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25 SEASONS OF RAPTORS: The rise and fall of Vince Carter

Toronto Raprtors' Vince Carter scores on 360° after a steal from Sacramento Kings' Vlade Divac (background), during the 2001 season. Toronto Sun/files
Toronto Raprtors' Vince Carter scores on 360° after a steal from Sacramento Kings' Vlade Divac (background), during the 2001 season. Toronto Sun/files

With the 25th season of Toronto Raptors basketball on hold indefinitely, Postmedia is turning back the clock to examine the preceding 24 years, which culminated with a championship many thought the franchise would never deliver for its loyal fans.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll look back on the key figures, games and transactions that shaped Canada’s lone remaining professional hoops organization (sorry, Vancouver Grizzlies fans). From Mighty Mouse and Zeke, to T-Mac and Vinsanity, to the blunders, the short-lived Colangelo/Bosh rebirth, the dark days, the Lowry and DeRozan-led rise to playoff team and near contenders and, finally, the trade that changed everything and paved the way for one hell of a parade.

Up first, the man who remains the player most commonly associated with the Raptors, even though he hasn’t played for them in more than 15 years, Vince Carter.

THE CARTER ERA

The Toronto Raptors were widely regarded as a joke when general manager Glen Grunwald engineered a clever deal in June of 1998 to ensure Vince Carter would head to Canada.

Toronto was coming off a season in which it failed to win even 20% of its games (still the franchise’s low point), had recently lost its first star, Damon Stoudamire, its original owner John Bitove and its leader and president, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

Attendance and interest had started to wane even though this was still a new expansion outfit. A boost was desperately needed — and Florida native Vincent Lamar Carter was more than up to the task, arriving like a bolt of lightning to ignite the Raptors and their fans.

By the time Carter made his debut, the NBA had lost more than three months to a lockout and Michael Jordan had vanished for a second time, with Chicago’s dynasty in the rearview. It wasn’t just Toronto that needed a supernova, it was the league as a whole.

With jaw-dropping athleticism that hearkened back to Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving, plus a smooth and still-improving jump shot, Carter was almost a must-see from the start. You never knew what high-flying exploits he would deliver during his rookie-of-the-year campaign. With distant cousin Tracy McGrady developing alongside him, Toronto suddenly became one of the most interesting teams and draws in the NBA.

Though the Raptors missed the playoffs again in 1998-99, they served notice they were an emerging force, with Carter leading the way.

By Year 2, Carter had refined his jumper and emerged as a superstar, averaging 25.7 points. He also put the Raptors on the map with an historic slam-dunk contest performance in Oakland. For three years in a row, Carter was the top all-star vote-getter.

The Raptors won 45 games and earned a date with the New York Knicks in the post-season. Though Carter struggled mightily in that series, he had delivered on his promise to get the team to the playoffs and built on it by being arguably the top performer on USA’s gold medal-winning team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

As this corner once wrote, Toronto suddenly had the most popular player in the world. In those early halcyon days, Carter seemingly could do no wrong and, for the first time, Raptors games were must-see events.

Even without McGrady, Carter again came back better and went on to average 27.6 points, which remains a Raptors single-season record as the team won 47 games.

Carter was just OK against New York, in a series rematch that the Raptors this time would win, but he was brilliant against Philadelphia in a thrilling dual with Allen Iverson. There was a 50-point game, but also his worst moment as a Raptor and the play that would define the team for years to come: While the rim would be friendly to Kawhi Leonard many years later, Carter clanked a potential series-winner in Game 7 off of it and neither he, nor his Raptors, were ever the same.

After missing only seven games over his first three seasons, a suddenly mortal Carter would be sidelined for 68 over the next three years as injuries mounted.

FUTURE IMPACT

By 2003, Carter had gone from “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” to “Half-Man-Half-A-Season,” and divides formed between Carter and the Raptors organization. Eventually, the ill-fated decision was made to deal away Carter to the New Jersey Nets for almost nothing in return.

The franchise was set back for years.

Though the drafting of Chris Bosh and acquisitions of T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker and Jose Calderon helped to briefly stave off mediocrity, it was ages before Toronto was once again a threat. Carter even humiliated them a few times as a player, including in the playoffs when the Raptors had been favoured over the Nets. He was as reviled as any athlete has been in Toronto for a decade, before things finally thawed, though some fans hate him to this day.

Carter is a good friend of current star Kyle Lowry and has talked up the Raptors, speaking well of his time in Toronto in recent years.

He’s played for eight teams and has stuck around longer than anyone ever imagined, but will always be remembered as an integral piece of Raptors history.

THE CARTER FILE

*Acquired on draft night by Toronto following a pre-arranged deal with Golden State.
*Averaged 23.4 points per game in parts of seven seasons with Toronto.
*Toronto’s first three seasons above .500 come with Carter, along with first playoff appearances.
*Won 2000 slam-dunk contest with arguably the greatest performance in contest history.
*Traded to New Jersey in December 2004.
*Raptors all-time leader in points per game, player efficiency rating, box plus/minus, usage rate.
*First NBAer to play in 22 seasons.
*19th in career points and one of only 22 to score 25,000 or more.

CARTER’S BIGGEST MOMENTS

Feb. 9, 1999: 22 points on 69% shooting and two blocks as the home fans get their first taste of Carter’s aerial exploits following NBA lockout.

Feb. 21, 1999: Scores first two points — and 27 in all — in first game at Air Canada Centre, a win over Vancouver.

May 5, 1999: Just 14 points in a season-ending win over Cleveland, but tells the fans afterward Toronto will make playoffs for the first time the following year.

Jan. 14, 2000: Scores 47 points in a win over Milwaukee and rival Ray Allen. He’d score 48 against them in another win 10 months later.

Feb. 27, 2000: Scores a franchise-record 51 points against Phoenix in a game broadcast across North America and parts of the world.

March 19, 2000: Throws down a two-handed dunk over future Raptor Hakeem Olajuwon for game-winning bucket against Houston, scores 37 in all.

April 10, 2000: Records his lone triple-double as a Raptor — 31 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists — in a win over Cleveland that helped assure a post-season berth.

April 26, 2000: With Toronto down a game in a best-of-five against New York, scores 27 points in a tough one-point loss at Gotham.

May 2000: Scores 32 and then 27 points to eliminate the Knicks, then 35 in a win to open Round 2 against Philadelphia. The Raptors wouldn’t win another series until 2016 and didn’t win another series opener until 2018. Carter scored a franchise playoff record 50 points in a Game 3 win, 39 to stave off elimination in Game 6, but shot just 6-for-18 in Game 7, including his iconic miss at the buzzer.

Nov. 10, 2001: Hits eight three-pointers and scores 43 points in a win at Utah.

March 19, 2002: Gets hurt in a blowout loss against Minnesota, misses final 14 games of season plus the playoffs.

Oct. 29, 2003: After missing most of previous season, opens 2003-04 with a 39-point throwback against the Nets.

2007 playoffs: Returns to torture the Raptors as a member of the New Jersey Nets, averaging a series-best 25 points, while shooting 47% on three-pointers while being relentlessly booed every time he touched the ball. Earlier that year, he had hit a ridiculous long bomb to sink the Raptors in front of his formerly adoring fans.
Nov. 19, 2014: Just shy of 10 years following his trade, Carter is finally warmly welcomed back to Toronto. The cheers following a video tribute move Carter to tears. He was still booed when he touched the ball, but finally, it felt different.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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