Vince Carter’s Lasting Impact On Canada and Why His Legacy Isn’t Complicated

Vince Carter

Vince Carter in mid-flight performing his through-the-legs dunk during his iconic performance at the 2000 slam-dunk contest. Photo: Jed Jacobsohn /Allsport/Getty Images

On March 11, as NBA fans learned of the season’s indefinite shutdown due to COVID-19, Vince Carter, 43, stepped into what he suspected would be the last three-pointer of his career.

After releasing the jumper, he assumed that familiar wide stance with his arms splayed out slightly, staring down the rim for a couple of seconds after the shot went down.

Carter’s Atlanta Hawks, along with eight other teams that were over six games back from a playoff spot when play was suspended, will not compete in the NBA’s restart in Florida. And although the league is looking into creating a second NBA bubble in Chicago for excluded teams, there’s uncertainty as to whether Carter would  participate in what will serve as a training camp.

“Making my last shot helped the situation because I think, honestly, if I didn’t make my last shot, it’d have been a little different. I’d have felt a little different,” he said on his podcast Winging It With Vince Carter, after officially announcing his retirement. “I’d have been itching to at least get back and just play one minute and just make one shot. I don’t care what it would be — free throw, layup, I don’t care.”

When it’s all said and done, Carter disproved a popular narrative in Toronto about his lack of work ethic and durability that begrudged fans had held onto after the superstar’s unpleasant exit from the Raptors in 2004. He completed a record-setting 22 seasons — with some even joking that he outlasted the league after they suspended play. And while 43 is hardly considered old off the court, in the NBA , continuing to pound up and down the court beyond 40 with fresh-faced athletes half your age is quite the feat.

When asked about the difference between dunking at 40 and 20, Carter — who was seen throwing down a windmill dunk in warmups just last year — admitted that it was the landing that could pose an issue.

“Oh it’s a lot different. It’s not as bad going up, it’s just coming down,” he told For The Win. “The landing part – that’s the biggest difference as far as discomfort I guess. I used to be able to fly around with ease and not think about the consequences as a 20-year-old. And now it’s strategically planned out in only certain moments now.”

Fittingly — despite the rickety landing gear — he managed to reach 25,000 points on a two-handed slam in traffic against Toronto in 2018 — a moment that Carter took a moment to soak in.

And even as recently as this year’s preseason, the veteran proved he could fill it up, hitting four 3-pointers in the final five minutes of a matchup against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, scoring 14 of his team’s 16 points in the fourth quarter.

As for his love of the game, which was often questioned as well, his decision to suit up, first as a role player beyond his prime, then as a mentor playing limited minutes, speaks for itself.

“I find a way every day because I love it,” Carter said in a post-game press conference after his final game. “That’s what made it so tough in the beginning of the year to talk about [retirement] because it’s still in me — competing and being in the atmosphere.”


Canada’s Pride


For Raptors fans, that fleeting flash of bravado on his final shot brought back both fond memories of when Vince Carter dazzled crowds in a Raptors uniform and nightmares of when he wore another. Combined, they highlight a peculiar position he enjoys in Toronto Raptor’s history.

Carter’s the only NBA player to play in four separate decades, beginning his career with the Raptors in 1999, a stint that saw him elevate basketball in Canada to a level no other player of his generation could have. Before he was drafted, the Raptors fan base had clung to players like Damon Stoudamire, Doug Christy and Kevin Willis, who were all talented but hardly possessed that superstar quality to elevate basketball to the heights of hockey and baseball on the Canadian sports hierarchy.

Vince Carter
Vince Carter rises up to nearly eye-level with the rim during the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Photo: Jed Jacobsohn / Staff

In Carter, Raptors fans found a superstar with that unique mix of top level talent and a sense of showmanship unlike any the NBA had seen before, earning him the nickname “half-man half-amazing.”

“His artistry was his dunking,” the former Toronto Raptor’s Mother Michell Carter said in The Carter Effect, a 2017 documentary exploring Carter’s impact on Canadian basketball that was co-produced by rapper and Raptors Global Ambassador Drake. “It was almost like ballet in the air.”

His highflying dunks with ballet-like aesthetic gave the Toronto Raptors national exposure for the first time but, more importantly, ushered in a whole new generation of Canadian players — dubbed the Vince Carter Generation — who would soon flood the NBA. They include 2014 No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves  and rising star Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets.

“Vince was our Michael Jordan,” Canadian Cleveland Cavaliers center and NBA champion Tristan Thompson, who grew up in GTA city Brampton, Ont. says in the doc — while former Cavalier and NBA journeyman Nik Stauskas said Vince was his childhood hero growing up in Mississauga, Ont.

NBA Canada’s twitter page is filled with highlight reels from the former Raptor with the hashtag #ThankYouVince, including one tweet recognizing his incredible debut season where he averaged 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per game and earned rookie of the year honours.

While Canadian Hall of Famer Steve Nash — dubbed “Kid Canada” — certainly makes up an important part of the national fabric when it comes to basketball, he didn’t quite burst onto the scene the way Carter did. He had been in the league for nearly a decade before he hit his stride in Phoenix, winning two consecutive MVPs in 2005 and 2006. And let’s face it, when it comes to popularity, Carter’s acrobatic slam dunks drew a little more attention than Kid Canada’s passes, no matter how fancy they were. Plus, with Carter playing in Toronto, Canada claimed him as their own.

But even for youngsters south of the border, where there’s no shortage of NBA stars to set their sites on, Carter was an inspiration. In a radio interview on the Dan Patrick Show, superstar and two-time NBA champion Kevin Durant said he wanted to play for the Raptors growing up because he was a Carter fan.

Kyle Lowry, who many now call the greatest Raptor of all time, took to Instagram to thank Carter for inspiring a generation.

“To a legend : Thank you for being YOU!! You’ve been an inspiration to a generation,” Lowry wrote. “You’ve meant soo much to the game of basketball not just in the cities you’ve played in but THE COUNTRY OF CANADA!!”

Carter was also the first true superstar to choose to play for Toronto, or in Canada for that matter. The stigma around playing north of the boarder was tenfold when Carter inked a six year contract with the Raptors in 2001. Steve Francis for example, refused to report to the Vancouver Grizzlies (now the Memphis Grizzlies) after he was drafted to the team in 1999 and admits that he nearly cried after they called his name on draft night.

Tracey McGrady, despite the potential one-two punch he and Carter could have provided, opted to leave Toronto after three seasons for a career in Orlando.

With his decision to stay in Toronto, Carter told the world that Canada was a basketball destination. And while some of the stigma still remains, stars like Lowry and former Raptor Demar DeRozan  both signed extensions, despite offers from other clubs.


Half-Man, Half-Amazing


He also brought the franchise its first taste of success. After capturing the imagination of NBA fans with a flurry of spectacular dunks, Carter led the Raptors to their first postseason in his second year with the team.

And after a first round exit that year, Carter elevated his play to superstar status the following season (1999-2000), averaging 27.6 points a game, with 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks, all while shooting 40.8 per cent from three. According to Sportsnet, he’s the only player to hit those marks in the first three years of his career.

It was the same season he turned in an incredible dunk off performance, leaving even NBA players speechless with a never-before-seen dunk that involved him elevating high enough to stick his entire forearm into the rim.

The creative bar he set is one players have strived to replicate ever since, resulting in some spectacular contests of late — namely Zach Levine and Aaron Gordon’s showdown at a 2018 Toronto-hosted contest, fittingly in the building where Carter first dazzled crowds with his high-flying innovation.


Playing the Villain


But the 1999-2000 season was also when Carter lost some of his shine with a portion of the fan base. A second-round series against the 76ers ended with a missed buzzer-beater by Carter in game 7, but it was his attendance at his graduation ceremony before the game that made headlines. Footage of Carter hurrying from the privately chartered plane to attend the most important game in franchise history to date left fans and media wondering whether his head was entirely in the game — an unfair assessment considering his stellar performance in that game and the entire series.

However, it was a stretch of 20 games in 2004, where a frustrated and disengaged Carter forced a faithful Toronto fan base to sour against him. Following an injury plagued season and a disappointing front-office decision that saw the Raptors hire Rob Babcock as general manager over NBA legend Julius Erving (Dr. J), Carter appeared to be mailing it in. He told team media that “dunking is overrated” and that layups were just as satisfying and at one point gave an opposing player a heads up as to what play the Raptors were running on a final possession. In his on and off-court jabs at head office, Carter alienated himself further with the fan base.

After Babcock proved his incompetence with what is known as the most lopsided trade in NBA history to ship Carter off to the New Jersey Nets in 2004, the aforementioned nightmare began and with it that familiar lingering stare down.

The most haunting, a game-winning buzzer-beating three-pointer he made in 2006 on his second trip back to Toronto as a New Jersey Net over a raucous booing crowd. And then, shot after shot when he dominated a Chris Bosh led Raptors in the 2007 playoffs. To no fault of his own, his phenomenal play in an extremely hostile Air Canada Centre during his years as a Net only fuelled their hatred further.


Making Amends


Despite having played the villain so well, years later Carter would admit that he was hurt by the booing.

“Once [the trade happens] and it’s like, ‘Oh Vince didn’t work, didn’t want to be here,’ and just so on and so forth, just the hatred,” Vince said in an interview with NBA TV. “I just couldn’t understand it because if the fans or the organization or people knew me like I thought they did, they’d know I loved it there. I loved playing there.”

Still, it would take an in-game video tribute to Vince Carter — featuring all of his spectacular plays — for Raptors fans to finally see past that regrettable stretch in 2004. After nearly a decade of hearing boos that lasted through his pre-game warmup right through to the the end of the game, Carter finally heard cheers again. As Raptors fans rose for a standing ovation, Vince Carter mouthed the words “wow” and wiped tears from his eyes.

Although he heard boos every time he touched the ball for the rest of that night, the moment of reconciliation was not lost on Carter.

“It was an amazing feeling to relive it as it was happening. As each play was happening, I could remember it like yesterday,” Carter said afterward, calling his tears “an honest reaction.”

“I couldn’t write it any better. I’m extremely thankful.”

The boos per-possession would fade further with time, but with the shortened season, Carter won’t get to see the rousing sendoff he was expecting for his last game in Toronto this year. But perhaps he’ll get his chance at a curtain call when or if his jersey is raised to the rafters.

As for the abrupt ending to his last season, Carter isn’t disappointed. When asked post-game how he felt about potentially completing his last game, he summed up his feelings the only way he could as he fought back tears.

“The game’s been good to me.”

Perhaps, looking back, regardless of how he left Toronto, we can say the same of him.


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