TORONTO—Nearly 10 years after Vince Carter departed Toronto, leaving enraged Raptors fans in his wake, they finally stood and applauded the superstar who helped put basketball on the map in Canada.
The Raptors honoured Carter with a video tribute as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations Wednesday, as his Memphis Grizzlies played in Toronto.
The 38-year-old was visibly moved, wiping away tears with his powder blue T-shirt. He touched a hand to his heart and repeatedly gave thumbs-up to the crowd.
Earlier in the day, the former Raptors superstar leaned against the scoring table after the morning shootaround, and talked about his fond memories of his seven years with the Raptors.
Each time he plays in Toronto, he makes a point of looking at the banner that commemorates the first Raptors game at the ACC.
“It’s still special coming here, it’s still fun. It’s weird, they move this flag every time, I struggle finding it,” he said, with a glance up to the arena’s rafters. “But when I walk in here seeing ‘February 20th, 1999.’ That’s the first thing I think of—when this building opened.
“I just remember getting the opportunity to make history. Making the first shot. You can’t take that away.”
Charles Oakley found Carter who finished with—no surprise—a dunk on that first shot.
Carter said during shootaround, he was cool with the tribute, which he found out about during a radio interview. His mother Michelle Carter was present for the video honouring her son, sitting in the stands of the ACC.
“It’s something that’s memorable to me, to see the video right here, in the building where it all happened. You can’t beat that. It’s one thing to sit at home watching with your friends or watch it on a computer, but right here? It’s special.”
Carter has been the object of fans’ fury in virtually every return trip to Toronto, but there’s been a shift in perception recently. Young Canadian stars such as Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas, Anthony Bennett and Kelly Olynyk grew up during “Vinsanity,” and have credited the former Raptors star with sparking their interest in the game.
Stauskas often talks about when, as a young boy attending a Raptors open practice, he was picked out of the crowd to play one-on-one with Carter. When Stauskas—now a rookie with the Sacramento Kings—drilled a three, Carter tackled the youngster to the court and gave him a noogie.
“He’s done a lot not just for us as a team, but just for this country,” former Raptors teammate Alvin Williams told reporters earlier this season. “You see the Canadian players now that are in the NBA (there are 13), and they’re all a testament to him. That shows what he does, not only for the Raptors, but what he did for this whole country.”
Carter couldn’t have predicted the warm reception he would receive. He said he planned to enjoy the video, no matter what.
“It’s just a special moment that you probably won’t get it again. I’m going to enjoy it,” Carter said.
Carter comes off the bench with Memphis, and was averaging 5.8 points a night heading into Wednesday. But Grizzlies coach David Joerger said he’s thrilled to have the veteran, who signed with a three-year $12.2 million deal with Memphis in the off-season.
“We get along great, he’s a professional, he’s mature, he’s always doing whatever he can to help the team win,” Joerger said. “If he plays three minutes, he’s helping guys on the bench, he’s helping guys in the locker-room. He’s been through it all, he’s seen it all, and that was a great pickup for us, we’re lucky to have him.”
Carter is coming off ankle surgery in the off-season.
“He still looks a little gimpy sometimes but over the last couple of games he’s looked a lot better physically. Whether the ball goes in for him or not, I know, and we all know, what he can do,” Joerger said. “So once he’s looking better physically, everybody is like ‘Oooh, at some point this is going to be a big deal.’”
Carter said it wasn’t easy leaving the Mavericks, where he played for three seasons. But he joined a Memphis team that boasted the best record (10-1) in the NBA heading into Wednesday’s game against the East-leading Raptors.
“The good thing about it, coming to a team like this, they’re an established team already, a very capable team, and it’s just a great opportunity to me. They gave me a call one day, and said ‘Hey, love to have you. . . for three years. Can’t turn that down.”
When asked if Memphis provides a chance to win an NBA championship as his career winds down, he said it’s too early to tell.
“I don’t want to do that to the team. It’s no pressure,” he said. “Nobody has talked about it prior to this run, and we still don’t. Just go out there and play basketball and in due time, we’d like for everybody to say, ‘We forgot about the Grizzlies over there,’ and by that time, hopefully we’re still holding onto first place.
“I think we’re playing great basketball, everybody is playing for each other. . . I think we have a lot of experience in winning ugly games and in games where we haven’t played well offensively but found a way.”