Nine years ago, the Toronto Raptors bottomed out. On Dec. 17, 2004, they traded Vince Carter to the New Jersey Nets. Later that night, they lost to the Indiana Pacers, dropping to a record of 8-17.
It’d been a fascinating run for Toronto. They had made three straight postseasons and had come within a basket of making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001. With Carter, they had one of the most exciting players in the NBA.
Between his dunk display in 2000, the missed basket at the end of game seven in 2001, and an ugly exit from the team full of hostility and feigned injuries, there was a lot of history between the city of Toronto and Vince Carter. Soon, a spirited chorus of boos would fill the Air Canada Centre every time he touched the ball.
And now, nearly a decade later, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins with the first overall pick in the NBA draft in back-to-back years. And it’s not hard to imagine the role Carter had in this.
Back about 26 years ago, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, a deal that pushed the also-ran Kings into relevance; within a few years, they were playing in a Stanley Cup Final. But his impact went far beyond his team: by decade’s end, he was credited with expanding the sports fan base and getting young people to play hockey.
Even now, over a decade after Gretzky retired, his impact in California is still being felt. Read this Elliot Teaford story about the Junior Kings, an AAA team that plays all over the continent, and what he calls the Gretzky Generation: a wave of people who got into hockey because of Gretzky and, in turn, are getting their kids into the sport.
When Vince Carter blossomed into a superstar Toronto, he did something similar in exploding the sport. Before him, the NBA was a niche sport in the city. The Raptors didn’t have a dedicated home, splitting time between the aging Maple Leaf Gardens and the cavernous, built-for-baseball SkyDome. Their local coverage was spotty: big games, like the one against Michael Jordan’s Bulls, were on CTV. The others? Stuck on the cable hinterlands, if even on TV at all.
By Carter’s prime, Raptor games weren’t just being broadcasted across Canada: they were even NBC’s games of the week.
Sure, it wasn’t just Carter: Tracy McGrady was there for a spell, as were Antonio Davis and Muggsy Bogues, Junk Yard Dog and Damon Stoudamire. Inevitably, the attention would focus on the man broadcasters called Air Canada. Carter was a superstar, a dunker extraordinaire, and a name nearly everyone knew. His exit stung because he mattered more than Bosh, McGrady, and Stoudamire ever did. His influence in fusing pro basketball deep into the culture of the GTA transcends his six seasons as a Raptor.
This year’s draft was of the most anticipated in recent memory: Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid were all expected to go high and did. But for the second straight year, the first-overall pick was a Canadian.
Born in February 1995, about six months before the Raptors played their first game, Wiggins hails from Thornhill, a suburb just outside Toronto. Last summer, he openly stated a desire to play in Toronto and was even spied wearing a Raptors hat. He’s arguably the most talented player to come out of the GTA, and absolutely the most famous, too.
There’s a crop of young Canadians from the Greater Toronto Area in the NBA right now: Cleveland has a Canadian trio in Wiggins (Thornhill), Anthony Bennett (Toronto) and Tristan Thompson (Toronto). There’s also San Antonio reserve guard Cory Joseph (Toronto), Orlando forward Andrew Nicholson (Mississauga), Boston center Kelly Olynyk (Toronto), and this year, Tyler Ennis (Brampton) and Nik Stauskas (Mississauga) were both taken in the first round. Reigning Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim (Toronto) has also landed a spot on the San Antonio Spurs summer league team.
This is a marked difference from years past, when the two big Canadians in the NBA were Jamaal Magloire and Steve Nash. Both, for all their success in the league, never captured Toronto’s attention the way Wiggins already has.
Granted, Nash is the biggest name in Canadian basketball history. A two-time MVP winner, one of the top guards of his generation and someone who played a wildly entertaining style of basketball to boot. But Nash was born in South Africa and spent his formative years out in British Columbia and the Pacific Time Zone, three time zones away from Toronto.
On the other hand, Magloire’s from Toronto. But unlike Nash, he wasn’t enough of a star (despite being an All-Star in 2003-04) to capture Canada’s attention. Indeed, he was just an average player and only made headlines in Toronto when he became the first Canadian to play for the Raptors.
It’s telling that Kelly Olynyk, born in Toronto but moved to Kamloops, BC just before high school, became a fan of he Carter-era Raptors. In a Boston Herald story, Olynyk spoke of growing up a fan, rattling off the team’s roster from memory. “The thing was that I liked them all… I didn’t have one favorite player,“ he said to the Herald. Maybe so, but the roster he lists off is the Carter-era Raptors squad.
The sheer amount of basketball talent that’s come out of Toronto all has one thing in common: their age. They would’ve been eight, nine or ten years old when Carter ruled Toronto: right about the age when kids start forming opinions of their about sports. Without Carter, would players like Olynyk, Wiggins or Thompson have stuck with basketball? Would Canada Basketball have partnered with Bell, Nike or the NBA?
For just a moment forget the dunks, the missed shots and the ugly exit. It’s only now, nearly a decade later, that we’re seeing Vince Carter’s legacy in Canada’s cultural capital.