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A Question for Toronto: To Vince or Not to Vince?

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That’s not actually the question. But we’ll get to the actual question here.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Fair warning: this will not be like my other posts. Not one bit of salary information nor a single advanced statistic will be present in the text below. Consider yourselves warned.

So the Raptors have a chance to add a veteran from the buyout market. This year seems like the first year they really have a chance to be a desired destination for these veteran free agents. And, as destiny would have it, there are reports that if Vince Carter had a destination in mind, Sacramento would probably buy him out to let him pursue that opportunity.

Destiny?

For some fans, this feels like destiny. Vince Carter, joining the new age of Raptors basketball, coming on as the elder statesman to help bolster a bench full of young, skilled athletes? It’s a story book ending to a story that hasn’t been particularly poetic.

For others, though, there’s no enthusiasm for this move at all. I’ve seen a lot of fans express doubt about potentially signing Carter, and just as many are outright opposed to it. A lot of fans still hold Vince’s acrimonious departure against him. And even taking into consideration the faults of management in that time, can you really blame them? Vince never really apologized for his part in his time here coming to an end, and his rather sudden success after being traded has never sat quite right. He forced his way out of town, and demanded a trade (a demand he would rescind, but that’s largely irrelevant), and partly because of his trying to play himself out of town, the team got very little for him.

The franchise was set back a decade. The team had played poorly enough through Carter’s injuries to get a top 5 pick, and leveraged that into Chris Bosh, a skilled big man to play alongside Carter. But with Carter forcing his way out, the team was left once again to build around a single star, much like when Carter was left on his own after McGrady left.

The effects were long lasting. The pieces that had been assembled around Carter were old and overpaid now, and with the lacklustre return in his trade (and management’s inability to find talent in the draft), it was difficult to build a team around Bosh in his early years, with most of the focus being on clearing those Carter-era contracts away. By the time Bryan Colangelo was hired and managed to bring in some talent around Bosh, the clock was ticking on his upcoming free agency. A few years of rushed team building and Bosh was gone too, and another era was wasted with only a couple playoff appearances and no success therein.

The Raptors did get a few solid prospects out of all that misery, but even they almost went to waste with Colangelo at the helm, trying desperately to save his job and making “win-now” moves that didn’t lead to much winning. Only the introduction of Tim Leiweke and the resulting hire of Masai Ujiri set the team on the patient path they tread now, finally putting emphasis on development and depth to help bolster the quality players left over from Colangelo’s time here.

From the time Vince Carter forced his way out of town, to the hiring of Masai Ujiri, is nearly a decade. Nine full years of wasted Raptors basketball, and the only thing to show for it is quality pieces that were already going to waste at the outset of Ujiri’s term. If you include the first couple years of Bosh’s career where Carter moped his way out, it’s a full decade.

And it all comes back to Vince forcing his way out. Those are the consequences of his actions. Yes, a lot of it was bad management, bad ownership, and bad luck. But a lot of that can be overcome when you’ve got a superstar.

And for many fans, those consequences, consciously or subconsciously, roll back into the way they feel about Vince leaving, and intensify the feelings of betrayal. Our own Dan Grant summarized the common feelings about Vince’s departure in a well-written analogy that was super creepy because he used clowns. Why? Who knows. But click here to read the whole thread, because it’s great, and I’ll embed the closing tweets here.

Dan makes a great point here (and made the same one years ago in this article). He’s right, too. Vince doesn’t deserve to be treated like the hero after the way he left the franchise in shambles upon forcing his way out. He’s never really acknowledged being at fault, nor apologized for his role in it all. But I’d argue whether Vince deserves to come back is not really the question.

A Story

I’ve been alive for the entirety of the Raptors’ existence. I was young when they came into the league, and frankly only vaguely remember that expansion team with Mighty Mouse, or the sad few years that followed before Vince came into the picture. As many Canadians are, I was brought up mainly on hockey, but I was lucky enough to have parents who would occasionally put on the Raptors as well, and by the time I was approaching high school, I’d developed a taste for basketball. A big part of this was Vince Carter. In my developmental years as a sports fan, even as I enjoyed the prime years of Curtis Joseph, and Mats Sundin, I was inexorably pulled to the Raptors.

Because who could look away?! Vince Carter was setting the world on fire, with Tracy McGrady alongside him, and every year was more tantalizing than the last. Then there came the dunk contest. I don’t need to say much here. Every Raptors fan (who was around at the time) knows what this thing meant. The world was watching, and Vince stole the show. He set a precedent that will never be matched, and burned memories of a Raptor dominating the NBA spotlight into the collective basketball consciousness. The entirety of Carter’s run as a Raptor can be boiled down to that dunk contest — he had more success than that, and I’ll get to it, but for Raptors fans this was the moment that crystallized a new reality — the Raptors mattered, and we had a star to take us places. To take us all the way.

The Raptors would make the playoffs for the first time ever that spring. They’d lose in the first round, but they made the playoffs. And the first big blow arrived. McGrady bolted that summer for his own team. But that didn’t slow down the Raptors. They returned to the playoffs the following year and Carter would cement himself as (at the time) the best Raptor in history. His dominant performances in those playoffs, especially in the 2nd round against Iverson’s 76ers, were unforgettable.

And then the second big blow, and the one that started the ball rolling against Carter. He’d attend his graduation ceremony the day of Game 7 of that playoff series, and eventually miss the potential game winning shot. Questions would abound. But overall, the team was experiencing success like never before.

The team would start the next season off strong as well, but a pattern that would eventually doom the team would start to show itself — Carter got hurt, and missed the final 30 games and playoffs, where the team would flame out in round one again. The next year, Carter would miss about half the season, and that combined with Olajuwon retiring and other injuries on the team meant the team had no chance to compete. The season was a disaster, and the team finished well outside the playoffs.

Vince would actually be healthy the following season, for the most part, and with Chris Bosh in the fold, the team looked like it might rebound. Sadly, between Kevin O’Neal’s coaching and more injury woes up and down the roster, the team would once again miss the playoffs. The following year, the season started just as poorly, with the team constructed poorly around Carter and Bosh, and Carter seemed to mope his way out of town, with various questionable injuries and poor play that seemed to disappear as soon as he was traded in December. The poor trade return and Carter’s success in New Jersey (especially against the Raptors) would cement him as a villain, and the rest is history.

And that’s the depressing part. That’s how the story ends for Raptor fans. Carter kept playing, but never approached the level of stardom he held in Toronto, and though he contributed to a few winning teams, he never led a team to success the way he did here. And the Raptors slogged through a decade of misery and mediocrity without him. That’s a tragedy.

And the worst part is it taints the highest points of Raptor fandom (with the possible exception of this golden era we live in now). That dunk contest! But he left. The 50 point dueling with Iverson! But he missed the game winner. And he left.

Now when Raptors fans relive those glorious early days of Carter’s, it all comes with a sense of regret, of what could have been.

The Question

So, back to the question at hand. Does Carter deserve to come back, be welcomed back to the city he abandoned? Does he deserve to be forgiven for his transgressions, and given a place on the most successful Raptor teams in history? No, probably not.

But what do we deserve? The fans? Do we deserve to be doomed to forever have our last memory of one of the giants of Raptors history be him limping his way out of town? As Dan put it, many of us have scars that haven’t healed — but I’d argue that Vince coming back is the only thing that has a chance to heal them.

We have a franchise story with a first era of success that ended in tragedy. Our current success is great, but considering the reaction of many to a potential minimum salary contract for a veteran shooter, that first successful era, and the disasters that followed, are still very much at the forefront of the fandom’s consciousness. There’s a scar that hasn’t healed.

But what if it could? What if we could continue the story? What if that tragic ending isn’t an ending at all, but a second act, the confrontation that needs to be overcome? And yes, maybe our “hero” wasn’t particularly heroic. He gave up on this team, and we suffered for it. But if that’s the end, the franchise and fandom will never be rid of that betrayal. And redemption arcs are good stories.

Vince never seemed to want the spotlight. Many think that’s part of why he forced his way out, and never took the lead on a team again. And in a typical script, he overcomes that limitation, rises up to be the hero we need, and establishes a dominant team with Bosh for the better part of a decade. But we don’t go by typical scripts here in “The North.“ We do things a little differently.

DeMar DeRozan is a relic, haven’t you heard? His game doesn’t belong in the modern NBA. Same goes for Jonas Valanciunas. No team bothered to draft Fred VanVleet. The Raptors bench is too young, they’ll never replicate the success of their veteran laden benches of the past. Yeah, I’ll take my team a little different from the others, if that’s alright. And I’ll take my hero’s redemption arc however I can get it.

Vince has seen the city warm up to him of late. He doesn’t get booed anymore, and got a rousing ovation when he received a video tribute on a recent return to the ACC, the arena Vince built. And maybe he’s finally what the Raptors need. He’s never wanted the spotlight — well, we have two all-stars soaking that up right now. He’s as veteran as it gets in this league, and we’ve got a young squad for a playoff team. He’s been amazingly clutch throughout his career, most obviously when he returned to face the Raptors after the breakup — and this team could desperately use some help in clutch situations, even if only in terms of bringing an attitude shift or new mentality for those moments.

And what we, as fans, really need is closure. We need a happy ending to the story. Because this is a young franchise, and we can’t be throwing away memories like a man hanging from the rim by his elbow, or trading 50 point games with Allen Iverson, because we have a scar that hasn’t healed.

It’s not really a scar, anyway. It’s a scab. And every failure since Vince left picks at it. So too the successes — the re-signing of DeMar DeRozan was a story steeped in the history of the franchise, in the context of McGrady and Bosh and especially Carter leaving before the job was done. Vince is the context in which the Raptors exist. He’s the defining star of many Raptor fans’ sport experience. And if that context is always going to be “he left,” we will never be whole.

So come home Vince. Come back. This time, we don’t need you to be the hero. We just need you to be here.

And if he does come back, hopefully this fan base can finally see what many of us dreamed of as children. Vince Carter, and the Raptors, making it to the NBA Finals to compete for a championship, together on the world stage again. And if that helps heal the wound, give us a happy ending to the story, and change the context that colours everything the Raptors do from “he left” to “he came back,” I honestly don’t care if Vince deserves it or not.

Because we do.