"I did not hate Toronto. I love it to this day. I still have friends there, I grew up there. I became who I am today right there in Toronto. Toronto gave me my opportunity to be a basketball player; to fulfill a dream. I won the Rookie of the Year (Award) there. I won the dunk contest there. I've done all the wonderful things, my career highs all came right in that uniform. Nothing can replace that, nothing, so to be honoured that way -- absolutely. I have no ill feelings. I am very appreciative of the organization."
The mediocre franchise and the player who never proved he was capable of carrying one.
Almost a decade removed from the Vince Carter-Toronto divorce, it's still a subject of contention in these parts. The above quote comes from a local radio interview that Carter did this week. To further complicate matters, Sam Mitchell and Rob Babcock both verified yesterday that the night before he was traded to New Jersey, Carter had a change of heart and wanted to stay with the team, but Babcock had verbally committed to a package centered around Aaron Williams and Eric Williams that he couldn't refuse.
This new flow of information is just another chance for the fanbase to get nostalgic and ponder all the what if's. Because years later, both Vince and the franchise have not scaled the same heights of success as player and team that they experienced together.
A superstar's relationship with their team can go several ways. They can become so ingrained with one another that it'd be hard to imagine the player and the team as separate: see, Kobe and the Lakers.
Other times, the player moves on and ascends to great heights, leaving a franchise behind in the process: see LeBron as gold medalist, MVP and defending champion in Miami, while Cleveland continues its slow prodding rebuild. Sure, the bitterness will not soon be gone in Cleveland, but LeBron has long moved past it.
The Carter-Toronto dynamic is none of the above, because they still remain inexplicably linked because those feelings together remain be height of the player and the franchise.
When you're jilted as badly as the Raptors were at the time of Carter's departure, you only remember the end - the body language, the talks of him giving away plays to his opponents, his insistence of giving up dunking - we saw a superstar who made us relevant, who built everything up and tore it all down within such a short span. It doesn't help that we were the franchise up north mostly ignored on the national stage, this complex fueled the anger and bitterness, while ignoring the fact that star players have long held franchises hostage -- and still do today.
I still remember the specific moment when Carter made me believe that we were ready to tear off the expansion franchise label and put ourselves on the map.
Game 4, first round, 2001 playoffs, Air Canada Centre, New York Knicks. Down 2-1 in the series - and having been swept by the same team the year before - Vince took the ball on his first offensive possession, drove past Latrell Sprewell into an open lane and unleashed a windmill dunk. Those two points didn't win the game, but it was a sort of pronouncement: that he was not just a Slam Dunk champion, a high flyer who could fill up the highlights, there was something more tangible than that.
For a few weeks, he kept reaffirming that belief. We won the last two games of the series against the Knicks - including a series-deciding victory at Madison Square Garden - and carried that into an opening road win against Philadelphia, and then Vince put up an incredible individual performance in Game 3. More credit to Allen Iverson, who had as brilliant a series as Vince did, to somehow help mute some of the incredible things that Vince was doing. When he went to his graduation on the morning of Game 7 and ended the day missing a series winning attempt to send us into the Conference Finals, it was supposed to be the end of one particular chapter, but just a temporary blip on the way to better things.
But injuries, poor signings, coaching changes and roster upheaval sent the team back to mediocrity. We were all the way back to irrelevant on the day that Carter was finally trade to New Jersey.
Vince could've gone to New Jersey and continued to ascend as a top-five player in the league, a once in a generational talent who was in the spotlight so much that we once spent weeks wondering if he would or should concede his All-Star starting spot to Michael Jordan. He wasn't just a local story. He was the toast of the league.
But Vince didn't scale those heights in New Jersey, nor Orlando, Phoenix or with Dallas now. His athleticism is no longer the eye-popping attraction that it once was in Toronto, criticism of him as a finesse player without the same desire as the greats were more or less confirmed in the past decade. He knows that had he stayed in Toronto, for better or worst, he would've been the franchise player who represented the city and the country for his entire career, and his stature would've elevated accordingly. There's a tinge of regret in the way Vince speaks about his Toronto days, a sort of realization that the alternative might've been better.
As a franchise, the Raptors have never really moved on either. Sure, there's a new management now, and we've gone through many iterations of the roster since, but to truly move on means replacing your greatest memories with new ones, like painting over a canvas. Any portrait of the franchise still begins and end with Vince Carter.
One day, we will move on from this. For Vince, when he retires, it's likely he will look back on Toronto and wonder about all the what if's, it's not something that he thought he would be doing when he left. He was supposed to move onto greater things, when the very fact was he was leaving what would still be the peak of his career.
For the Raptors, they'll win a playoff series one day - and if not a superstar, then perhaps they'll have a collective group of players that'll help give us those new memories.
But for now, Carter and the Raptors are still tied together in so many ways, a mutual understanding driven by disappointment and a need to find a new beginning, no different since the day that he left.