I find it important to say that I once loved Vince Carter. Just as anyone who has ever lived and died by their favourite sports team loves their team’s star player. It was a love made even more special as his arrival to the Toronto Raptors coincided with my birth into NBA fandom.
I recall vividly the lock-out shortened season of 1998-99, sitting in my living room nearly every weekend watching NBA on NBC after Saturday morning staples like City Guys and Hang Time with Reggie Theus.
The theme music is as clear in my head today as it was back then. Hannah Storm did the pre-game show, and Bob Costas was joined by either Doug Collins or Isiah Thomas to call the game. My main man Ahmad Rashad patrolled the sidelines along with Jim Gray and the alternates would regroup at halftime in the studio with Storm to discuss the latest in NBA news.
It was eerily similar to what TNT has going on now with Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber and Kenny Smith – the Jet. Back then, the real Jet, Jason Terry, was still at Arizona thinking he could win another national championships without Mike Bibby.
It was a special season, one which saw the New York Knicks reach the Finals (something that, at this rate, may never happen again) as the improbable eighth seed no less, before falling to the eventual champion Spurs. For San Antonio it was number one of many to come, led by the Admiral, David Robinson and a young Tim Duncan, who Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy called the “best player in the NBA.”
He went on to say that it was “not just because of his skill level. I think his maturity, knowledge of the game; that he just cares about winning. You can just watch a guy play and know if he’s truly into winning or not. That guy’s truly into winning.”
Such praise for Duncan’s desire seems ironically fit to coincide with the world’s introduction to Raptors Rookie of the Year Vince Carter. The dunks, the hunger, the energy and the hope; the ingredients all seemed to be there and I, along with countless others in Toronto, believed that winning and the desire to win would be there as well.
Early evidence supported the belief. Carter elevated his play to an All-Star calibre in just his second season in the league, leading the Raptors to Canada’s first ever playoff berth along the way. Toronto fell to the Knicks in the first round, but everyone could agree that it was a gigantic leap in the right direction. With the seemingly limitless potential that Carter possessed things were only bound to improve. He even found time to pick up more hardware, winning the Slam Dunk competition during its return to All-Star Weekend after a significant absence, doing so with a performance that rivals any put forth to date.
The hope grew exponentially over the summer. The Dream Team needed a last-second injury replacement and they called upon none other than Vinsanity. Carter’s Olympic performance helped lead the US to an undefeated record and another gold medal, punctuated by the forever legendary Dunk de la Mort, which will go down as the greatest in-game dunk of all time.
His strong play carried over into the 2001-02 season, leading the Raptors (even without free agent departee Tracy McGrady) back to the playoffs, where they again faced New York in the first round and this time emerged victorious. I remember clearly Chuck Swirsky calling the final seconds of the series, Alvin Williams and VC heading the onslaught.
Then came a match up with the Philadelphia 76ers and league MVP Allen Iverson that included multiple 50-point games from both teams’ stars. The series lasted the full seven games only to conclude in a manner that would redefine the relationship Toronto Raptors fans would forever have with their star; Carter missed at the buzzer.
From that point forward everything changed, all I remember is footage upon footage of Carter’s UNC graduation, which he chose to attend on the same morning of that very game seven. It was the beginning of far too much television air time for Michelle Carter and it seemed that he needed his mother to frequently justify his actions, leading many to believe that she was the one making all of his decisions.
Unaware of the martyrdom their decision would eventually breed, the Raptors signed Carter to a long-term contract extension during the summer of 2002. Playing in no more than 60 games in two of his next three seasons, his numbers declined steadily until he was refusing to dunk and averaging only 15.8 point per game for the Raptors over the first 20 games of the 2004-05 season (down from 27.6 thee years prior).
Up to this point, Carter was either dramatically laid out on the hardwood screaming in agony over the most trivial of injuries or sidelined in street clothes collecting cash while producing nothing.
To those familiar with sports economics, two terms come to mind when witnessing such a decline in play following the signing of a long-term contract: shirking and strategic effort. The former refers to the expending of effort at a rate below a player’s potential, while the latter explains that players will only perform to a level reflective of their full capabilities at specific, economically strategic instances, such as prior to a contract extension.
In Carter’s case both concepts were dually supported, and it became clear that the faltering Raptors had better meet the recent trade demands of the disgruntled Carter or be forced to suffer more sabotage, like the infamous Seattle game where Carter allegedly told Ray Allen what play was going to be run, just to have it botched in a one-point loss.
While terms like shirker may apply, fans in Toronto found another word that they found to be more accurately descriptive of all the whining and dramatics personified by a player who was once embraced with the name Air Canada; we call him a bitch.
By this point, what was once love had transformed into disdain, and obliging Carter’s request appeared the only option (this was before team’s just refused to play players until buying them out cheap). The only problem was that Carter’s strategic effort had negatively affected his trade value to the point that all Rob Babcock could manage to net in return was Erick Williams, Aaron Williams and a draft pick that became Joey Graham; in other words, nothing.
When McGrady left, following the 2000-01 season I remember feeling betrayed. I couldn’t relinquish the memory of feeling like it was unfair. The Raptors had found McGrady like a needle in a haystack and patiently nurtured his abilities to the point where it was obvious that they were about to burst into something very special, only to lose him to Orlando, while receiving nothing in return.
But “unfair” does nothing to describe what Vince Carter did to the Toronto fans; it doesn’t even scratch the surface. At least McGrady knew better than to take the Raptors’ money if he wasn’t going to show up, and at least Alonzo Mourning (who technically came over in the Vince Carter-to-the-Nets swap) knew better than to show up at all if he wasn’t going to work hard.
To the average onlooker watching their first game at the ACC with Carter back in town, the booing may seem excessive, but I hope it never ends. It’s important to remind ourselves both of the love and of the betrayal, it’s important to remind him that his actions were unacceptable, and it acts as a salute to the franchise’s turning point. Trading Vince Carter was the best thing that ever happened to the Toronto Raptors; they distanced themselves from a proven cancer and it gave the fans, myself included, the opportunity to move on.
As for the Nets, where are they now? They went from a perennial finals contender to the worst team in the entire league, finally trading Carter to Orlando for a subpar exchange in Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston (and they even had to give up Ryan Anderson in the process).
Now the Magic, who competed in the Finals just last year have been characterized by inconsistent play of late and are beginning to mount losses despite numerous experts heralding the Carter acquisition as one of the most significant pickups league wide.
The thing to remember about Carter is that it’s not that he can’t be a great two-way player, he just simply chooses not to, and it’s infectious. His ability to hit big shots and perform aerial feats that make Sports Center announcers giddy has created the mirage that he’s a winner, while those who frequent his antics know that the balance between good and evil is so delicate that it will imminently shift to unfavourable sooner than later.
After leaving traces of strategic effort on the prime of great players like Jason Kidd and now potentially Dwight Howard, Raptors fans can find comfort in the fact that at least even Rob Babcock knew enough to ship Carter away before Chris Bosh suffered the same fate. There’s no coincidence that you don’t find him anywhere in the NBA’s new determination and leadership ads.
It seems only fitting that the very team who stole McGrady from us back then is now forced to endure Vince Carter’s strategic effort; his injuries and bullshit on a nightly basis.
When the Raptors parted ways with Vince Carter it was addition by subtraction and now in Orlando Stan Van Gundy is beginning to realize the irony of it all. In acquiring Carter this past summer, his team gave a brand new home to the antithesis of the winner his brother Jeff spoke of so long ago.
Payback’s a bitch.