A mural of Vince Carter in flight covers the side of a building near Toronto's SkyDome. His No.15 jersey is the reason the Raptors rank among the top 10 teams in NBA apparel sales. And in a place where hockey is dominant, he's why the NBA's TV ratings are up 25% in Canada. "With Vancouver leaving, Vince has the chance to own basketball in Canada," says teammate Antonio Davis. "And you know what? I wouldn't want to be him."
Judging from Carter's performance on and off the court in the Raptors' playoff series against the Knicks, maybe VC doesn't either. Agitated by the constant questions about his future (he's a restricted free agent after 2001-02) and his struggles against a Knicks D geared to stop him, a testy Carter insisted, "It's not about me, it's about the team," after a 5-for-22 performance in the Game 1 loss. The bulk of his 22 points in Game 2 came only after Alvin Williams' shooting forced New York to alter its plan, and he shot 5-of-21 in the Game 3 loss. "People want him to be a finished product already," says Dave Haggith, Carter's PR consultant. "But he's 24. He'll grow into the role."
The major question: whether that growth continues in Toronto. "It's not even something I talk about," Carter says. But everyone else does. And with Davis expected to bolt -- a free agent, he's hoping to sign with Orlando, where he's building a house -- the pressure on Carter to sign a long-term extension this summer will certainly increase. If he declines, the Raptors -- who lost Tracy McGrady last summer with no compensation -- will be forced to consider a trade. "He's important, and we're hopeful Vince will re-sign here," GM Glen Grunwald says. "But if he doesn't, it won't mean the end of the Raptors."
Perhaps. But it would turn down the heat for VC, who has been cast as both the savior of hoops north of the border and the reason for every Raptors failure. "You'd think it was a one-man sport, how much they focus on him here," Davis says. "If I'm his age, I'm scared to death."
This article appears in the May 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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