seemed poised to be a contender for years to come. He finds himself sharing wisdom they imparted to him and laughing afterward, like a parent telling his teenager the same things his parents told him. “I’m like, ‘I heard this before,’” he says. “But those things meant so much to me. Why not pass it on?”
Playing 16 seasons means spanning generations of players who wash in and out of the league. In Carter’s case, it means playing with and against athletes who look at him like a basketball version of Buzz Lightyear—something from their childhood that has come to life before their eyes. In Dallas, teammate Wayne Ellington, 26, remembers being star-struck when he met Carter at the Jordan Brand all-star game as a North Carolina–bound high school senior. “I had his sneakers. I had the Boings, the Shox,” he says. “Guys my age are the core of the NBA, 25 and up, and we know what ‘VC’ is capable of and what he’s done in his career. There’s a lot of respect for him.”
These days, Carter doesn’t shave his head for fashion—he does it because he’s balding. He’s worn a beard for years and it gives him an air of seriousness, even if he’s still a prankster whose elaborate pre-game pantomime involves Mavs youngster Jae Crowder pretending to push him to the scorer’s table like someone helping kick-start an old car. Carter has taken Crowder under his wing, has him over to his house regularly—and has been thanked by Crowder’s parents for connecting with their son.
It’s been seven years since Carter was an all-star, but he isn’t a late-career gunner trying to avoid retirement. He’s a valued sixth man and respected elder statesman. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban brought Carter to Dallas as an affordable piece—after earning about $140 million in his last two contracts, Carter is now playing for $3 million a year—to help extend Dirk Nowitzki’s championship window. The big German has been a Carter fan since they were drafted together in 1998, and is no less so now that he’s played with him in their mutual career twilight. “He’s not that athletic anymore, but he’s so smart out there,” says Nowitzki. “And at the end of the game, you feel like it’s his time. When the pressure rises, he’s great.”
Standing in a tunnel at American Airlines Center in Dallas earlier this season, Cuban gushed describing an athlete of such talent and grit that the Basketball Hall of Fame should induct him now, rather than waiting for retirement. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” says Cuban. “People around here say we have to get Dirk another title. I want to get Vince a title as bad as I want to get Dirk another one. He’s made us a smarter, better organization. He comes to play. He takes charges—he takes pride in taking charges. Like all of us, he’s grown up. I want him to stay here the rest of his career.”
Of course, none of those words matter to the jilted fans he left behind in Toronto and the rest of Canada, or so the story goes. Vince Carter as a sage, durable character vet? Vince Carter in love with the game enough to keep playing, to keep smiling at a stage when nearly all NBA careers have dried up and blown away like dust? Who cares? Many basketball fans in Toronto hate Vince Carter. They think him a quitter. And they still tell him so with boos every time he visits the ACC. To understand what went wrong, you have to go back to the beginning—or at least the beginning of the end. You have to understand that part of Carter feels like the franchise he lifted with one spectacular play after another quit on him rather than the other way around, and he might be right.
Peel it back to the summer of 2004. The glow of that playoff series against Philadelphia had long dimmed. The exact day of the meeting isn’t clear, but it was sometime in late June or early July, and Carter and new GM Rob Babcock were face-to-face for the first time. Only weeks into the job, Babcock already had a crisis on his hands. He’d yet to hire a coach, and suddenly there were reports the Raptors’ franchise player was frustrated and wanted out, so he met Carter in what would become Sam Mitchell’s office. Carter was trepidatious at best.
The previous two seasons, he had been undone by injuries. A chronic problem with the tendon in his left knee—his take-off leg—eventually required surgery, but the uncertainty of his condition (the Raptors brought in an outside company to audit their medical practices at one point) in the build-up to him eventually going under the knife in late March of 2002 earned Carter a reputation as a malingerer. He missed a career-high 39 games in 2002–03 with more knee issues and an ankle sprain. But by then, the die seemed cast. After the season, the Raptors fired Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Fame player and coach whose calming presence was appreciated by the players, and went drill sergeant with Kevin O’Neill, a rookie head coach who lasted just one year (“A mistake,” is ex-GM Glen Grunwald’s lament) before the hiring of Mitchell.
And somewhere along the way, the franchise seemed to lose faith in its star. “When coach O’Neill came and [later] coach Mitchell came, to me, they were making a point that this ship is going to move without you. We don’t need you,” says Alvin Williams of the attitude toward Carter, his one-time teammate. “Both of those coaches came into the situation with the idea of: ‘Vince who?’ And I think Vince wasn’t used to that, and it was an unfortunate situation because he was still our best player, by far, but he wasn’t treated like our best player. You could tell something was going on.”
For his part, Babcock claims to have been blindsided by Carter’s frustrations with the club, but if that’s true, he wasn’t paying attention, as they began to bubble late in O’Neill’s failed tenure with the Raptors. The team went 33-49 despite Carter playing 73 games, and the lost season begat the firing of Grunwald, whose relationship with his franchise player never wavered. With Grunwald and Wilkens gone, Carter began to feel isolated and expressed his concerns to Tanenbaum in April.
Both Tanenbaum and Peddie, the president of MLSE at the time, assured their star he’d be kept in the loop on the hiring of the new GM, but all Carter heard were crickets, and it stung. Then, when Julius Erving reached out to Carter about joining the Raptors in some capacity, Carter made the introductions. But Peddie gave the NBA legend only a cursory interview at the airport, and published reports indicated Erving wasn’t really in the running. Peddie admitted he screwed that up: “I give myself low marks for keeping [Carter] informed, even by my own expectations,” he said at the time.
Peddie panicked in the GM search, settling on Babcock only when his first choice fell through and the draft was rapidly approaching. Babcock, whose pleasant golf-shirt-and-Dockers style always seemed a bit of a stretch in the NBA sharkfest, choked at the draft, taking Araujo because the Raptors needed size when he really wanted Andre Iguodala, who’s still starring for Golden State. “That was a mistake. That wasn’t the right pick,” admits Babcock.
Carter allows that he was upfront with Babcock when they met in Mitchell’s office, saying if they felt the Raptors were better off without him, he didn’t want to be an obstacle. “That meeting with Rob, it just didn’t feel right. I said, ‘I’ve been here, I’m committed to this team, I want to win, that’s all I care about. I’ll do whatever you guys need me to do. But if I’m not in your plans, just tell me. I can take it, I’ve been through a lot, go ahead.’ And that wasn’t what was reciprocated in that meeting. [But] after that day, everything just seemed to go left.”
Babcock, a career scout in his first and last swing running an NBA team, was eager to put his stamp on it. He viewed the team he inherited, which included both Carter and an emerging Chris Bosh, as a rebuilding project. “My philosophy is you build your team as a team. Everyone is together. You treat everyone equally,” he says. “I’m a high school coach [at heart] and I truly believe that the most successful teams in this league are teams that create that true team environment.”
Babcock fired Chuck Mooney, the head athletic therapist for the team from its inception, who had worked closely with Carter; the team took away Carter’s mother’s parking spot at the ACC, a perk she’d been given as she was frequently in town facilitating charity work. “It caused a bit of a stir,” says Babcock. “But we felt they were things we had to do to build that kind of environment.”
The perception is that Carter mailed it in for the first 20 games of the season, a period in which he put up career-low numbers. Then again, he was also playing a career-low 30 minutes a game. “If you look at the minutes that were being played and how they were played, it will speak for itself,” says Carter. “I mean, everything was different.”
Meanwhile, as the GM of the New Jersey Nets, Ed Stefanski was trying to help team president Rod Thorn solve a problem. Two years after making the NBA Finals, the Nets were crumbling, and Stefanski (who later worked for the Raptors) looked north and saw an opportunity. “You hear or read that he and the coach aren’t eye-to-eye, and you pick up the phone,” he says. “There’s nothing I did that was special. You call 30 teams, but we were fortunate.” The deal went down in 24 hours. “When I mentioned the two first-round picks, they got real excited,” says Stefanski. “I got off the phone, and the next day we completed the deal.”
The picks turned out to be Joey Graham (No. 16 in 2005) and Renaldo Balkman (No. 20 in 2006, though by that point the pick belonged to the Knicks). The Raptors also acquired contract ballast in the form of Alonzo Mourning and Eric and Aaron Williams. Combined, the assets received scored 1,982 points for the Raptors. Carter matched that number before he played a full 82 games for the Nets.
It remains one of the most lopsided transactions in league history. Babcock maintains it was the best deal available, but there’s little doubt that Carter was traded at his lowest possible value. Moreover, Carter had gone to Mitchell the day before the deal was completed and said he didn’t want to leave. Mitchell told Babcock, but the general manager never took it higher. “The deal had been agreed to,” Babcock says.
The fans were furious. Frothing the mix was a judiciously edited feature on TNT with John Thompson in which Carter seemed to confirm the worst suspicions about him—that he failed to give his best, that he didn’t always push himself (Carter claimed his comments were taken out of context, and Thompson backed him up on it).
Months, even years, of fan angst boiled over in Carter’s return to Toronto on April 15, 2005. The Raptors were unmoored, Carter was thriving, and the city that had sold out the ACC for his charity games/love-ins was seething. These weren’t hard feelings; this was the small-town girlfriend laying into the NFL-bound high school quarterback for skipping out with her hotter sister. “It was shocking to walk in the arena,” says Nets broadcaster Chris Carrino. “It ventured into professional wrestling territory. We all thought it would be bad. We didn’t expect it to be that bad.”
But Carter was angry, too. Angry that the organization he’d grown up in had turned on him; angry a team he’d lifted from nothing had been turned over to the likes of O’Neill and Babcock; angry they’d insulted his mother and fired the trainer he’d been close to. “It burned me up inside,” he says. “I felt like, they were ready to move forward? Fine. You’ve now put that [high-grade] gas in my car, and best believe, I’m going to show you.”
And he did, naturally. He showed up at the ACC wearing a Dr. J throwback jersey and dropped 25 of his 39 points in the second half of what ended up a convincing, crowd-silencing blowout.
So is Carter a worthy object of 10 years of hate? Turn things on their head. What seemed true about Carter then—pick your unflattering label—doesn’t now. Soft? Half man, half a season? Through 15 years, Carter dressed for an average of 74 games a season. Kobe Bryant—whose tough-guy image is often used in compare-and-contrast fashion by Carter detractors—averaged 75 games a year through his first 15 years in the league. It just happens that Carter’s two years that were most interrupted by injuries occurred in Toronto. And Carter the diva, demanding special treatment? “We had heard that, so we sat him down and talked about how we dealt with things—parking spots and the family room and all of that. There were zero issues, absolutely zero entitlement,” says Stefanski, recalling his first meeting with Carter after the trade. “And there was never one issue about one thing.”
Again, time lends little credibility to the argument that Carter was unprofessional, but it’s somehow remained a convenient trope. Peddie saved the unkindest words in his recent book for the biggest sports star Toronto has ever had. “Vince had amazing athletic talent but didn’t work hard—at all,” writes Peddie. “[He] had little heart, and no ability to rise to the occasion.”
Carter’s got his flaws, but the book reveals Peddie as out of touch, given Carter scored 50 points in game three of that famous series against the 76ers and 39 with Toronto facing elimination in game six, or that he scored 51 points the first time the Raptors were featured on U.S. network television in a win over the Suns the season before. He averaged 26.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.5 steals over the 39 playoff games he played at his peak, from 2001 to 2007, not to mention authoring a pop-culture moment for the ages at the 2000 NBA dunk contest. The big occasions were never Carter’s issue—if anything, it was the time in between them.
Carter didn’t always do himself favours. Being the face of the franchise suited him when he and the Raptors were ascendant and he could share the load with a veteran locker room, but the burden of it when things levelled off and the team got younger suggested he wasn’t a perfect match for the job. There were other complications: His younger brother was struggling with drug addiction and was in and out of trouble with the law; his first agent, Tank Black, ended up being convicted of fraud, and while there is no evidence he stole from Carter, each sued the other over their dealings. Carter got engaged and was divorced after barely a year of marriage. Life was happening—he was injured and the team was struggling. Carter retreated into himself: “I used to say, ‘[How do I] map out a way to get through that and still do the things I’m doing—and still be a professional athlete? Who can give me that advice? I can’t go sit on the beach somewhere—I have to go to practice.’ It just didn’t fit. I would try to take the advice I was getting and mould it so it would suit me, but it wasn’t much.”
Some stoicism in the face of the NBA’s inevitable bumps, scrapes and bruises might have helped perceptions—the nickname “Wince” isn’t without merit—and Carter shouldn’t have gotten on stage with Nelly at the ACC while he was rehabbing a knee injury and his team was getting blown out in Atlanta. “There were some things I could have done differently,” he says.
But Carter’s toughness has long been unfairly challenged. “I remember him calling me up at 3 a.m. and he’s got all this pain, so we get him to hospital and he ends up passing a kidney stone—and that’s painful—about 8 a.m. or so. And then he’s at practice that day,” says Mooney, who runs a personal-training business in Toronto now. “We were in Orlando once and he fell on his wrist, and the X-ray showed that he had an old fracture—that means at some point in his career, he broke his wrist but played through it. He wasn’t sucking out the way everyone played him up to be. He’s just a dramatic guy.”
Perhaps the most vital context to consider when examining Carter’s legacy is what was happening on the other side of the country. As the Raptors were peaking in 2001, their expansion cousins the Vancouver Grizzlies were packing up and heading to Memphis. Before Carter arrived, there were plenty who figured the Raptors wouldn’t be far behind. “I don’t think people remember how dire it was,” says Grunwald. “People were predicting the team would soon leave town and Toronto couldn’t support an NBA franchise. I never really believed that, but a player with Vince’s personality, his pizzazz, his athleticism—that really turned things around for the Raptors very quickly. I don’t know if you can quantify how important that was to the franchise.”
It’s a gift that keeps giving. When Carter has what he calls one of his “middle-school moments”—when an opposing player tells him about the poster they had on their wall, or the daily questions about the 2000 dunk contest—he feels it’s not all about him. It’s about what happened around him. “It’s a testament, because when I was first going to Toronto, not many people were caring about the Raptors or talking about the Raptors, or even [tuning in] when we were on TV,” he says. “And all of a sudden there was this boom of Raptors basketball.”
Tristan Thompson was almost nine years old and living in Brampton, Ont., when that pop-culture bomb landed in his living room as he was eating KFC on his couch. It was Feb. 12, 2000, and a memory as permanent as a tattoo was about to be emblazoned on Thompson’s young mind. For the first time ever, not just one, but two Toronto Raptors were participating in the slam-dunk contest at NBA All-Star Weekend, with Tracy McGrady riding shotgun with Carter. Little did Thompson know that the pair had barely made it to the event, stuck in rainy Bay Area traffic with three others in a sedan. Little did he know that Carter hadn’t so much as rehearsed the show he was about to put on, save for a half-hearted practice on the road in San Antonio. The five dunks that will live on forever on YouTube were improvisational genius.
Thompson, 22, is in his third NBA season, having been drafted No. 4 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011, then the highest ever by a Canadian. His teammate in Cleveland is fellow Brampton native Anthony Bennett, who surpassed Thompson when, in 2013, he became the first Canadian to be drafted No. 1 overall. Bennett, 20, wears No. 15 in honour of Carter. Thompson counts meeting Carter at a Nike basketball camp as one of his coming-of-age moments—he counts the dunk contest as another, one with no small ripple effect. “If it wasn’t for the Raptors coming to Toronto or for Vince Carter being the player he was, a lot of Toronto kids wouldn’t have played basketball,” says Thompson. “I actually told Vince that when I first met him, I said, ‘You’re my Michael Jordan.’”
This past summer, Canada put together the pieces of what is hoped to be one of the best basketball teams in the world in an Olympic cycle or two. They will share a common foundational experience: Vince Carter. Alvin Williams was a guest coach with the national team this past summer, and it didn’t take long for the group of 20-somethings on the floor to work the conversation around to a topic closer to their interest. “They would ask for stories, and just being around them you could tell how Vince had affected them. You could tell that whether it was Cory Joseph or Tristan Thompson, watching Vince Carter instilled something into them to be those types of players or have those kinds of aspirations,” says Williams.
The stories inevitably have a “what might have been” tinge to them. Joseph talks about going to the ACC with a sign begging Tracy McGrady to stay, a nugget he got a chance to share with T-Mac himself this past spring when they were teammates with the San Antonio Spurs, making their way to the NBA Finals. Wishing upon what might have been is part of the DNA if you’re a Raptors fan. Carter is the embodiment of a time when everything good seemed possible but instead washed out, the crash seemingly worse because of the high that preceded it. The result is a franchise with a hole in its past.
Even those who played with Carter can relate. Jerome Williams drove overnight from Detroit when he learned he had been traded from the Pistons to the Raptors. For roughly 12 months—the last half of 2000–01, the magical summer when Toronto was the toast of the NBA and the first half of the following season, before Carter’s injuries set in and everything started spiralling—he thought he’d reached basketball heaven, but it wasn’t for eternity. There was an expiration date. “I just wish that we had a little more time while he was healthy, because I know how good we were. I was there, I was in it, and the fans know how good we were,” says Williams. “There hasn’t been a team as good as we were in the city, and that’s what hurts the most. Players have come and gone, but that level of excitement? That level of intensity? That level of fan participation? It was wall-to-wall Raptorville.”
And then it ended, like many love affairs, in accusations and acrimony. Carter has moved on, but he still looks back. “You don’t realize it as you’re going through it, the impact you can make on a young kid or a city or a country,” he says. “And I think what bothered me more than anything [about leaving] was that people didn’t understand how much I appreciated my time there and enjoyed it and wanted to make a mark.”
He did, but the challenge now is how to acknowledge it, or even enjoy it. Trying to get to the bottom of Vince Carter’s time with the Raptors is like diving into a deep, dark well. Everything at the beginning shimmers and twinkles. Towards the end it gets murkier. All that’s left are the echoes, and what you hear says as much about the listener, perhaps, as what’s actually there. Boo Carter? When does it stop? “We don’t have a lot of tradition in Toronto, and the most exciting piece we do have came from Vince Carter, and it’s pretty much erased, intentionally, from people’s minds,” says Alvin Williams. “It’s sad. It’s a sad thing.”
Nearly a million Canadians watched that shot rise and fall in Philadelphia, the Raptors’ future suspended in time, but none had a better view than Carter, young then, miles from the man he is now. “Watching it, it’s like, pfft, it’s over, but I was thinking like, ‘When this goes in, what am I going to do?’”
His options: stand still, a statue of triumph amidst the inevitable pandemonium; invade the stands as a sweaty emissary of the Sixers’ demise; or jump on the scorer’s table and pump his fist à la Michael Jordan at the 1992 NBA Finals. “I felt like it took three minutes… but all that went pop,” he says as if describing a fast-rising balloon snaring on a tree branch. “About halfway, I was thinking it was good and then… ‘Oh no.’ And you always hope for that bounce where it hits the back of the rim and bounces up and goes in, but it didn’t happen.”
Would things have been different had it dropped and the Raptors won? Would fans resent that he went to his graduation or celebrate that he scored 20-plus points, dished out nine assists and grabbed seven rebounds without making a single turnover while playing every minute of the game?
It’s all unknown. So too is the future. Carter has put no time limit on his NBA career—“That’s not something I’m talking about,” he says. “When I can throw my shoes out the door and leave them there and move on to whatever else, that’s when it’s time”—but it’s coming perilously close to the end. This January’s visit to the Air Canada Centre with the Mavericks could be Carter’s last as a player, and then what? Raptors fans forever denigrating the athlete who brought them the most exciting moments in franchise history seems the ultimate form of self-hate for a fan base that has become far too good at that too soon.
Oh, and it’s also worth noting, the subject of all that scorn? His arms are wide open. Mention the possibility of the franchise honouring his jersey or even retiring his number and his face lights up. The Raptors’ 20th anniversary is approaching and the team’s newly appointed global ambassador, Drake, is both an acquaintance of Carter’s and, at 27, was a huge fan in his teenage years. “That’s definitely up to the organization,” Carter says of the Raptors making a formal recognition of his time in Toronto. “But I would be honoured. It would be one of the best moments of my life next to my degree and my child.”
So what do you want to remember? The feeling you had when Carter’s shot was in the air and all the memories were created in advance of it? Or what came after? The past is done, but Carter’s gift will live on long into the future: proof the basketball world has no borders.
Maybe it’s time to knock down some walls.