There’s nothing quite like entering the Air Canada Centre on a day when Vince Carter is in the building. The electricity in the air is palpable — the crowd knows what’s coming. It’s not necessarily a negative energy, at least, not to everyone. To some, the collective reaction to Carter’s return is deplorable. To others, this vitriolic reaction serves as a deserved indictment for Vince’s traitorous wrongdoings.
Thirteen years later, despite a new wave of goodwill, the stench of the infamous Raptors-Carter acrimony is still out there. It appears the bad blood between the two parties will forever seep through the walls of the arena in which it first started. It doesn’t matter which team Carter plays for, nor how old he is, nor what little role he plays; when he steps on the court, he will forever be expecting a vicious, visceral reaction from the Toronto crowd.
The tension between Vince and the Toronto Raptors organization is haunting. Of course, both parties’ cases have merits. Carter became frustrated with the organization’s lack of success and commitment, while management got stuck with an unhealthy, unhappy superstar talent that seemingly wanted out of Toronto. Meanwhile, fans became tired of his lacklustre play and childish antics. In 2004, Carter infamously proclaimed that he no longer wanted to dunk. Vince had once put Toronto on the NBA map with his high-flying acrobatics; thus, this statement acted as a harbinger for his bitter exit later that year.
Raptors management traded him for Alonzo Mourning (who never played in Toronto), Aaron and Eric Williams (who, surprisingly, are not related, unless a shared mediocrity makes them brothers-in-arms) and two first-round picks, one of whom ended up being Joey Graham (who averaged an unspectacular 6.4 points per game). To say this haul was disappointing is the understatement of the century. Naturally, this deal culminated in Carter playing his best season in years for the New Jersey Nets, leaving the city of Toronto to flail in his wake. It was Carter’s resurgence in play that raised suspicion in Raptors fans, who maintain to this day that Carter simply did not try his hardest during the latter half of his Raptors tenure. These claims were both denied and confirmed by Carter, in politician’s fashion. Regardless, they are a part of the bevy of reasons why Carter is maliciously booed in the Air Canada Centre.
In 2014, the Raptors decided to honour Vince Carter in a video tribute during a home visit by his then-team, the Memphis Grizzlies. This polarizing decision was met with both chagrin and delight. Many were ready to forgive, others held their decade-long grudge. Vince teared up watching the tribute, and waved to a cheering crowd.
There is one pivotal moment in Raptors history that fans would like to forget. In the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Vince Carter missed a potential game-winning shot that spurred a plethora of unfortunate signings and deals that led to his eventual hostile departure.
Earlier that day, Raptors fans nervously held their breath. Reportedly, Carter decided to attend his college graduation the morning of the decisive game seven versus Allen Iverson and his Philadelphia 76ers. Throughout the series, Carter and Iverson waged an epic battle, swinging back and forth with impressive stat lines. Carter responded to Iverson’s 54-point game two with a 50-point outburst in game three. These two titans were zoned-in and hungry for a series victory. Thus, it came as a shock to many that Carter would risk fatigue to travel to North Carolina for his graduation ceremony, just hours before the most important game of his life. Nevertheless, Carter re-joined the team midday.
Just a few hours after he landed in Philadelphia, Vince found himself in a precarious situation. The Raptors were down by one point, with just two seconds left to play in the fourth quarter. After a pump fake sent his defender flying, Carter was gifted a wide-open shot. However, he could do nothing but watch as the ball clanked off the rim, shooting daggers through the hearts of Raptors fans and sending the 76ers to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Vince ended the game with 20 points, making just 33 percent of his shots. That off-season, Carter signed a 6-year extension with the Toronto Raptors, but ironically, his departure had already begun. Vince’s missed shot was the spiritual beginning of the end, as everything slowly derailed after that moment. Injuries, coupled with the accusations of intentional poor play, culminated in Carter’s exit, sullying his reputation in Toronto and forever changing the course of history.
Now, brace yourselves. Let’s think about the future the Raptors could have had if that shot had gone in. I’d like you to keep in mind that these predictions are simply that: predictions.
In reality, the 76ers went on to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. Had the Raptors won Game 7, their season likely would have ended in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would have faced off against a superior Bucks team. After all, this Bucks team beat the Raptors three times out of four in the regular season that year. Despite this loss, however, free agents’ perception of Toronto as a potential destination would have likely been bolstered. The Raptors would have been perceived as a team on the precipice of greatness, as opposed to a team that, despite possessing a young star in Vince Carter, would never achieve success.
In actuality, that summer, the Raptors traded multiple picks to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Hakeem Olajuwon, a deal that everyone refuses to acknowledge actually happened. This move was executed as an effort to push the Raptors into the upper-echelon of NBA teams. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out. Olajuwon recorded career-lows in every major statistical category, and opted to retire after just one season of play.
In this alternate timeline, however, the Raptors land a different, defensive-minded big man: Dikembe Mutombo. A free agent in the summer of 2001, Mutombo chooses to sign with the Toronto Raptors. Instead of re-signing in Philadelphia, he bolts to the team that defeated his 76ers in the playoffs, reasoning that he has a better shot to win his elusive championship in Toronto.
While Vince still suffers a knee injury the following year, his team does not suffer as much due to Mutombo’s health. The Raptors overtake the 76ers in the standings, finishing sixth as opposed to seventh, and play the Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs. In reality, the 76ers pushed the Celtics to five games. However, a healthy Raptors team, coupled with Mutombo, defeat the Celtics to advance to their second-straight Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In the Semifinals, the Raptors would face the Detroit Pistons, who would have beaten the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round had they played each other. In actuality, the Raptors push the Pistons to five games in a hard-fought series. In this alternate timeline, the Raptors knock off the Pistons to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
There, they face off against the New Jersey Nets, who overpower the Raptors and take the series. Still, this combined success over two seasons instills hope in Raptors fans, and Vince Carter does not become frustrated with the organization. Instead, he helps lure free agents in the 2002 offseason, and the Raptors are able to retain Keon Clark, as well as ink guard Chauncey Billups, in a grand return to Toronto, to a long-term deal, instead of trading for the temperamental Rafer Alston.
During the 2002-2003 season, the core of Carter, Mutombo and Billups are unable to stay healthy. They have an abysmal season, missing the playoffs. Due to their failure over the regular season, the Raptors are still able to draft Chris Bosh fourth overall. As well, the Raptors opt to trade Mutombo to the Bulls for Jamal Crawford, a trade that materialized in real-life.
Thus, for the 2003-2004 season, the Raptors have a young core of Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh. In real life, this is the year Vince Carter is traded away. However, in this scenario, he stays in Toronto. Vince decides to stay loyal to the franchise that, despite his injury concerns, provided him with surrounding young talent, with whom he can truly compete for a championship.
So now, I’ll leave it up to you. Is this Raptors team good enough to displace the Detroit Pistons, who no longer have Chauncey Billups, for third place in the Eastern Conference? Do Chris Bosh and Vince Carter spend a long, fruitful time together with the Raptors? Does this alternate timeline rid the Raptors of a future with Andrea Bargnani? Let us know in the comments below!