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What if coach Butch Carter had stayed on and stayed together in Toronto?

The Raptors first successful coach crashed and burned all the way out of the NBA. What if Butch Carter had kept it together and stayed on as Toronto’s coach?

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Butch Carter

What does leadership mean to a basketball team? It can be hard to quantify. As with most nebulously defined qualities, however, we know it when we see it. We’ve spent the last few weeks watching the 90s’ Bulls, with their seemingly unflappable coach Phil Jackson, win title after title. And we’ve watched our world’s current political leaders become undone in the face of a global pandemic. These two examples are not the same, but they do offer insight into what leadership looks like when it is good — and when it is bad.

The Raptors have had leadership vacuums before. It was into one such void that coach Butch Carter stepped, becoming the team’s third head coach after Darrell Walker quit. Carter had been a former marginal NBA player in the 1980s, appearing in games across six seasons with four teams before moving into coaching. From there, he rose through the ranks, first as an assistant with the Bucks and then in Toronto. Still, there wasn’t much to Carter’s resume at the time. He took over a Raptors team with an 11-38 record, one he would only improve with five more wins. In short, Carter was set up to fail.

But then Butch Carter, thanks to his long-time friend and Toronto’s general manager Glen Grunwald, was gifted Vince Carter through the 1998 NBA Draft. The Raptors would improve to 23-27 in the lockout shortened season. Then they would jump to 45-37 and make the playoffs for the first time. In two seasons, Butch Carter went from stopgap head coach to being tasked with shaping one of the league’s preeminent talents. He had a front row seat to the Air Canada Carter show.

Three games into the 2000 playoffs, however, the Raptors were defeated, swept 3-0 by the New York Knicks. A month and a half later, Butch Carter was fired and would never work in the NBA again. As fast as his rise had been, Carter’s fall was even faster. And while some of the problems he created in his one full season as the Raptors’ head coach rightly spelled the end of his career, he wasn’t entirely wrong in his accusations. And he did get the most out of Vince Carter, perhaps more than any other coach would throughout the rest of the star’s career.

We’ve written about what could have happened with Butch Carter in charge of the Raptors before. What’s most striking to consider though, is what his off-court distractions actually were and what they actually meant. Suing the Knicks’ Marcus Camby right before the start of the playoffs was a huge mistake, suggesting as it did a fragile mind, one unsuited to surviving the rigours of the NBA’s powerful media spotlight. On top of that, Carter trying to make a move on Toronto’s GM position — again, held by Grunwald, his long-time friend — was a gross error, one seemingly designed to blow up in his face. Those two strikes alone were enough to blacklist Carter. (I’m much more lenient towards his idea of inviting Master P to training camp; that was just some goofy fun, in my opinion.)

But Butch’s other so-called issues make him seem prescient now, rather than just troubled. For one, Carter charged the NBA braintrust with operating a conspiracy to get Vince Carter out of Toronto. It was unbecoming for a head coach to say such things, but was Butch wrong in assuming that was the case? Not to go full truther here, but there’s little doubt the league and its media partners would have loved to see Carter in any number of uniforms instead of Toronto’s. (This is before Vince actually did wear many different uniforms and slide out of the spotlight all by himself.) Then there was the charge in Butch’s book, Born to Believe, that his college coach, the famous and deified Bobby Knight, had engaged in “racist behaviour”. In truth, this doesn’t sound like a stretch to me, given Knight’s actions throughout his career. But to the basketball world, it made Butch out to be a figure with an axe to grind — or just straight-up delusional.

In any case, taken altogether, it was always going to undo Butch’s career. Despite leading a terrible NBA team out of the wilderness, despite getting two budding superstars in Carter and Tracy McGrady to play together, despite instilling in Toronto a sense that the Raptors could actually be a team worth watching, Butch had to go. The damage was such, a complete 180 was required. In fact, the Raptors would go on to hire Lenny Wilkens for the 2000-01 season in direct response to Carter’s flameout. Here was a calming legend, a man who had seen it all and was ready to enact a new brand of leadership, a professional touch of stability the Raptors had lacked until then. Wilkens was the right man for the job until, lo and behold, the team started imploding again.

In that, we arrive at our what if. What if Butch had been there to challenge Vince when the going got tough? What if — stay with me here — Butch hadn’t alienated McGrady and T-Mac stayed with Toronto? What if the brand of leadership Butch did possess was used to bond the Raptors together, buttress their nascent underdog spirit, and get them over not just the Knicks, but the Sixers, and any other league challengers along the way? It’s a stretch, perhaps, but the following years — after Vince stepped out for his graduation and missed that shot in Game 7, after the team started faltering, after all of Vince’s “injuries” — suggest Butch may not have been the root of Toronto’s problems after all.

The “what if” game is, of course, impossible here. We can’t separate Butch’s actions from their eventual outcome, to say nothing of the other variables in play. He did the things he did and had to live with the results — as did we at the time. Now as the years pass, it becomes easier to forget who and what Butch was in Raptors’ history; he’s become something of a punchline, the answer to a trivia question. Still, the temptation remains to consider that alternate dimension. Toronto didn’t know what it had in those years — with Butch, with Vince, with the entire squad — and when it was gone: it was all the way gone.