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Vince Carter is now for everyone — but he’ll always be a Raptor first

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The Raptors saw their popularity and success rise dramatically with Vince Carter — and fall apart just as painfully. Now in retirement, Toronto’s feelings about Vince’s legacy remain complicated.

Toronto Raptors Vince Carter glances over his shoulder durin Photo by Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

If you’re a Raptors fan of a certain vintage, it can be strange to see the universal praise heaped upon Vince Carter. That’s not to say he doesn’t deserve kudos. Vince did after all play in the NBA until the ripe old age of 43, a long 22 seasons after starting his career at age 21 in 1998 with Toronto. Along the way, he amassed eight All-Star appearances, a pair of All-NBA spots, and a Rookie of the Year award, while also piling up thousands of minutes, points, rebounds, assists, and all the other stats you’d expect a good player to accumulate over two plus decades in the league.

It’s telling, however, that despite his outsized impact on the basketball landscape — in Canada, in particular — Carter never quite became the best player on a Finals-bound team. In fact, he reached the Conference Finals just once in his career, as a starter for the 2009-10 Orlando Magic. Despite his early existence as a walking highlight, it’s possible you forgot Carter’s presence on that team, or his brief stop in Phoenix, or maybe even his year in Sacramento. This is to say nothing of all the ins and outs of his time in Toronto. It’s funny, after such a long run in the NBA it turns out it’s possible to disappear into time and emerge as something else on the other side. Or, to phrase it as crass sentiment, we can quote Noah Cross from the film Chinatown: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

This is the headspace in which many Raptors fans find themselves when considering Carter’s legacy. It was possible, circa 2001, to imagine him becoming the dominant force in not only Toronto, but across the NBA as well. Except it didn’t happen like that, not by a long shot. And now, after so many years have passed, with so many fanbases involved in the “ownership” of Carter, the memory of those amazing seasons in Toronto and the ugly divorce that followed has changed, eroded by the sands of time. In the process, Carter has become something of a novelty, a player who — whether intentional or not — decided to shun the spotlight, even as it found him again and again.

To be clear, Carter’s talent and ability were so incandescent in his first four seasons with the Raptors that it’s quite impossible to erase him from our collective memory. It’s pure folly to even try. If you were alive and watching Vince in those days, it was an unforgettable experience. Every highlight package of Carter’s still leads with those hits — the insane dunks, buzzer-beaters, and amazing plays, one after the other, he made while in Toronto on his way to becoming one of the most popular players in the league. It’s possible to recall, for example, a sequence of events from March 2000, when Carter almost single-handedly won a series of games for the Raptors and it became clear that not only were they going to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but also: we were watching one of the finest basketball players on the planet.

In Toronto, that feeling of amazement is still a complicated one, mixed as it is with a vague sense of betrayal. Of course, being a Raptors fan in 2020 is very different than how it felt in 2005, but it’s possible to still feel that same pang of anger or frustration or ineffable something whenever Carter is discussed. I myself have trouble even articulating it. The bare facts come at me like this: the Raptors were being mismanaged at the time, Carter wanted out, both sides were at odds, Vince decided to sulk his way out of town, Toronto basketball was set back years, and Carter always semi-dodged questions as to his culpability. What happened next for Carter — helping to eliminate the Raptors from the 2007 playoffs, bouncing around a few semi-contending teams over the next decade, becoming a league-wide legend for continuing to play into his 40s — only compounded that pain. Now in retirement, Carter’s legacy, both the good and the bad, is discussed as something separate from its origin, something separate from Toronto. Vince Carter is now for everyone.

To be clear, what I’m reflecting on here is not Carter’s fault or in any way his problem — especially now. He is merely a professional basketball player, a man who sought out the working conditions and terms that suited him best. We can grouse about how Carter engineered his exit from this city, but no one in Toronto should be getting mad at him for deciding to keep playing, or to spend his twilight years in, say, Atlanta. Carter was always allowed to do what he wanted in regards to his own career, which is as it should be. But even after a touching tribute video in 2014, during which a tearful Carter waved to the crowd and seemingly closed that chapter of Toronto basketball — hell, even after the Raptors won a dang NBA championship! — we’re still debating what Vince means to us here. It feels too important to let go.

Over the years, the question of Vince Carter’s place in local (and league) history has shifted. Now that he’s officially retired, we find ourselves discussing jersey retirement. Should Carter’s number 15 get to hang in the rafters of the Scotiabank Arena, the stadium he helped metaphorically build through his years of awesome play in Toronto? My gut says yes, eventually the franchise should honour him. My reasoning for this is simple, given how things have played out over the past two decades for Vince — and for Toronto.

When we reflect on Carter’s long 22-season career, and the eight teams he once played for, it’s clear his legacy has to be preserved somehow, somewhere. He was too outstanding a player, too noteworthy, too exciting, too everything to simply be a footnote in the basketball history books. In this, it only makes sense for Toronto to reclaim that legacy, to weave Vince into the basketball narrative in Canada he helped create and grow. Yes, Vince didn’t quite become the player we wanted in Toronto, and he belongs to many different fanbases now, along with a whole generation of basketball fans — but he’ll always be a Raptor first.

Toronto now has a chance to make that really count for something. If nothing else, Carter’s true legacy belongs to us. And it’s one meant to stand for all time.