Vince Carter's impact on Toronto basketball will never be forgotten

William Lou
NBA reporter

The Toronto Raptors existed before Vince Carter, and they persisted long after he was gone. But he was the franchise’s first true love, one that burns to this day.

The number 15 is ubiquitous. Teenagers who only know Vince from YouTube swear by his name. The highlights loop endlessly, his elbow forever suspended in the hoop. His subdued retirement commands headlines, even though he last wore a Raptors jersey 16 years ago. To this day, the topic of how to honour Vince — if at all — remains the easiest gimmick on local sports radio. He is the most iconic player in franchise history.

Before Drake came along, the Raptors global ambassador was Vince, and he brought the world to Toronto. With Vince came national TV games, where he famously scored a career-high 51 points in a win over Phoenix. Vince brought Christmas to the city in 2001, and it only returned 18 years later for the reigning champions. Vince was once the biggest show in basketball, and he did so rocking Toronto across his chest. That meant something.

More importantly, Vince brought Toronto to the game of basketball. Yes, there was always talent and a passion in the city, but the Raptors made it mainstream. Vince birthed an entire generation of Raptors fans who now rival the Leafs in numbers. Many of those kids attended Vince’s skills camp or his famed charity games, where he gathered NBA stars who flocked to Caribana in the summer and treated Toronto to its very own version of the All-Star Game.

Vince inspired a golden generation of basketball talent. Canada boasts the most NBA players outside of the United States, and whether it’s Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph or Jamal Murray, they all swear by Vince. He didn’t hold a Canadian passport, but Vince was a source of national pride. Air Canada took direct flights nightly from Toronto to Sportscenter. That put the spotlight on this city, and it never left.

With the highs came the lows. Vince’s departure was ugly, and it set the Raptors back for years. He pouted publicly about not dunking anymore. His effort was questionable and his leadership non-existent. There’s stories of him tipping off plays to the opponent. When he was traded in 2004, his scoring jumped 12 points per game upon landing in New Jersey. The blame doesn’t fall on Vince alone, as the incompetence of the Raptors’ management essentially pushed him out, but Vince never apologized. People don’t forget that.

His departure cemented Toronto’s reputation as a bridesmaid. Stars came through, but none stayed. Damon Stoudamire bounced, Tracy McGrady went home to Orlando, and finally Vince forced his way out only two years into a $94-million extension. Those wounds were ripped open again when Chris Bosh took his talents to South Beach, and to a lesser extent after Kawhi Leonard ditched the title team. It scared the psyche of every Raptors fan, and it manifested as an incurable inferiority complex.

The grass wasn’t greener in the swamps of New Jersey. Vince’s career stretched another two decades, but his superstar days were short-lived. Despite teaming up with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson, Vince never made it out of the second round and finished out his career as a role player on six different teams. His most relevant moments came in his returns to Toronto, where he delivered cold-hearted daggers in response to a fanbase that booed him mercilessly. It was a bad look for both sides.

Fans wanted to move on from Vince, but the Raptors were lifeless for a decade. It took Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan reviving the franchise before the bitterness finally mellowed out. During the Raptors’ 20th anniversary celebration, Vince returned as a member of the Grizzlies, and was moved to tears when jeers turned to cheers after a tribute video was shown. It was a powerful moment, and you could feel a karmic weight being lifted from both Vince and the franchise.

The two sides have since forged down a path of reconciliation. Reunions became joyful. Vince dunked past the 25,000-point plateau against the Raptors last season, and his opponents practically cheered him on. Vince and McGrady worked post-game at Game 6 of the Finals, where they shared an emotional embrace with Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia. This season, Vince was on hand to witness Lowry’s coronation as the franchise leader in assists, and he soaked up every last second. After the game, Vince lingered with veteran reporters and shared an extended conversation with Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

His final goodbye never came. Vince was scheduled to return in April, and the Raptors had plans to send him off with another tribute video, but COVID-19 had other ideas. In a season full of memorable performances, that night promised to be unforgettable. It wouldn’t have been closure — all sins were forgiven after last summer’s championship — but it was an opportunity to celebrate history. Even though he left nearly two decades ago, Vince Carter will forever be a legend in Toronto.

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