Note: This is a guest post from Samson Folk.
In 1997, the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, signed a letter of intent to play college basketball with the University of North Carolina. A year later, he was drafted by the Golden State Warriors fifth overall. Minutes after taking his picture with the commissioner in his newly minted Golden State hat, he was traded (with cash considerations) to the Toronto Raptors for his former UNC teammate, Antawn Jamison. Carter’s arrival in Canada runs congruent with the birth of a true basketball culture.
There are currently 12 Canadian players in the NBA, ranging from age 26 (Tristan Thompson), to age 20 (Jamal Murray). Most of Canada’s talent comes from Ontario, but the most consistent similarity between the players is their idolization of Vince Carter. To be fair, Canadian media is always ready to ask a player about Vince Carter, and the players often indulge, and say what everyone expects, that Vince Carter was their hero growing up. How could he not be though? His nickname is ‘Half Man – Half Amazing,’ and for good reason. He took the league, and Canada by storm. Every night was a dunk fest, a must-see event, and that is the easiest part of basketball to digest; the insane show of athleticism, something Vince Carter displayed in spades.
Basketball may have been invented by the Canadian, Dr. James Naismith, but for a long-time basketball was considered a tier-two sport. As a nation, Canada has never achieved significant status on basketball’s world stage. Hockey has always reigned supreme in Canada, the media companies are geared toward it, the people of Canada take pride in being the world’s best hockey nation, and enroll their kids accordingly. Diversity in Canada is growing, especially in places like Toronto (Canada’s basketball hotbed), and we’re seeing people from different cultures who have less, or no, romance with hockey. Why would you have your son or daughter play a game that you never played? Not to mention hockey ranks as one of the most expensive sports out there. You need a ridiculous amount of equipment to start playing hockey, and the prerequisite for basketball is a ball and a hoop. You’ve even got stories of players who didn’t even need a hoop – Damian Lillard famously practiced on a milk crate that was nailed to a telephone pole.
You look at the stars of the NBA today, and they’ve captured the attention of the youth. A garbage can sit’s opposite a table of children, they see a hoop, and they take turns yelling “Kobe!”, as they try to shoot their trash into the garbage. You’ll see it everywhere, but in Canada, before kids were throwing their garbage in the trash, they were spinning wildly in the air before dunking it in, paying homage to Vince Carter’s performance in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk contest.
In 1995, the NBA expanded, bringing professional basketball to Toronto (Raptors), and Vancouver (Grizzlies). The history of Canadian basketball players before 1995 is quite slim, and involves no superstars, or even all-stars. The greatest Canadian player at that point, may very well have been Rick Fox, a journeyman, and role player in the NBA. There’s nothing wrong with being a role player, it’s just the fact that they don’t usually generate a lot of fan-fare, or inspire a great deal of idolization. So, if the Canadian fans didn’t have a superstar to call their own, they needed a team to rally behind.
The first roadblock for the Raptors and Grizzlies: The expansion draft lets you choose from other team’s rosters, but you’re looking at end of bench options; not exactly ideal. Naturally the fans came out to see the teams, and almost immediately realized they were cheering for two of the NBA’s bottom dwellers. After the glitter wears off, of a new franchise, you’re left with the actual product, and for both teams, that was severely lacking. The Grizzlies, and Raptors both struggled immensely early on. In Vancouver, the best winning percentage they ever had was .280%. That was their best, and that’s abysmal. Without an exciting brand of basketball, or wins, the Vancouver franchise was ultimately sold and subsequently moved to Memphis.
Vancouver being sold is the perfect example of why Vince Carter was so pivotal in the growth of basketball in Canada, and the survival of the Raptors franchise. The Grizzlies never had a superstar, nothing to be excited about. The Raptors were one of the worst teams in the league (hence the high draft pick in 1998), and seemed to be heading down the same path as the Grizzlies. As luck would have it, the Raptors captured lightning in a bottle with Carter. All it took was one game, Carter’s debut against the Boston Celtics, where he threw down a vicious alley-oop from Charles Oakley. As soon as the transition opportunity came, Vince came streaking down the wing, anyone who was familiar with him knew what was about to happen, and anyone who wasn’t, learned immediately. With one leap, Vince gave Toronto a taste of what it was like to rally behind a transcendent talent.
The Raptors didn’t achieve success over night, and they didn’t have a winning season until Vince’s second year with the team, 1999-2000. Vince Carter competed in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star weekend, and put on what is still considered the greatest performance ever seen. Vince mesmerized the fans with his athleticism, and put Toronto basketball on the map. This was a fever dream for the fans, and the organization. Vince was gracing Sportscentre every night, the Raptors made the playoffs for the first time, and Toronto basketball had finally tasted success.
The next year (2000-2001) was the culmination of everything that had been building. He had his best year of his career with Toronto, his cult of personality had spread league wide, he had the adoration of fans everywhere. Vince got endorsed with a signature shoe by Nike (Vince Carter Shox), in the commercial he was helping old ladies, saving cats, and leaping everywhere like a superhero. The Raptors set a franchise high in wins (47), a total that wouldn’t be bested until 2013-14 by DeMar DeRozan and company. The Raptors won their first playoff series ever and took the Philadelphia 76ers, who would later make it to the NBA Finals, to a game 7 in which they lost by one point, on a missed Carter jump shot. Heartbreak aside, the culture was changing. The Raptors moved from 18th in the NBA in attendance in 1997-98 (16,468), to 6th in 2000-01 (19,347). More incredibly, on the back of Vince Carter, the Raptors moved from 21st in visiting attendance in 1997-98 (16,571) to 5th in 2000-01 (17,611). The Raptors had become one of the most exciting brands in basketball, and it wasn’t because they were a team in Toronto, it was because they drafted Vince Carter, and were reaping the benefits.
The seed was planted in Canada’s culture, basketball was here to stay. Vince had contributed so much to the game of basketball in Canada, but he was still a man competing in a competition driven sport. The day he missed the jump shot against the 76ers is also the day he graduated from the University of North Carolina, and a weird wrinkle to this story is that he was present at his graduation, at the University, the same day as that game 7 in Philadelphia. When Vince Carter left college for the NBA he made a promise to his mother that he would finish school and get his degree. As such, it was very important to him that he be present at the ceremony and have his mother watch him graduate. He made it on time for the game, but some people questioned his commitment to the team, and the game of basketball, because of his actions. This planted a seed with Toronto’s organization; Vince Carter wasn’t someone you build around.
In the following years, Vince was still a superstar, although he continuously did things to irk the fans and media in Toronto. He dealt with a lot of injuries, there was a narrative in Toronto that Vince was sitting out for longer than needed, and questions about his dedication arose. Vince infamously said he was done with dunking, and stopped dunking the basketball. The Raptors success on the court suffered immensely with Vince playing less, and it eventually led to a falling out – Vince Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets in what is still one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. Carter went on to join a Nets team fresh from the finals, teaming with Jason Kidd to try to show the world that he could be more than a highlight, he could be an integral piece on a team that was challenging for league supremacy. The part that rubbed everyone in Toronto the wrong way (among others) was that he started dunking as soon as he left.
Vince Carter was one of the most maligned figures in Raptors history, even after everything he had done. Every time he returned to Toronto to play, he was booed to no end. The crowd hated him, people defaced jerseys. They made signs cursing his name, and any time the Nets played someone, Raptors fans cheered for the team opposite the Nets. Vince Carter left a huge hole in the basketball heart of Toronto, one that took a long time to heal.
After he left, dark days came for Toronto basketball. They were one of the league’s worst teams for an eight-year stretch. However, something incredible happened in those eight years, and the 14 years since Vince’s departure: The Raptors have become one of the league’s most consistent attendance performers. The Raptors attendance has averaged out as a top-10 building in the years since Carter has been gone. The kids who grew up watching him, the ones who imitated him on the court and at school remained fans once he left. His impact remained. Since Carter put Toronto on the map in 2000, Toronto has become one of the world’s biggest basketball hubs. In 2016, Toronto was a top-25 city in the world at providing elite college talent. 27 players that hailed from Toronto were playing for NCAA programs, and Canada currently has the most NBA players from one country, save for the United States.
A wonderful thing about all the homegrown talent coming out of Canada is that it can only help build the basketball culture here. In 2015, the Raptors signed a Canadian guard, Cory Joseph. He was by no means an All-Star, but he received the type of attention an All-Star would. He was celebrated like an A-list celebrity upon his arrival, he received more endorsement deals than he could have dreamed of anywhere else. Toronto loved him, and he gave Canadian players a glimpse of what they could have if they returned home. Toronto’s market isn’t limited to just Canadians either. DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry have received endorsements from Canadian brands and have shown loyalty to the city of Toronto in turn. To repay the Raptors All-Stars, Canada has shown up in droves to vote both Lowry and DeRozan into the All-Star game.
In 2014-15 the Raptors celebrated their 20th year in the league. During the year, they wore throwback jerseys (the purple ones with the dinosaur on them), they honoured players who had success during their tenure in Toronto, often giving them tribute videos, and the crowd thanked them accordingly. They honoured Charles Oakley, Toronto’s resident tough guy during Vince Carter’s years there, they honoured Alvin Williams, and most importantly, they honoured Vince Carter. Carter came to town while playing with the Dallas Mavericks. When he was announced as a player, the crowd booed him, as they’d been taught to do. It was almost Pavlovian, you hear Vince Carter, you boo. When he touched the ball on offense, boos rang out again. There was a TV timeout and when the commercials ended, you saw an older Vince Carter, a version of himself that wasn’t a high flyer, but a valued teammate and mentor, you saw that version of Vince Carter, with tears in his eyes. The Raptors played their tribute video for Vince Carter, and for the first time in 10 years in the Air Canada Centre, he heard people cheer for him. The gaping hole Vince Carter left in Canadian basketball had finally healed.
Basketball has grown exponentially in Canada and is inextricably tied to the Toronto Raptors, and specifically to Vince Carter. It’s possible that the Raptors would have suffered the same fate as the Vancouver Grizzlies if it weren’t for Carter’s arrival, which injected the city of Toronto and the country of Canada with an undeniable basketball fever. Not only is Carter the reason the Raptors were able to stay afloat, but for a long time he was the reason that they were able to thrive, even in the dark days after he left. He impacted a generation of young Canadian basketball players, who have created the bedrock for Canadian basketball organizationally and culturally.
Some day, Carter won’t be the most important figurehead in Canadian basketball, because Canadian basketball has grown to where it will create its own moments and second-generation influences. For now, though, Carter is the father of Canadian basketball. Dr. James Naismith invented it, the NBA brought it here, and Vince Carter weaved it into our culture.
Note: This is a guest post from Samson Folk.