Saturday, December 18, 2004
V.C. deserves a standing O
By Adam Proteau Special to ESPN.com
I'm glad Vince Carter's stay in Toronto is over, but not for the reasons most of my fellow Canadians are. Most of us, having lumped the former Air Canada into the same Hall of Shame as Ricky Williams and Ashlee Simpson, are smiling like lottery winners now that Vinsanity has vamoosed.
I'm happy, too, but not because Vince has taken his gimpy knees and his irritating iPod and his shoulder-shrug interview style to New Jersey. No, I'm happy that this guy, a solid citizen by almost everyone's estimation, no longer has to face the braying and smiting he's dealt with during the last six months. For all he's done for the Raptors, for all he's done for basketball in Canada -- and yes, for all he's done for the NBA -- Carter deserved a whole lot better.
When leaping tall buildings in his Superman cape, Carter was a national hero in two countries.
At this point, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking my brain wattage has obviously lost a little something from the Canada-U.S. exchange rate. So let me be extra clear on this: I'm not saying Vince's training habits would make L.L. Cool J. faint with envy. I'm not saying his recuperative abilities would impress the Black Knight from "Monty Python and The Holy Grail." I'm certainly not saying the man's leadership skills are Jordanesque in nature.
But I am saying there's something wrong when a player is pilloried for possessing many of the same character traits we'd like our own kids to have.
I got to know Vince a little during the three years I covered the Raptors for a couple of Toronto radio stations. That period, which extended from Vince's sophomore year through to the infamous GraduGate flight into Philadelphia for the team's last-shot loss to Allen Iverson & Co., amounted to a golden era for basketball in Toronto.
During that time, the "Canada-as-igloo-laden-basketball-hinterland" stories no longer leaked from the typewriters of otherwise-accurate, U.S.-based NBA writers. In that time, Isiah Thomas finally stopped babbling on NBC's halftime shows about his footprint on the franchise -- which, after he left, could be located around the dinosaur's throat area. There was a sea change in the way the team and the city were perceived, and it wasn't because Mark Jackson or Mamadou N'diaye had set up shop north of the border.
Things changed because Carter almost single-handedly made them change. His dunks damn near tore the lid off the league, and got Canadians hooked on a game they'd have once passed over to watch curling. His ever-present smile and easygoing nature put the lie to the notion that elite NBAers could only be discovered by scraping the underbelly of the ghetto.
That he could cope with the cold exposed the rest of the league's so-called role models (I'm looking at you, Tracy McGrady) as a bunch of fairweather pantywaists willing to put shorts and sandals ahead of championships. Charity games, children's basketball clinics, investments in local businesses -- pick a part of Toronto, and it was likely Carter wanted to be a part of it.
And when things started to look really good for the Raptors, when they re-signed Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams to long-term deals, it was all because Carter wanted to be here. He was the straw and we were the drink.
Somewhere along the line, all of that stopped mattering. For the life of me, I can't figure out when, although I suspect seeds met soil when Carter embroiled himself in the aforementioned GraduGate: in other words, when he decided he wanted to attend graduation ceremonies at the University of North Carolina before heading off to play the Sixers in the deciding game of Toronto's second-round series in 2001. Carter had made it a point to finish college even after he'd bought his first Bentley; it was an admirable attempt to show the youngsters that an education really was worth their while.
Judging by the outcry, you would've thought Carter had sliced through his own ankle tendons in the hope of committing career suicide. The critics came at him frothy-faced and swollen with venom, all because this whippersnapper with the hype at his back had the audacity to finish school. The nerve! Sure, the NBA had been dining out on its "Stay in School" PR campaign for eons, but for someone to actually follow through on it -- well, it apparently was too much for such a self-important industry to swallow.
To his credit, Vince swallowed a whole lot more than that during his Toronto days. He watched his coach morph from hyper-controlling drill sergeant (Butch Carter) to absentee landlord (Lenny Wilkens) to wild child grudge-holder (Kevin O'Neill) to take-no-guff master of sarcasm (Sam Mitchell).
He watched them draft memorable disasters such as Aleksandar Radojevic, Ramon Van de Here, Michael Bradley and DeeAndre Huelett.
He watched them let Tracy McGrady walk off to Orlando in exchange for bupkis. He watched them get fleeced on the free agent market by an aging center whose name rhymes with Wakeem Ho-pa-lu-wan. He watched them overpay like a Madison Square Garden executive to re-sign the Raptors' own free agents.
But Carter never complained -- at least, not publicly. He'd always hoped there was a plan in place, that the braintrust at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would eventually summon up a combination of steering and skill. He was even willing to be part of the perpetual rebuild as late as last summer, until the franchise took things one step too far.
That happened when Raptors president Richard Peddie promised Carter he'd have significant input into the GM position vacated when Glen Grunwald had the proverbial can tied to him last spring. Carter favored NBA legend Julius Irving for the position, but Peddie and the rest of the Raptors Star Chamber involved with picking a new GM barely glossed over Dr. J.'s application before deciding on Rob Babcock.
I don't have a problem with Babcock, nor Mitchell for that matter, and I doubt Carter does either. But when a franchise make a promise to its franchise player, only to follow through on it halfassedly, you practically invite the modern NBA player -- with all the insecurities that inexplicably come along with a max-level deal -- to reevaluate how much he believes the franchise values him.
In 2001, Carter and the Raptors electrified the Air Canada Centre with a serious playoff run.
But all of his problems didn't mean Carter couldn't keep giving back to a community he so clearly cares for. Since the trade demand was made, he has visited the Sick Children's Hospital, and donated a $150,000 recreation complex to one of Toronto's disadvantaged districts. I don't imagine he'll stop being part of the city, on one level or another, for the rest of his life. Carter was the first star to truly embrace the place, and he's said his feelings won't change just because he doesn't have faith in the current ownership group. And I think he'd be the first to admit he'd rather have had things work out here than anywhere else.
That didn't happen, and we're poorer in Toronto for it now that he's gone. Unfortunately, when Carter comes back wearing a Nets uniform, he'll undoubtedly follow in the great tradition of former Raptor stars: booed every time he touches a ball on Air Canada Centre ground, booed in the pregame introductions, booed on the talk radio shows, booed in print and in cyberspace.
For most other players, such treatment has been well-deserved:Damon Stoudamire should forever hear it for bolting in the same heartbeat it took to hear buddy Isiah had split, even after Toronto crowds embraced him in a major way; and Tracy McGrady is equally deserving of a lifetime of raspberries for encouraging local kids to waste their energy drawing up "Stay In Toronto, T-Mac!"-type placards in the hopes of enticing the soon-to-be free agent to re-sign, when he knew all along there wasn't a hope it would happen. The grudges those knuckleheads have earned are worth clinging to.
But Vince? He deserves nothing less than a standing ovation the next time he's in town, whether in street clothes this Sunday, in uniform on April 15, or later on down the road. He embraced us for embracing him. He gave back to the community, whether the cameras were there or not. And he gave Toronto some of the greatest basketball memories it will ever have.
Adam Proteau is a writer for the The Hockey News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.