In their nearly 19 years of existence, the Toronto Raptors have been the NBA's most forgettable team. Rarely awful enough to be mocked, never good enough to be taken seriously, they have at times been a part of the NBA in nothing but name.
It hasn't always been that way, though. Between June 24, 1998 - the day of that year's NBA Draft - and May 20, 2001, - Game 7 of the Philadelphia-Toronto second round series - the Raptors were cool. The term hadn't yet entered the NBA lexicon, but in those days the Raptors were League Pass darlings. They were everybody's second favorite team. To like the Raptors at that time was to like dunks and swagger and excitement and, yes, even winning basketball. Every game was a show, in the best sense of the word, and the conductor of Toronto's nightly athletic symphony was Vince Carter.
Carter burst onto the NBA scene like a supernova. In his tenth career game he delivered the famous double-pump reverse dunk in Indiana. He was the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year and his talent seemed as limitless as his hops. By his second season Carter was a bonafide superstar, the leading vote-getter at the All-Star Game (a title he was to hold for four of the next five years) and without a doubt the NBA's most popular and exciting player.
Watching Carter play at that time was an experience unto itself. He was unique; bigger and stronger than Kobe and smoother than McGrady. He scaled opposing centers like a mountaineer conquering Everest: Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson all ended up on the wrong side of a Carter dunk. He jumped over Frederic Weis and nearly did the same to Tim Duncan. He was the consummate showman, shaking his shoulders after dunks and scowling after clutch three-pointers. Carter's play drew attention south of the border and he got the Raptors on NBC, where he promptly dropped 51 points on the Suns.
It wasn't all highlights, either - his team was getting better, too. Before Carter the Raptors were a bit of a joke, known for goofy jerseys and losing basketball. After Carter the Raptors have been mostly a joke, known for goofy decisions and losing basketball. But during Carter's prime? For those three years between the draft and that missed jumper in Philadelphia, being a Raptors fan was like being a Thunder fan in 2010; the future was as bright as the star around which it revolved.
Of course, you know the rest. The injuries, the drama and the trade - it all snowballed and Carter left town under a black cloud of anger and suspicion that still lingers more than a decade later. It's a festering wound that has never fully healed, a lingering infection helped along by the fact that since Carter left the team hasn't come close to duplicating the success they had with him.
Tonight he will take the court against the Toronto Raptors for the 35th time in his career, including playoff games. He will almost certainly be booed, though the volume and venom of those boos has dissipated over the years. Carter is in the twilight of his career now but, unlike many other stars of his generation, he's made the successful transition to valuable role player. His career numbers scream Hall of Famer, but the lingering perception of Carter as a selfish, lazy prima donna (almost entirely a product of his departure from Toronto) might keep him out of Springfield.
But should that keep his jersey from hanging in the rafters at the Air Canada Centre? The Raptors have never retired a player's jersey and, outside of Chris Bosh, Carter is the only logical choice. The statistical arguments in his favor are clear; his name is everywhere on the Raptors' all-time leader boards, especially in signature categories like points per game. He's also the leader in many unofficial categories, including "Most memorable moments" and is the author of almost every compelling highlight in Raptors' history. Many will point to Carter's ignominious exit and relative lack of playoff success as reasons why his jersey shouldn't be retired, but those strike hollow to me.
Yes, the last couple of years were shameful in many respects. Carter clearly stopped trying during his last season in Toronto and even admitted he could have pushed himself more during a 2005 interview with TNT's John Thompson. Any arguments about playoff success must be considered in context; Carter's prime directly coincided with the Raptors' most successful years. Should Carter's candidacy be rejected out of hand simply because he never won a championship? No, because that's a ridiculous and arbitrary standard that would mean Elgin Baylor, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and others should tear down their jerseys from arenas across the NBA.
Carter's accomplishments with the Raptors don't match up to Baylor's with the Lakers or Ewing's with the Knicks, but the Raptors don't have nearly the rich history of those teams. Carter isn't competing with the ghost of Wilt Chamberlain or Dave DeBusschere, but with the pedestrian legacies of Chris Bosh and even players like Morris Peterson.
It's hard to measure, but Carter also helped inspire a generation of Canadian basketball fans, some of whom now play against him in the NBA. Players from Tristan Thompson to Anthony Bennett have talked about going to Raptors games as kids and being swept up by Carter mania. It might not seem important at first glance, but Carter could have as much to do with the rise of Canadian basketball as anyone else.
Now, though, his days are numbered. There's still some spring in those legs, but Vince Carter will turn turn 37 years old in four days. This is his 15th NBA season and, with his contract set to expire at the end of the year, there's a chance tonight will be the last time he takes the court in front of the fans he once held in the palm of his hand. There will be boos, but I hope there will be more than a few cheers too because, for all of his faults, Carter made being a Raptors fan fun, and isn't that what it's all about?
More than anything, following this team over the past decade has been an exercise in embarrassment. People can't believe it when I tell them I love the Raptors.
"Really?" they'll ask with a look that hovers somewhere between surprise and sympathy. "Don't they suck?"
Well, yes. For the most part they have. Except, of course, for a brief three-year period between 1998 and 2001. For those three years the Raptors were the NBA's "it" team, and Carter was the reason why. He was brilliant and befuddling all at the same time and now, with the benefit of hindsight and perspective, it's the brilliant parts that stand out. He deserves to have his jersey retired.
Let's hope it happens.