Raptors fans, Vince Carter indulge in nostalgia as veteran returns

Kawhi Leonard finished with 31 points, six steals and six assists to lead the Raptors to a 104-101 win over Vince Carter and the Hawks Tuesday.

TORONTO — One of these days it will be the last time. Vince Carter will come to Toronto, where it all began, and everyone will know that his incredible career — more epoch than epic at this point — is finally over.

But he’s not ready to concede to Father Time, not yet. Not on a Tuesday night in January while playing for the 12-28 Atlanta Hawks, whose only chance at winning anything important at this stage will come at the draft lottery in May.

The 41-year-old is in his 21st year — ‘half man, half-a-century’ one clever fan on Twitter dubbed him — but isn’t ready to acknowledge the end.

He’s got goals. “A championship, obviously,” he said before his lottery-bound Hawks fought to the end before losing 104-101 to the team he broke into the NBA with — literally — last century.

If he hopes to do that with the Atlanta, Carter might have plans to play until he’s 50 that he isn’t telling anyone about. One day the Hawks won’t make 27 turnovers. One day they won’t make two of them in the final minute, leading by a point. That day isn’t here yet, not against the 31-12 Raptors. “It’s unfortunate,” he said after the game. “We worked so hard, playing on the road. That’s a game that eventually we’ll learn how to win.”

In the meantime, maybe something more accessible: Could Carter set a record as the NBA’s longest-serving player? Can he squeeze in one more year? Maybe more?

“I know now that I’m tied with a few guys [Robert Parish and Kevin Garnett also played 21 seasons] and it’s something I wasn’t aware of, prior to even a few years back,” he said. “I didn’t think about that. I mean, I didn’t come in thinking about playing this long anyway.”

He’s here now though, so might as well, seems to be the message. Whenever he finishes he’ll have had played two careers.

For 11 seasons, beginning with his blast-off as a Raptor after being selected fifth overall in 1998, Carter was a force. His 2000-01 season with the Raptors — his third — he averaged 27.6 points a game, which remains the highest scoring average in franchise history.

Split evenly between Toronto and New Jersey over those 11 years, Carter averaged 23.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He was rookie of the year, 10 times an all-star, twice earned all-NBA honours, he dropped 50 in a playoff game and electrified a country.

Pretty good.

But the last 10 years he’s been a fading starter, a high-end role player and lately a mentor to young teams in Sacramento and now Atlanta where they need all the encouragement than they can get, the wins few and far between.

No ring-chasing for him.

“They’ve given me the opportunity to play and do some great things here and I get to help develop guys and grow an organization as a player, not even being a coach,” said Carter, who Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce immediately placed between prize rookie Trae Young and second-year forward John Collins, the projected cornerstones of a still very-much-in-theory Hawks rebuild. “It’s one thing to kind of sit with guys and talk and go through situations and it’s another thing to go on the court and show them.”

You stick around that long enough and you can’t help but build up a resumé. Earlier this season he became one of just 26 NBA players to accumulate 25,000 points. Another season and he should break into the top 20 all-time. Every eligible player above him on that list is in the Hall of Fame and given his Olympic gold from the 2000 Games and his intangible-yet-real effect on the explosion of Canadian basketball, it’s hard to imagine he won’t make it to Springfield if he ever retires.

As a bonus, he’s been around so long that he’s fully reached the graceful old man category some athletes reach if they’re lucky enough — where they can do no wrong and all their faults are forgiven.

The tide turned on Carter in Toronto a few years ago when the club played a touching tribute video and Carter, moved to tears, was embraced by the crowd like an old friend willing to let the past be the past. On Tuesday night Carter checked in midway into the first quarter to an ovation without even a stray boo. “The joy of coming to this arena, each and every year is something I look forward to. That’s never going to change, whether I was being booed or not. I enjoy playing in this arena and it’s icing on cake when fans are appreciative.”

He was even cheered when he pulled up and hit a transition three on his first touch on his way to a six points in 13 minutes and a front-row seat as his young teammates battled down the stretch, although Carter — subbed in for the last possession — grazed the rim from half on what would have been a game-tying three.

But what does it all mean, you might pause to wonder? What will it all stand for when it finally wraps up? Of the 15 other men who have played at least 19 NBA seasons, Jamal Crawford is the only other who has never won a championship.

In a way, Carter is the person and player he always was. As a superstar he was never going to conform into whatever pre-conceived notion of what that might mean. He wasn’t going to eviscerate someone like Michael Jordan or browbeat them like Kobe Bryant. If that was the key to them sharing 11 titles between them, Carter was never going to pay that price.

It’s not an exaggeration to say he’s too nice a guy, which is one of the reasons he’ll be remembered as one of the NBA’s greatest teammates — no one had more of them.

He was a very good player on very good teams but he’s still the guy who chose to attend his graduation ceremony the morning of the seventh game of a playoff series way back when — if superstars who cared about winning first, second and third was your flavour, shop somewhere else.

In recent years, his choice seemed to emphasize the point. After establishing himself a valuable reserve on playoff team in Dallas and Memphis he shocked everyone when he signed with Sacramento in 2017-18 as the Kings won just 27 games — although Carter did get $8 million for his trouble. He doubled down this year in signing with Atlanta who are clearly angling for the best lottery pick possible.

But Carter seems happy, in no way weighed down by the losing streaks, the travel or going to work with a room full of kids who were in diapers when he was putting people on posters.

“I’m just not tired of it. It’s hard work and it’s a little tougher than it was 10 years go, but I still enjoy the grind,” he says. “…I can’t imagine not doing it.”

The only thing he doesn’t enjoy?

“The mornings.” he said, sparking a knowing laugh from a large crowd of reporters. “No, seriously. Some mornings I wake up and you see me walking into shootaround or meetings and the young guys are all ‘You all right?’ And I’m just, ‘Yeah, you guys don’t understand.’”

If we’re judging a little harshly — or maybe honestly — it’s a career with more carbohydrates than protein. His 25,000th point came on an uncontested dunk in the final second of a loss [to the Raptors] in a half-empty arena for a team going nowhere. His personal highlights he listed were just that — personal.

Winning rookie of the year was one, winning the dunk contest in 2000 was another, and being the leading vote-getter in the all-star game — something he did four times in five years beginning in 2000, all as a Raptor — was too.

“When some elite superstars were still in the game. I can say that at one point I had more votes that Michael Jordan. I did,” he said. “You can’t beat that.”

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A few generations of Hall of Famers might argue that point, but it seems pointless to pile on Carter for being honest, for being himself.

“One thing I refuse to do is let people steal my joy,” he says. “There are times when I’ve allowed that to happen and now that I do that, I’m grown up, I’m happy all the time. Most of the time.”

From a Toronto perspective, from a Canadian basketball perspective, his best days came while playing spectacularly for a nascent franchise, bringing new fans to the sport and justifying the faith of hoops diehards long standing.

We saw Vince Carter at his best and Carter provided his best years here. Tuesday night in Toronto — which may not be his last night in Toronto, the way he’s going — both Carter and nearly 20,000 Raptors fans were happy to share the memories.

It made everyone feel younger, and for one more night in a long season in a long career, Carter was important again.

In that sense, all these years later, Carter needs Toronto as much as Toronto needed him way back when.

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