A Toronto Raptor fan remembers: Vince Carter

Vince Carter and the city of Toronto have had a tumultuous relationship.   We loved him hard, but also hated him fiercely.  He gave the city hope and ripped our hearts out of our chest.  I had never experienced a more intoxicating love for sports than I did when Vince Carter arrived in Toronto. 

As a kid, I saw Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls win back to back Championships. I only ever dreamed that could happen for a Canadian city.  We didn’t have a team. Canadian broadcasters weren’t showing basketball games on TV. But in 1995, Toronto finally got their NBA franchise. It didn’t seem real. Maybe that was because they played in the Skydome, which was home to the Toronto Blue Jays.  It was an arena built for big league baseball; it sat 53,000+ fans and was not conducive to basketball.  Picture a 91.86ft long and 49.21ft wide court sitting in the middle of a 143,000 square foot space.  

It was a strange time to be a basketball fan.  There was excitement, but there was uncertainty. For the first 3 years, the Raptors sat at the bottom of the east standings. People were hungry for a winning team. Then Vince Carter arrived.

He brought excitement and a competitive fire to the city.  He was Toronto’s first all-star and won the Raptor’s their 1st Slam Dunk contest.  I remember exactly where I was when he mouthed “it’s over” to the camera after he finished his between the legs windmill dunk. I had never been more excited about basketball than I was in that moment.  Vinsanity had arrived. He gave the city that moment.  And from then on, we were wrapped around his finger.  

He took us on the highest highs we had ever experienced as Raptors fans, taking the team from the bottom to the playoffs.  He did it with the kind grace and athleticism that only some of the greats have done before him.  But just as quickly as the tide seemed to change for the better, it started to change for the worst.  While fans will never truly know or understand what happened behind closed doors, the constant reports of Carter wanting out and no longer wanting to compete distorted my feelings for my first real basketball hero.  I was torn. He left a sour taste in my mouth, as he did with many other Raptors fans.  

For years, Carter would return to Air Canada Centre, now Scotiabank Arena, to the sounds of ear numbing booes. He deserved it, right? He left us high and dry with no return.  He left in one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history.  Maybe that’s why the anger lingered.  Maybe that’s why fans couldn’t let go. He still had some of his best basketball ahead of him, and all Toronto got were the haunting memories of what could have been.  

I remember being at Air Canada Centre his first time back since being traded.  It was electric, but for the wrong reasons.  Every time he touched the ball, it was a chorus of boos.  I booed as loud as I could, with every ounce of my being.  I was one of his biggest fans, and I was hurt.  Admittedly now when I look back, I can only imagine how it must have felt for VC. Toronto was his home for 8 years.  To this day, he has only ever spoken highly of Toronto and his experience here.  The more I reflect, the more I see just how much Vince Carter affected me and the city, and even Canada.  Had he not given us a reason to believe we would never have been so invested.  

He instilled my love of (Raptors) basketball. I knew about MJ and watched Kobe, but VC repped my city.  He was Air Canada.  Many of Canada’s young basketball talents looked up to Vince Carter.  Jamal Murray, Kelly Olynyk and Tristan Thompson are just some of the guys who watched Carter play while he was with Toronto. 

Murray has said one of his favourite memories comes from attending a Raptors game, where he called out Carter’s name and he looked back and gave him a wave.  Kelly Olynyk had similar sentiments, “To have something like that in your backyard? A team the kids can look up to and aspire to? Model themselves after and see that it’s right there in your backyard, and it’s possible and it’s a dream? It gives kids fuel, and energy, and desire and aspirations to be at that level.” He gave Canadian kids the belief that the NBA wasn’t so far out of their reach.

In the documentary the Carter Effect, Tristan Thompson also shared how influential VC was for him and the city. “Vince was our Michael Jordan”, he said. And his influence continues to show itself in the NBA. In the 2020-2021 season, there are a record 17 Canadians playing in the league, leading the International player list for the 7th consecutive year.  Of course, this all bodes well for Canada’s Men’s Basketball team, who hope to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. And this is just the beginning of what’s in store for basketball in Canada.  

This past summer as I walked my dog Chip (who is named after Toronto’s 1st NBA Championship) through our neighbourhood, the sound of kids dribbling basketballs made me smile. The Carter Effect started the snowball that is now the Raptors effect. I grew up as one of the only kids on the block with a basketball net, now it’s in almost every street in my neighbourhood. This is the legacy Vince Carter has left in Toronto.

Almost 10 years after being traded, the hurt finally started to dissipate. When he arrived back in town (with his then team, the Memphis Grizzlies) Toronto shared a video tribute in honour of the teams 20th Anniversary celebrations. It was moving and brought Carter to tears. It was the first time since his bittersweet departure that Air Canada received a standing ovation. I remember being at home feeling the rawness and realness of that moment. It was time to let go of the hurt, so I did.

On January 28, 2020 Vince Carter played his last game against the Toronto Raptors, but we didn’t know it. With Covid-19 on the horizon and the leagues decision to suspend the 2019-2020 season, Toronto didn’t get their long awaited goodbye. Another goodbye that didn’t go quite as planned. Despite the bumps along the road, that night when VC entered and left Scotiabank Arena (for the last time as player), it would be to the sound of cheer and ovation.

There is still so much to be said for what his influence will look like as more time passes. For now, the focus is on his commitment to give back.  23 years after his rookie season, he has launched the Vince Carter Scholarship and Mentorship Program.  It’s a program that will offer scholarships to students in Toronto and the GTA.  It launches in Toronto as a tribute to where he began his career, with the program to be rolled out in all the cities VC has called home in his 21 seasons in the league.  With his basketball career now over, Carter is giving back to the basketball community more than ever. It only seems fitting he starts this journey in Toronto.

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