Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

On the Relationship between Raptor Fans and Vince Carter

We want to hear your thoughts on Vince Carter.

“What can I do? How can I make this better? How can I get the world to understand where my heart is?”

That’s Vince Carter at the beginning of a promo for Sportsnet’s “Vince Carter: The re-imagination of VC,” a special that will air on Sportsnet on Wednesday following the Raptors game against the Dallas Mavericks.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Vince Carter is returning to Toronto on Wednesday for the 13th time in regular season action. And as always, it’s a semi-big deal, bringing up a hot topic many don’t think about on the regular but feel passionately about when prompted.

When Carter walks on to the ACC floor tomorrow, it will be nine years, one month and five days since he was traded by Rob Babcock to the New Jersey Nets. Why is Sportsnet dragging it up nearly a decade later, especially since Carter’s still an active player for an opposing team? That’s a good question, and one with a pretty obvious answer.

Look, I have no doubt that the feature will be well-done – Michael Grange, whose project it is (and who wrote an accompanying piece in Sportsnet Magazine that’s not available on the web), is a talented writer and a smart guy, and I’d wager the work is excellent.

The decision to do it, however, is more questionable. Ratings, sure. Pushing magazines, definitely. But more importantly, the feature seems to be taking a “forgive Vince” angle (I think), one that could have tangible fiscal benefits for the organization (which, don’t forget, Rogers has a substantial financial stake in). Nostalgia sells (you think it was a coincidence Drake had a suit jacket lined with a throwback Carter jersey?) and as Carter nears the end of his career, the team is no doubt thinking of ways to monetize Carter’s legacy with the franchise.

It’s a risky proposition, though, because a lot of the fanbase still feels passionately about how Carter left. Perhaps a brief refresher is in order.

To say Vince Carter was the Raptors first star is probably fudging history a bit (Damon Stoudamire was pretty big when the franchise launched), but calling him the face of the franchise and saying he put the team on the map culturally isn’t. Carter was and, for many, still is the Raptors.

While he only spent six-and-a-half seasons with the team, consider his place in franchise history:

*He ranks second to Chris Bosh in points, blocks and win shares, third in minutes, steals and 3-pointers, fourth in assists, fifth in rebounds and sixth in games played. He and Bosh are the record book.

*He has the two highest-scoring games in team history, five of the top six and 12 of the top 14. He’s the most dominant player the team’s ever had and it’s not even close.

*He has five of the 11 All-Star appearances by Raptors (Bosh also has five and Antonio Davis has one).

*He led the team to three of the franchise’s five playoff appearances (though he only played in two), the franchise’s only playoff series victory and he was basically one rim-out from bringing the team to the conference finals.

*One fateful night in 2000 brought the Raptors to the forefront of basketball culture:

If you don’t believe Carter had an impact on the franchise’s overall profile, you’re lying to yourself.

“Vince Carter was my Michael Jordan.” – Tristan Thompson (in the Sportsnet promo)

That’s a sentiment that’s probably shared by a lot of basketball fans in Canada. Carter was a superstar and is the best player the team has ever had. That makes him an enormous part of the franchise’s iconography.

Then He Quit
Okay, so here’s where the drama comes in. Maybe fans would still boo Carter no matter how he left – they still boo Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh, after all, and they left as free agents – but he left in the worst way possible.

Now, the exact history on Carter’s trade demand and “quitting on the team” is something that gets disputed often. We know he asked for a trade at some point, but there have also been stories that Carter then backed off his demand, only for then-general manager Rob Babcock to dig in and trade him anyway. Regardless of the specifics, he asked out, and that’s something many fans won’t forgive.

“It’s time for the truth: I want to be traded, I’m ready to be traded. First and foremost, this has nothing to do with the fans or the city, it’s just time for me to look after me.” – Vince Carter, 2004.

That’s a tough quote for any fanbase to accept, and it wasn’t made easier when his quotes from a 2005 TNT interviewed were misconstrued as him saying he quit on the team (in reality, he said he could have pushed himself harder and that he largely relied on his talent, still not forgivable but not the same thing).

I’m sure if I had been blogging at that point, I would have jumped all over it, too, and been vehement in my take-down of Carter. Jilted lover, and all that. And that’s largely what the Toronto media did in the years that followed – that’s not a criticism, by the way – it’s a big story and a hot-button issue and “what really happened” has never really come to light.

As years have gone by, the media has softened on Carter, and we’ve occasionally seen neutral pieces with Carter reflecting on his time in Toronto and even some “Carter could finish his career in Toronto” takes.

On the other side, former MLSE CEO Richard Peddie’s book isn’t flattering for Carter’s legacy, as Peddie reportedly calls out Carter’s heart and calls him a mama’s boy (I say reportedly because I haven’t read it).

Some Confounding Factors
Things probably wouldn’t have been this emotional in a different timeline, if you know your remedial chaos theory. There were, however, circumstances around the trade demand and subsequent trade that made things worse.

For one, Rob Babcock was a terrible general manager. Even if Carter didn’t actually back off his trade demand and was holding a gun to Babcock’s head, Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, the right to pay Alonzo Mourning to play elsewhere and two non-lottery picks is a pretty soft return. If the return had been better (and the picks not used to select Joey Graham and then be rid of Jalen Rose’s contract) and the team more capable in the years following the trade, perhaps Carter is more easily forgiven.

There’s also the fact that the franchise has struggled to keep stars and there are feelings of inferiority that creep in as a Raptor fan. Vince was the third of four to leave and, while his exit wasn’t any more egregious than Stoudamire’s, his was the highest profile and the one that seems to have done the most reputational damage (“Canada isn’t a place an NBA star can be happy,” as I wrote in that ESPN piece).

And The Big One
To my knowledge, Vince Carter has never apologized to Toronto Raptor fans for leaving the way he did. Whether he deserves the whole of the blame for the situation or not – and yes, he covered his tracks at the time by saying it wasn’t about the fans, as if that helped – he needs to have the self-awareness to realize that no matter his reasons, what he did hurt the fans.

In the years since, Carter has seemed somewhat oblivious to this fact. I’m sure he’s not, in reality, but he often plays the “they don’t understand the whole story” and “I love Toronto and will never forget it” cards. The guy basically asked for his jersey to be retired, for crying out loud.

Having never publicly addressed the fans to apologize (how could he, really? He’s not going to grab the mic while visiting with another team), talking like all is forgiven and Toronto is an old home just waiting for him to return shows an astonishing lack of percipience.

But Get Used To It
When I asked people for their current feelings on Carter on twitter today, it was pretty split (see below). For those who remain angry with him and don’t want him associated with the franchise in any way, well, sorry about your damn luck.

Maybe Carter won’t be brought back as an actual piece on the team, maybe he will, as he’s hinted at in the past. He’ll be a 37-year-old unrestricted free agent this summer and he’ll probably be willing to take a pay cut from the $3.18 million he makes right now. He’s also still a really effective wing off the bench, a hole the size of Oliver Miller’s grocery bill on this current Raptors squad. That’s not really the point, though.

If he came back as a player, it surely wouldn’t take long for a large portion of fans to warm back up to him. MLSE is an incredible spin machine with plenty of avenues at their disposal, and the story pretty much writes itself (make your own bad “Prodigal Son…AND His Prodigal Mom” headlines). Nostalgia sells.

Even if that’s not the plan of action, MLSE and Rogers are clearly testing the waters of public opinion on Carter with this special. They’ll gauge the feedback and, if it’s negative, do it again sometime in the future. There’s money to be made with Vince Carter throwbacks, Vince Carter bobblehead night, a Vince Carter jersey retirement and so on. Eventually, he’s going to be welcomed back into the franchise, even if that day comes with resentment from groups of fans.

My Take
I realize that as a blogger (and generally, someone who complains a lot) that I should probably be angry about this. Not to break everything down into numbers, but here’s the one that matters for me: 3,322. It’s been 3,322 days since Carter was traded, and that’s a lot of time to let wounds heal and gain perspective.

Look, what Carter did was wrong. It violated the spirit of his contract and it violated the implicit relationship a player has with the fans of a team, especially when that player is the superstar. He didn’t care about the fans, and that’s a real issue and it makes me like him less.

At the same time, if theScore hired Rob Babcock to be my supervising editor right now, I’d probably be asking for a trade to B/R’s Team Stream app by the summer. He was wasting Carter’s prime and depending on the history you choose to believe, was unwilling to work to make Carter happy once the original demand came out. In addition to all of that, he’s the greatest player in franchise history and most relevant Raptor memories involve him. Some of those are bad memories, but most are exciting and positive.

Do I want the franchise to bring Carter back in after his playing days and shower him with love and kisses and honors and Drake songs? I don’t feel he deserves a particularly ceremonious homecoming, but he’s simply too important to just forget forever. As much as I hated him for a long time, he was literally the player who pulled me in to watching basketball, and those feelings have outlived the negative ones. The trade demand was a decade ago, and his place in the franchise’s history can’t just be ignored because he’s a narcissist. If anyone’s jersey belongs up top alongside Bon Jovi and the Atlantic Division Winner banner, it’s Jose Calderon Vince.

Vince Carter owes the Toronto Raptors fanbase a sincere apology at some point in the future. Once that’s out of the way, it’s hard to fault MLSE and Carter for cashing in on nostalgia and trying to put a more positive spin on a negative part of the franchise’s identity.

Here’s How You Feel
Obviously, this is a hot topic for a lot of people. I solicited some feedback on twitter earlier, embedded below (unless you dropped an F-bomb…sorry, Butter Chicken, PPP and Louvens, we’re an ESPN-affiliated site). We’d love to hear everyone’s take in the comments as well.