There are few things in this world that truly make me feel old.
Periodically, I’ll come across an old classic on TV (obviously it’s a ‘Smart‘ TV) that garners my full, undivided attention. Perhaps it’s a movie I remember seeing in theatres (back when I actually went to those) or having rented from a local video store…and THERE IT IS! Video store memories. Having vivid recollections of the video store experience, browsing rows of the newest releases hoping one final copy remained is one way to age thyself — also, inevitably there would be no copies left, pushing ‘Family Movie Night’ to the brink of postponement.
Movies, video stores, and late fees (!!!) aside, there remains one present day reality that continues turning my hair a figurative grey with each passing day…Vincent Lamar Carter is the OLDEST player in the NBA.
I know, it’s ****ing wild…
…Air Canada, Vinsanity, Half-Man/Half-Amazing, or plain old VC is the elder statesman of the Association, playing in his 20th season, and a little over a month away from turning 41. Still casually capable of acing a 360-dunk (albeit in a practice setting), Carter, once labeled a band-aid and ‘soft’ by many, has enjoyed a career marked by its longevity (1400+ games including playoff appearances), meaningful production (~18.0 ppg, 4 rpg, and 3 apg), and in the case of one franchise…his departure.
While I have granted forgiveness for past Sins in The Six, many remain who passionately refuse to grant Vince any sort of pardon for how he handled his departure from the Toronto Raptors. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding his exit have, for many, tarnished an otherwise decorated tenure.
Carter himself, admits to having regrets about the whole situation that culminated with him being traded to New Jersey in one of the more one-sided trades in league history. You can certainly imagine the organization has regrets of their own, given how dysfunctional they were through the years of Carter being there. However, with no rewind button to life, we are only left to ponder how things would’ve gone if the Raptors back then had the organizational stability they enjoy today. Perhaps things would’ve been different.
In 6+ seasons with Toronto, Carter played for 4 different coaches — including the infamous Kevin O’Neil experiment in ’03-04. That season, the Raptors, boasting a line-up led by Carter, Jalen Rose, and a highly touted rookie out of Georgia Tech named Chris Bosh, produced what I still consider to be the most trying season of Raptors’ basketball in recent memory. In his lone season as the Raptors’ bench boss, O’Neill led the team to a 33-49 record, finishing dead last in PPG (85.4), 27th in Pace (86.8), and 28th in Off Rtg (97.0). O’Neill would be eventually be replaced by Sam Mitchell to begin the 2004-2005 season. The same season that would see Vince Carter’s Toronto tenure conclude.
Rather than tirelessly debate the causes of what still is one of sport’s messier divorces, let’s focus on another reality. Despite all of Carter’s legitimate, and perceived slights towards Canada’s Team, he, more than anybody past, present, and quite possibly in the future, transformed the course of basketball in Toronto.
Hell, in ALL of Canada.
The true Carter Effect on this city’s, and more notably, country’s collective acceptance and subsequent adoption of basketball is unprecedented. His ascension up the NBA’s superstar leaderboard helped put Toronto on the basketball map. He led them to their first playoff series win, and was mere inches away from sending them to their first Conference Finals the same year — though many will tell you that attending his college graduation ceremony earlier in the day, and having to fly from North Carolina to Philadelphia, caused him to miss a shot he’s probably made a thousand times…sound logic.
Many of today’s stars have gone on record saying ‘Vince’ was what drew them to the court. Andrew Wiggins, Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson, even Kevin Durant cite Carter as an idol and source of inspiration in pursuing a life in basketball. Basketball has seen it’s popularity rise exponentially in Canada over the last two decades, and it was Carter who started the movement with his gravity defying antics night-after-night.
The idea of retiring ’15’ in Toronto has been a polarizing debate for years, only picking up real steam in the last few as Carter’s career winds down. As a Raptor, he was as big a star as the league had ever seen — anybody else remember the MJ comparisons? His comments about not wanting to dunk anymore, or his admitting to not trying every play or game have Carter’s detractors claiming to have ample amounts of fuel needed to feed the fire that separates him from a full pardon.
In a last ditch attempt to convince those still opposed to the thought of retiring Carter’s number and, as such, honouring his achievements both as a Raptor and an advocate for basketball in Canada, allow me to lay out four pillars, suitable for you to build a foundation of forgiveness on.
(in no particular order)
1. TIME HEALS ALL (Athletes ‘quit’ all the time, as much as we’d like to forget that)
I happened to attend Vince’s first game back in Toronto. I did not join the chorus of loud boos, nor did I wear a baby bib with ’15’ on it. Actually, my adoration of Vince only slightly wavered following his departure. He was still my hero, in the context of sport. The sight of him wearing a different jersey, while vomit inducing, was merely part of the business of sports. Even I understood that at the time.
Fast forward to a few years ago during the Raptors’ 20th anniversary celebrations…Vince Carter received a standing ovation during a TV timeout following a short tribute video. In that moment, it became clear that wounds opened so many years ago had finally scabbed over. Time, once again, had brought healing and closure to a situation that had been laced with hate and distaste for a decade. Anybody still refusing to hop aboard is simply doing so to be different. If and when Vince signs his ceremonial one-day contract with Toronto, keep your thoughts to yourself.
(I don’t actually expect him to sign a 1-day contract, but it would be incredibly cool if he did).
2. A TALE OF TWO FRANCHISES (and the understanding that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’)
It took some time, but Carter’s departure set the franchise on the course that has taken them to where they are today. That being, a legitimate NBA destination. Sure, some players may still shy away from a different country and the overstated problems that come with that, but Toronto has positioned itself as a first-class city and sports market. And you get paid in US$ while you play here!
When Carter donned the now retro purple, the Raptors organization lacked the leadership and stability it benefits from today (I spoke about this earlier). Free agents had little interest in hearing or seeing what Toronto had to offer. Pretty much anywhere else was preferred.
His first chance to bolt came in 2001, an opportunity many thought Carter would jump at. But instead he re-signed in Toronto, inking a rookie scale contract worth $85 million over six years. Three years, and several episodes later, Carter would be traded for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams, Alonzo Mourning (who still hasn’t shown up), and two first-round picks, who the Raptors would turn into Joey Graham and Renaldo Balkman. Just typing that out hurt.
Much like the ancient healing properties possessed by ‘Father Time’ (and discussed in #1), absence from something allows the mind to better understand the value of its presence. In the case of Vince, while fans booed and a franchise spun its tires, everybody could see just how much he meant to the team, the city, and to Canada. The mere fact that a fan base, so used to losing, was now showing visible and audible signs of frustration and disapproval as losses piled up was telling. Why? Because Vince had showed them what it felt like to win.
And then he was gone, leaving everyone with a lot less amazing in their lives.
While not the words of Vince himself, another high-profile Raptor alumnus had this to say about his time in Toronto.
“In hindsight … I wish I had stayed in Toronto. There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often.” – Tracy McGrady, 2013 (via thestar.com)
I’m inclined to believe Vince would agree.
3. ‘BOO BIRDS’ = RESPECT & ADMIRATION (Why boo something irrelevant?)
When was the last time fans expended energy booing a bad player? It rarely happens. In most cases, boo birds come out for true guests of honour. For Toronto, that means booing the likes of Carter, McGrady, and Bosh (Bargnani was never worth the oxygen).
Can you picture Raptors fans showering DeMarre Carroll with endless boos? (I’m sure you can, but may I suggest another approach) — Cheer when he misses, and if you want to boo, do so while keeping in mind the array of off-court activism he was part of while he played here.
If people didn’t boo, it would indicate they really don’t care. With Vince, that wasn’t the case. People cared…deeply — how could they not, given everything Carter had treated them to? Canadians have a way of adopting sports stars as their own, a reaction conceived through scarcity. We seemingly grant them honorary citizenship if they perform up to a certain level (or in the case of Matt Bonner, for sharing a nickname with the city’s transit service). Booing Vince was always as much about a city, and country’s love (and longing) for him as it was disapproval towards his self-induced deportation.
4. NUMBERS + LEGACY (His stats, combined with an obvious and undeniable involvement in a country’s collective adoption of a sport, make Vince Carter the most influential & impactful Toronto Raptor to date)
The above statement is not intended to diminish the accomplishments of present-day torch bearers DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry. Both have done exceptional jobs as stewards for the organization, the city, and country. Few other athletes deal with the daily pressures associated with competing for an entire nation. For most, that opportunity only comes once every four years as opposed to every twenty-four hours.
Before Lowry, DeRozan, or Bosh, there was Vince…and despite having similar numbers, Carter’s involvement in Canada’s basketball movement, a movement he essentially started, puts him a notch above his successors. Of course, a legacy warranting the sort of timeless recognition I am suggesting must be accompanied by some damn impressive numbers right?
In New Jersey, Carter remained a prominent star but there, he was nothing more than a ‘big fish in a very big pond’. In Canada, he was THE fish. He led the Raptors in scoring each season he was there, apart from the ’04-05 season (the year he was traded). For his career in Toronto, Vince Carter averaged 23.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 3.9 APG, including taking home ROTY honours in ’98-99 — also note, all of those stats increased in Carter’s 15 playoff game appearances as a Raptor. Furthermore, he ranked in the top-10 in scoring each year and in ’00-01, he led the league in offensive boxscore plus/minus at 7.7 (he finished 2nd in overall +/- with 7.0, meaning his defensive value was (-0.7). Everybody knows Vince and the idea of defence were never really a match made in heaven. If defensive aptitude is indicative of one’s deservingness of enshrinement, perhaps we pump the brakes on DeRozan’s ceremony?
Rather than sh*t on both of their perceived shortcomings, let’s instead focus on the positives, of which there are many.
As the Raptors prepare to host Carter (and the Sacramento Kings) on December 17th — potentially his last trip to Toronto as a player —, why not take a step back and re-evaluate your stance and views on him? What he did was catapulted a city, a country, and a franchise into global relevance (perhaps continental relevance is more appropriate but global sounded better). A 2001 dunk contest performance not soon forgotten, few would admit to giving Toronto a realistic chance of long-term survival in the NBA, especially if Vince Carter left. Not only did it survive, it has soared to heights of popularity never thought possible.
Maybe, with that top of mind, you’ll find it within yourself to put two hands together and clap when his name comes over the Air Canada Centre’s PA system in a few days.
Either way, those of us who’ve moved on will know you care(d).
And once that jersey hangs high atop the rafters, no amount of booing will bring it down.
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