On Wednesday night, the man who put the Toronto Raptors on the map returns to the Air Canada Centre for what could be the final time.
Vincent Lamar Carter is no longer the lean, athletic dynamo who dazzled Raptors fans with eye-popping dunks that posterized even the league's best defenders. Carter is also no longer the petulant man-child who fans feel gave up on his team and his city and forced a move away from the franchise that he legitimized.
At almost 37, Vince Carter is an NBA veteran, perhaps not grizzled, but a far cry from the two sides of the one man that Toronto Raptors fans remember with both fondness and disdain. In Toronto's case, the latter greatly outweighs the former.
Carter first returned to Toronto after his acrimonious exit as a member of the then-New Jersey Nets in April, 2005. To say that the reception he received was unwelcome would be kind. Few things stir up anger in sports fans like being jilted by a player they once idolized. The torrent of abuse directed Carter's way didn't seem to faze him as he ended up dropping 39 on his former mates in a Nets win.
When Carter's Dallas Mavericks take on the Raptors on Wednesday night, Carter is likely to once again be met by vociferous boos as he always has been since the first time he came back to the ACC as a member of the enemy, but, of course, with each subsequent visit, the jeers have gotten quieter. The anger that once consumed Raptors fans just isn't there anymore for the most part. When Vince Carter is booed again tonight, it will be more out of habit than anything else. Much like the case with his cousin, the now-retired Tracy McGrady, the booing is just what you do.
All of this, then, begs the question: Should time heal all wounds?
In what might be the last time Toronto Raptors fans see Vince Carter at the Air Canada Centre, is it time for Raptors fans to let the good outweigh the bad and welcome the prodigal son back into the fold?
Let's not kid ourselves. The break-up was bad and Carter had more than a big hand in it.
On the morning of the biggest game in franchise history - Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals with the Philadelphia 76ers - Carter decided to fly to Raleigh to collect his degree from the University of North Carolina. It's anybody's guess as to why he chose to go then and not in the summer, but unrelatedly or not, Carter missed the game-winning shot that evening with only two seconds left on the clock.
And then there was the meddling with the front office.
Obviously, most franchises try to jibe with their best players' wishes, but many felt Carter overstepped his bounds. The impetus to bring in a broken-down Hakeem Olajuwon and offer him a pricey extension appeared to come from Carter. It was a spectacular failure. Carter was constantly in management's ear and attempting to mold the club in ways that he wanted. Outside of a brief stint in the Orlando Magic front office as vice-president, Julius Erving had no managerial experience, yet this was the man who Carter championed to almost the point of insistence for the Raptors general manager job in 2004. When the team went with Rob Babcock, Carter took this as an affront.
When the situation became untenable that season, Babcock's hands were tied to the point that all he could fetch from the Nets in exchange for Carter were bench pieces Eric Williams and Aaron Williams, a past-his-prime Alonzo Mourning - who never played a game for the team and was almost immediately released, but not before receiving a $9 million buyout package – and a pair of first-round draft picks.
The cruelest blow, though, came the month after he was traded when he sat down with legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson, then working as an analyst for TNT, and told him that he had begun to coast in his last years in Toronto.
"I was just fortunate enough to have the talent," Carter said. "You know, you get spoiled when you're able to do a lot of things and you see that, and you really don't have to work at it. But now, I think with all the injuries and the things that have gone on, I have to work a little harder and I'm a little hungrier. That's why getting the opportunity to have a fresh start with New Jersey has made me want to attack the basket for a lot of reasons."
To hear your franchise player admit to dogging it is beyond the pale and probably reason enough alone for the idea of some sort of reconciliation to be out of the question.
Recently, though, Carter has claimed that he never wanted to leave the Raptors and told as much to Babcock, but was informed that a deal had already been agreed upon with the Nets. Former Raptors coach Sam Mitchell corroborated Carter's account, but considering this information became public almost 10 years after the fact, it came across as little more than damage control for what is seemingly an irreparable image in this city.
Still, as the spectre of Carter's exit still casts a shadow over what he did as a Raptor, is it time that the two aren't mutually exclusive?
It was Carter who led the team to its first ever playoff spot. It was Carter who led the team to its first ever series win. It was Carter who got the Raptors onto national American television broadcasts and into the larger basketball consciousness as something other than just that team that plays in Canada. To say nothing of the fact that Carter remains the franchise leader in points per game and second in total points.
Is it time Raptors fans let Carter's legacy outshine the acrimony of his exit?
Or is the exit his legacy with the Toronto Raptors?
As always, it's Your! Call.