Last Wednesday the Toronto Raptors traded Ed Davis and Jose Calderon for Memphis Grizzlies swingman Rudy Gay. Bringing Gay to Toronto seemed like a void on the wing was filled since the Raptors shipped out Vince Carter in 2005. I had a talk with my friend Brighton, who is one of the few people in my life who I know loves basketball as much as me. Our conversation about the trade kept gravitating back to the lack of wing threats since Vince was traded. Why did our conversation drift to a twenty minute interlude for a player who hasn’t had a relevant moment since playing in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals? I couldn’t tell you, maybe like every other Canadian basketball fan Vince Carter holds a weird piece of our collective sports heart.
Following the retirement of Michael Jordan I had a void in my sports heart. He made his last shot, cementing his status as the greatest ever, and rode off on championship number six. Looking back now, I wasn’t a Bulls fan so much as I was a Jordan and Scottie Pippen fan. Those two are my two favourite basketball players ever. Even when Jordan was playing, it didn’t stop the media from dubbing his successor, the NEXT Jordan. I remember Jordan’s last All-Star game with the Bulls, and the latest NEXT was playing right there beside him. Kobe Bean Bryant. Thinking back now I should have liked him. He should have been my third favourite player, the guy who filled the void when MJ left. However, at the time Kobe was a baby. It seemed to me that he was still figuring things out and I didn’t want someone who was figuring things out I wanted someone who had all the answers. To me it felt like Jordan was Superman he could do anything, Kobe was Bizarro. It seemed like he could do everything Jordan did only Jordan did everything better. Plus at that point Kobe wasn’t even the best player on his team, Shaq was and for me, how could you claim to be the NEXT Jordan when you weren’t even the best player on your team. To be fair, I’ve never been a huge fan of Kobe but have always respected him and watching him for seventeen seasons, he’s starting to sway me but that’s another post all in itself.
Growing up an NBA fan in Calgary isn’t the easiest thing especially before having the internet as it exists currently. It was like living in a cave blocked out from the light which was basketball news. Sure Sportscentre would show basketball highlights but they’d be after the twenty-five minutes of hockey highlights and no matter what the first basketball game which was shown would always be the Raptors. You can imagine my delight when the Toronto Raptors got Vince Carter from the 1998 draft. He made an impression right away, it was his other worldly athleticism. The type of athleticism made you remind yourself that you were of the same species. He won Rookie of the Year in the lockout shortened season, I thought to myself that basketball may matter because of Vince being in Toronto. The following year was Vince’s coming out party, the 2000 dunk contest. After watching him, like so many other fans, we were hooked. Later that year Vince, along with Tracy McGrady, would lead the Raptors to their first playoff berth before losing in the first round to the Knicks. Even if they were swept by the Knicks the year wasn’t done with Vince yet. That summer he had arguably his greatest highlight in the Olympics. At that point I’d believe Vince could do anything, the future was bright for Toronto, we had Vince.
Thinking back at the start of the 2000/01 season now, I must admit another player hit me like a bolt of lightning. Vince was fun to watch but after idolizing Jordan, something was off with Vince. Yes, he had stretches where he looked unstoppable, and did something each game that made you jump out of your seat but he looked lax doing it, as if he was too cool to care. Sure great players do make it look easy and effortless, but Vince sometimes seemed as if he just didn’t care. Enter the lightning bolt which struck me: Allen Iverson. Watching AI, it was as if he punched me in the face. If Vince was the clean cut, billboard, take home to your mama star, Iverson was pure swagger. He played with that “Fuck you” attitude that Jordan possessed. He might have not played the game in a way which would have been fun to play with but you couldn’t deny that he was the toughest dude on the court. His size captivated me, listed as 6’0 and 165, he attacked the defense in waves. He imposed his will on the game every minute he played. Vince, sure he might catch an alley-oop or throw down dunks in traffic but those were sparks. Iverson was a fucking force of nature.
As fate would have it my two favourite players met in the second round of the playoffs for a classic series. It felt like a battle for my basketball soul. In one corner was Carter, the face of Raptor basketball, the guy who put Toronto on the map. He forced a hockey country to take notice of basketball. Kids at my school who never talked about basketball knew about the Raptors and Vince. For the first time in my life I felt as if other kids were starting to like basketball. However, in the other corner was Iverson. I adopted him as my guy over the season. He scared off the mainstream, did things his own way, and did not give a fuck what anyone thought about him. To me, Carter was what the sports world was used to and Iverson was one of the guys to obliterate the boundaries. I think my emotions see-sawed back and forth between the two and I told myself it doesn’t matter who wins, just be happy – this series is fantastic. Then Game 7 was presented to us, a gift for the fans. That was what it felt like. To me nothing can top watching Jordan play, but it was nice to have the knowledge that basketball and the NBA will live on without him. Then I remember the talking heads discussing how Vince attended his own graduation the morning of the game and flew back up to Philly before the game. My younger self was confused and utterly disgusted, “What do you mean you had a flight on the same day as the game? Would Jordan ever do that? AI I hope you kill this dude.” The game went down to the wire and came down to one final play for Vince. He missed. The basketball Gods stayed true to the idea of a team before the individual. I was happy, who cares if people at school didn’t talk about basketball anymore? I was used to it by then. At that point I wasn’t done with Vince but Iverson filled that post Jordan void for a time.
Later that summer Vince signed a $94 million, six year extension with the Raptors. I assumed that the first round sweep, and the 7 game series the two previous years were the natural stages of progression for the Raptors. Little did I know the honeymoon would soon be over. The injuries began to mount, Vince’s was called many things throughout his time in Toronto. Most notably, he had the label of a soft player. Hard to argue when he’s still doing stuff like this. The Raptors were in the worst spot you could be in the salary cap era, right in the middle, not quite good enough to be considered a title contender, but not yet quite bad enough to land a lottery pick of consequence. I remember thinking back then, wasn’t Vince supposed to be the guy who was the saviour in Toronto? After all he put the Raptors on the map. My assumption of the natural progression for the Raptors was out indefinitely.
I’m not sure when I officially gave up on Vince, maybe it I had never given him a fair shake. Maybe I always understood he was all flash and no substance – a fast food superstar instead of a balanced meal superstar. Or maybe I was just naive to think that MJ could be replaced, and that I talked myself into Vince because I needed another Jordan right away. No matter the reason, the day I let go of Vince was when he stopped trying when was playing for the Raptors. No joke he admitted this after the trade. The trade with the Nets which netted the Raptors: Alonzo Mourning (who did not report to Toronto and had to be bought out), Eric Williams, Aarron Williams, and a pair of first round draft picks. Are you kidding me? This was Vince Carter, the trade killed basketball in Toronto.
Watching Jordan and having those first years of Vince fall into my lap, I hadn’t known what it was like to be hurt by sports. Jordan always came through and sure Vince never made it past the second round of the playoffs but it was okay because it felt like a natural progression. Then he started getting hurt and became unhappy, and the realization hit that not everyone is wired like Jordan. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense, there is only one Jordan. Sure there are players who possess a similar game to Jordan but there’s a reason why he’s the best. When I was ten I thought Carter was going to be great, turns out not everything you believe in sports will come true. Without believing in Vince I would have never learned that lesson. I don’t know if I’d compare Vince to a bad break up because even if he was my guy, he was never really my guy. My feeling with Vince is, he’s like a childhood friend who you marveled at because they could do anything and your friend moves away. You keep in contact in with them and what they tell you is exactly the path you envisioned them walking. For some reason or another you lose touch but you’re still certain they’ll be great at what they do. Years pass and you run across them and they’re not the big star you thought they’d be and you have to ask them, “What happened?”
Even today I wonder that with Vince, he could do anything. His impact on a team was so great that they’re still recovering from his departure (although poor management has plenty to with this). Brighton and I don’t believe Rudy Gay is a franchise guy that the Raptors are hoping he is. Our conversation about the Raptors ended when I told him I’d be writing this post and all he said was, “Are you going to call it ‘Greatness to Laziness?'”
It’s Like I Have ESPN or Something – Nicole
I haven’t even seen Space Jam. I have nothing to say.
My only question: In a fictional world, if Carter had been drafted by say, the Lakers or Celtics, would he have tumbled down the same cliff? Does Toronto, the city, the culture, and/or the fans, have any culpability here? The Raptors organization has never cultivated a bonafide star. Why – bad luck? Poor management? Lousy players? Lack of winning tradition? Too few sponsorship incentives for franchise players? Not enough fan investment? What? Even the Columbus Blue Jackets can help Rick Nash grow into a character guy with a killer offensive streak – where did the Raptors go wrong?