SC Express: Vince Carter's best dunks
The name “Raptors” is kinda dumb.
It’s a product of its time, though.
They could have been the Beavers or the Scorpions or the Towers, but a fan vote – highly influenced by the insane popularity of Jurassic Park – selected a dinosaur name for the new National Basketball Association franchise that would join the league alongside their countrymen in Vancouver.
So the Toronto Raptors came into existence in the fall of 1995. They didn’t truly arrive, though, until a few years later with the emergence of a swingman from Daytona Beach, Florida out of the University of North Carolina.
The first few seasons of Raptors basketball were exactly what you’d expect from an expansion team – a roster of castoffs losing a lot more than they win with the occasional highlight thrown in for the new fan base.
Those first few seasons saw the team dress the likes of Alvin Robertson, instrumental in the team’s opening night victory against the New Jersey Nets, a former Olympic gold medalist and All-Star whose career went off the rails thanks to a litany of legal issues.
There was Vincenzo Esposito, the team’s first ever player, a free agent from Italy. He averaged 3.9 points in the 39 NBA games he actually played in.
When hear the nickname “The Big O,” you immediately think of the legendary Oscar Robertson. You probably don’t recall former Raptor Oliver Miller, whose battle with weight problems led him to ask the team’s media guide to list him at 270 pounds when anybody could plainly see that to be grossly inaccurate.
There were good moments over the course of the Raptors’ first seasons.
On March 24, 1996, the team stunned the eventual NBA Title-winning Chicago Bulls, 109-108. As it turned out, Michael Jordan’s buzzer-beater didn’t actually beat the buzzer. It would be one of only 10 losses the Bulls incurred that season.
There was Damon Stoudamire. The club’s first ever draft pick (eighth overall) out of Arizona, the man nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” averaged 19 points, 9.3 assists and shot nearly .400 from the arc on the way to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Foreshadowing what would happen a few years later with the team’s next franchise player, Stoudamire would force a trade out of Toronto midway through the 1997-1998 season to his hometown Portland Trail Blazers.
But there was more bad than good in the nascent days of the Raptors. In the team’s first three seasons of existence, the Raptors combined for a total of 67 victories. These were the expansion team blues.
Things were about to change for the team’s fortunes, starting at the 1998 NBA Draft.
The Raptors and Golden State Warriors swung a trade involving best friends from the North Carolina Tar Heels. With the fourth selection in the draft, the Raptors took forward Antawn Jamison out of Dean Hill’s legendary program. The club immediately flipped Jamison for swingman Vincent Lamar Carter – Raptors broadcaster Chuck Swirsky got into the habit of calling Carter by his full name when he would do something particularly eye-popping.
Because of his athleticism and where he went to school, comparisons began to be made between Carter and another Chapel Hill alumnus in Michael Jordan. Carter’s array of high-flying moves to the rim quickly made him a fan favourite in Toronto. Carter would become the team’s second Rookie of the Year, winning the award in the lockout-shortened season with 18.3 points a night, beating out Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics and Mike Bibby of the Vancouver Grizzlies.
While his rookie season gave a taste of what he could do, it would be the following season’s Slam Dunk Contest at the 2000 All-Star Weekend in Oakland where Carter announced his presence to the basketball world.
Competing against Jerry Stackhouse of the Detroit Pistons, the Charlotte Hornets’ Ricky Davis, Steve Francis of the Houston Rockets, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Larry Hughes and Carter’s cousin and teammate, Raptors rookie Tracy McGrady, Carter put on one of the most entertaining spectacles in Slam Dunk Contest history.
Carter began with a reverse 360-tomahawk dunk that caused Shaquille O’Neal’s eyes to pop out of his head in amazement at courtside. Dikembe Mutombo held his hand in the air like he was testifying at church. Kevin Garnett did a double take at the Jumbotron, not believing what he had just seen.
“Let’s go home!” TNT’s Kenny Smith shouted, indicating the contest was already over in his mind.
But Carter wasn’t done yet.
On his third dunk, Carter received a bounce pass from McGrady, put it between his legs and came down with a thunderous slam. As the crowd erupted, Carter gestured to the camera that now it was over.
To finish off his title, Carter took off from the foul line and threw down a vicious one-handed slam and then hung from the rim with the entirety of his forearm in the net. He nearly dunked his entire damn arm.
Vince Carter had arrived. The Raptors had arrived.
“It was kind of like Vince’s coming out party,” Julius “Dr. J.” Erving told TSN.ca of the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest.
Buoyed by Carter’s performance at the midseason showcase, the Raptors would go on to their first ever winning season (45-37) – their first in the brand new Air Canada Centre - and clinch their first ever playoff spot. Ultimately, they would bow out to the New York Knicks in a three-game sweep, but the club was now a known commodity with Carter leading the way.
And people in Toronto and across the country began to take notice.
“Whenever anybody asks me why I play basketball, I say it’s because of Vince Carter,” said South Carolina senior and Toronto native, Duane Notice. “It’s because of the Raptors and the fact that Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and those guys made basketball common in our country. It wasn’t really known to be a popular sport at the time, but the Raptors are now as old as I am. They were established in ’95 and I was born in ’94, so I was born into basketball, you could say. I know it sounds kind of cliché, but at the same time, it was a motivating factor for all of us Canadians, especially growing up and not having ESPN. All you could watch was the Raptors and watch all of the different talent – Michael Jordan and everybody – come through and play in Toronto. I’ve been to a lot of Raptors games and it’s all been motivating, as I’m sure it was for a lot of us Canadians.”
Led by Carter, McGrady, Antonio Davis and Charles Oakley, the Raptors would set a team record with 47 wins in 2000-2001 and win the club’s first ever playoff series, avenging the previous spring’s loss to the Knicks with a 3-2 series win.
“I was here over the course of several games during his tenure,” Erving said. “We knew it was a ready, willing and able franchise. They just needed to collect the pieces to do damage. The team was always more of a spoiler than a contender. But there was some good basketball and I think a lot of the fan base was created during that era.”
It was against Erving’s 76ers where the first cracks in the relationship between Carter and the Raptors became evident. On the morning of Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals, Carter attended his graduation ceremony in Chapel Hill and flew back to Philadelphia for the game later that day. With 2.0 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, Carter had the opportunity to win the series for the Raptors, but his shot came up short and Toronto fell 88-87. Relevant or not, the question was asked if Carter would have made that shot had he not been out of town earlier in the day?
That summer, Carter signed a massive six-year, $94 million extension with the Raptors, but missed the last 22 games of the season with a knee injury. Without Carter, the Raptors rallied to make the playoffs, but were knocked out by the Pistons in the first round.
Injuries became Carter’s calling card in his latter days with the team and after questioning the direction of upper management – coincidentally, it was the team’s failure to appoint Erving as GM in the summer of the 2004 that became a big source of contention for Carter – he forced a trade to the Nets in December of 2004. The Raptors received a paltry return of Alonzo Mourning, who would never play a game for the team and be immediately bought out, Eric Williams and Aaron Williams.
In the following years, fans booed Carter lustily during every return. The reception was particularly venomous during a 2007 first-round playoff series between Toronto and his Nets in which New Jersey upset the Atlantic Division-winning Raptors in six games.
Still, they say time heals all wounds and slowly, but surely, Carter’s reception and legacy in Toronto has thawed, largely in part to the massive contingent of Canadian basketball players in both the NCAA and NBA who remember Carter’s Raptors fondly and view them as a huge influence on why they got into the sport.
“We definitely watched the Raptors and grew up with them, especially Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh later,” said Dallas Mavericks big man Dwight Powell, a native of Toronto. “I think having an NBA team in our backyard brought the NBA closer to us and made it seem like it was something more realistic. It’s something that we dreamt about and wanted to do, so I think we can definitely be considered a [Raptors generation].”
As of 2017, Canadians represented the largest number of foreign-born players in the NBA with the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray and Cory Joseph all from the Greater Toronto Area. The impact of Carter and the Raptors is a profound one.
“I think they inspired a lot of kids to pick up a basketball,” said Sixers guard Nik Stauskas, who calls Mississauga, Ontario home. “I hope with the success that they’re having now in the NBA as a playoff team, it kinda grows more and more every year where you see kids start to get scholarships to the U.S.”
Carter struck a conciliatory tone when returning to Toronto in the 2014-15 season with the Memphis Grizzlies in the team’s 20th year. Carter, then 38, seemed to take stock of his impact on the club and its culture.
“I hate that it ended that way,” Carter said. “It’s because there were so many great memories here and I had so many great times here. I think when every player got here, it’s was like,’ Wow, I didn’t know Toronto was like that.’ That was my thing. It was just a great feeling to see. Yeah, this was the best-kept secret. And now for the little brother – the Raptors – to make their name and create a buzz here and create young players in the NBA today. It never gets old.”
As the Raptors honoured Carter with a video package that night, the fans began to boo as they normally did with anything VC-related. But as the footage rolled on, there was a change in the crowd. The jeers turned to cheers and, by the end, there was a standing ovation. A visibly moved Carter acknowledged the crowd and wiped tears from his eyes. After nearly a decade, there was a détente between the fans and the man who put the Raptors on the map.
He owed them as much as they owed him.
“People who grew up watching the Raptors, enjoying and dreaming that they could be pros one day – there’s evidence of that,” Erving explained. “Basketball is a global sport and you have players in the league from all over the world and it’s because they began to believe after they saw. They saw that man could fly.”