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Let’s Remember Some Raptors: Toronto’s original ironman, Kevin Willis

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The 1998-99 Raptors needed legitimacy. What they got was a couple of years from Kevin Willis, the oldest NBA player of the modern era.

Kevin Willis #42...

The 1998-99 Raptors are rightly known as the team that traded for rookie Vince Carter — and started to go supernova. That was the lockout year, where the NBA season was just 50 games long, and Toronto made their first legitimate push for the playoffs. They finished 23-27, a record long tattooed in my memory because of its proximity to mere goodness, and did not make the post-season. It was just the beginning though for Carter and the Raptors.

It was a beginning for someone else too. That year, veteran and one-time All-Star Kevin Willis was traded to the Raptors for Roy Rogers (great name, not much game) and two first round picks (90s GMs were wildin’). Toronto had just gone 16-66 in their previous season and were desperate for some stability after the angry departures of Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, and coach Darrell Walker. At the time, Willis was 36 years old, having played in Atlanta (for years), Miami, Golden State, and Houston, before his trade to Toronto.

Willis was also, as he has been throughout his career and life, a seven-foot human tank of a man. And while it sounds insane now — the Raptors basing their future on Willis and 35-year-old tough guy Charles Oakley — in the short term: it absolutely worked.

His Raptors Run

Willis joined a Raptors team of relative unknowns. He was joined by Oakley, eight-year man Dee Brown, and before-his-time defensive wing Doug Christie. It wasn’t clear yet what they had with Michael “Yogi” Stewart (nothing), Alvin Williams (something), Tracy McGrady (definitely something), and, of course, Carter.

So, that first year in Toronto, Willis leaned back on what he did best: scoring in the post and going after rebounds. He appeared in 42 games that season, starting 38, and was the Raptors’ third highest leading scorer (behind the ascendant Carter and steady Christie, but ahead of McGrady in both points per game and usage). Meanwhile, Willis easily led the team in rebounds (at 8.3 per game). I say easily because, well, just look at the guy! It really can’t be overstated how enormous Willis was and is — it’s what allowed him to stay in the NBA for, get this, another six years after being traded away by the Raptors in 2001.

That’s right: Willis joined the Raptors as the stout veteran presence they needed, helping to legitimize the team both on and off the court; and then, rather than play off into the sunset when Toronto was done with him (snagging Keon Clark, Tracy Murray, and the immortal Mamadou N’Diaye in the process), Willis just kept going. He retired at 44 (going on 45), when his 2007 10-day contract with the Mavericks got extended for the rest of that year.

The Wikipedia Fun-Fact Deep-Dive

So longevity was the thing with Willis. For the most part, his career peaked in 1992 with that aforementioned All-Star bearth, during a season in which he averaged 18.3 points and 15.5 rebounds per game for the 43-39 Atlanta Hawks. But another 15 years in the league now give Willis a unique claim to fame.

As mentioned, Willis managed to play his way onto the 2007 Mavericks, a team that had just been to (and lost) in the NBA Finals. He was on the playoff roster that would get shocked in the first round of the ‘07 playoffs (thanks to the We Believe Warriors). In one sense, this is a rather sad way to end a long and illustrious career. But Willis’ late-season appearances allowed him to make a different claim: at 44 years and 224 days, he became the oldest player to appear in more than two games — ever. (Nat Hickey holds the two-games and under record, but that was in 1948 which means, let’s be honest, it doesn’t count.)

Willis surpassed the previous record holder Robert Parrish, an NBA legend in his own right, who rounded out his career in 1996-96 with the Bulls. And, as appears to be the case now, it looks like Willis’ record will stand the test of time. His closest competitor to take the age-old crown was none other than Vince Carter, who now appears set to retire in his 43rd year. Full circle stuff, that.

A Highlight

Owing to his many years in the league, it’s possible to find game footage and highlights of Willis in a Raptors uniform (among others). He wasn’t the flashiest player, of course, but when you put in work across three decades, Youtube tends to find you.

That’s not the highlight we’re going to talk about here though. For that, I’d like to direct you to the perfect time capsule of Willis’ time in Toronto. Yes, I’d like you to watch this one-minute New VR promo (look it up, kids) for the Raptors featuring Kevin Willis in a suburban Ajax home.

This is where the Raptors were in 1998. They were a still very bad expansion team, every news item about them noted how the squad was falling apart, and they were just hanging on in a market that did not identify itself as one for basketball. (It’s worth noting: Canada’s other expansion team, the Vancouver Grizzlies, would move out of the country three years later.) This seems quaint now over 20 years and one championship later, but Toronto had a lot of work to do at the time trying to sell the game to a city lost in the throes of hockey-mania. I hate to always have to make that point, re: the Leafs and Toronto’s hockey obsession, but it was definitely the case back then.

It’s telling, of course, that Willis would stroll into a quiet little house in Ajax, far from the more “urban” environs of Toronto, to visit two white parents and four little white children. This was the Raptors organization trying to tell prospective new viewers that basketball players — even giant, fearsome-looking dudes like Willis — could provide easy and friendly family entertainment. It’s not exactly subtle, and it is sort of racist in a subliminal way — but it is also funny to see Willis stuff himself into a child’s tent or clamour for pizza at the kitchen table. If nothing else, Willis was a pro’s pro about it.

Where Are They Now?

In perhaps the most perfect and fitting — literally — ending, Willis’ retirement from the NBA allowed him to return to his men’s big-and-tall clothing store in Atlanta called Willis & Walker. Check the link there to the company’s Facebook page. It appears as though, much like Willis himself, the brand is still going strong.

In any case, Willis cofounded the company in 1988 with his former college teammate Ralph Walker and, as you’d expect, they fill the clothing needs of a very specific niche: men listed at 6’3” and over. I’ll say this once again for Willis, the guy went after it.