Vince Carter's hoop legacy in Canada

Soon after his performance in Oakland, Vince Carter's career -- and life -- would drastically change. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest ended shortly before midnight, Feb. 12, on the East Coast, and so, too, then did a new life begin for Vince Carter.

Carter's new reality took hold even before he could suit up in the next day's All-Star Game. Watching from Miami, Toronto Raptors coach Butch Carter had to reach his star's agent late Saturday night to explain a new media policy for what lay ahead.

"My phone was blowing up," says Dave Haggith, the Raptors PR boss at the time. "Everybody wanted time with him."

Within weeks of All-Star Weekend, Carter would appear everywhere. On Feb. 22, he was asked to be a guest on the "Late Show with David Letterman." Six days later, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Sponsors clamored, too, for a piece of the Raptors guard, and soon, Nike and Upper Deck were added to his endorsement roster.

For Carter, it was all new.

"I was a homebody," he says. "I didn't go places. Me walking through the mall [before] was like, 'Hey, you play for the Raptors. Cool, cool.' It wasn't like that anymore."

For the Raptors, then, there had to be a very real effort to keep their high-flying star grounded. Haggith made sure Carter could take advantage of the opportunities being afforded him, but many requests had to be turned away. There were higher powers, including a coach and veteran teammates with little tolerance for distractions, for Carter to answer to.

"It was kind of hard to focus at first," Carter says. "I was fortunate to have Oak [Charles Oakley] on the team -- he played with [Michael] Jordan. I had Kevin Willis -- he played with Dominique [Wilkins]. I had Dee Brown -- he played with Larry Bird. So they understood how to handle it and how to go about it."

Says Brown: "[He] took it with a grain of salt, trust me. It didn't go to his head."

Instead, Carter's newfound star power went only to the boon of his team and the country he played in. Basketball north of the border still exists in the considerable shadow of hockey, but it would be impossible to compare the sports climate in Canada today to how it stood in 2000. At the time, the young Raptors, with less than five seasons in their history, might have held a precarious future. The Vancouver Grizzlies were already under threat of being moved to the U.S., and indeed were relocated to Memphis, Tenn., a year later.

Yet any concern the Raptors would not make it seemed to evaporate in line with Carter's meteoric rise. He was still only 23, but at his feet laid the providence of a franchise. Just 15 days after his famous dunk-contest appearance, NBC rearranged its Sunday broadcast schedule to feature the Raptors in a lone afternoon spot. In response, Carter dropped 51 points to lead the Raptors in a win over the Phoenix Suns 103-102. And with that came the larger point. What Carter was doing as an individual only meant basketball could finally put down roots in a nation that was beginning to love the sport. Unlike the fated Grizzlies, Toronto had the considerable fortune that one of the league's most exciting players was a guy it had drafted and developed. All of a sudden, Brown says, NBA players wanted to come play for the Raptors.

"I think he single-handedly made basketball exciting in Toronto," says Grant Hill, then of the Detroit Pistons.

But the honeymoon would not last.

In Canada, the days were numbered for the very man who was putting the country on the NBA map. Within four years, Carter underwent an almost Shakespearean fall from grace in Toronto, where he became injured and oft-maligned by the fans that loved him. Carter was considered soft by many, and his ability to play through pain for a team that never reached its greatest potential was called to question. For his part, Carter was reportedly miffed that he was misled by the organization, that management was never truly serious about adding the players needed to make the team a contender. The relationship soured to the point at which Carter's trade value, especially considering his recent injury history, had bottomed out -- and on this point some Raptors backers are unwilling to budge; they feel Carter had a role in his own devaluation. On Dec. 18, 2004, he was moved to the New Jersey Nets for Alonzo Mourning, Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and two draft picks. Mourning did not report to Toronto. It took years for the team to recover from the deal.

Carter has always been hissed at in his returns to Toronto, but enough time has passed that there is at least the sense that a sea change is among us. Last month, the Canadian magazine Sportsnet rolled out a feature titled, "It's time to forgive Vince." More than nine years after he left, it is not uncommon today to spot Carter's retro jersey at Raptors home games.

"It's a work in progress," Carter says.

He may never win back the entire nation, yet there are many now who choose to recall that Carter presided over a time, the weeks and months surrounding 2000 NBA All-Star Weekend, when the team has never been more exciting, when it has never mattered more to popular culture.

"I think the biggest misconception of all is people thought I hated Toronto and I didn't want to be there," Carter says. "And that was not the case. It's just the direction the organization wanted to go, and it was what it was. But I never wanted to be a distraction. I loved my time there."

Carter has said he would welcome the chance to play again in Toronto, and some wish for him the honor of having his jersey raised to the rafters.

But Carter's most lasting legacy, no matter how history will judge the time in his first NBA home, must reside in what he has meant to basketball in Canada. As Carter's basketball greatness developed, a nation saw a door open.

"The kids were being introduced to basketball -- some of them for the first time in their lives," says Isiah Thomas, who once served as a Raptors executive and part owner.

At the time, Carter says, he would drive around Toronto and see few courts suitable for play. There would be trash strewn everywhere.

"Rims were hanging off," he says. "Had no nets."

Carter helped refurbish playgrounds across the city, and, alongside efforts from the NBA and Raptors outreach programs, basketball began to mean something real to Canadian youths.

Nearly a decade later, the fruits have come to bear. Anthony Bennett became the first Canadian taken with the top overall pick in the NBA draft last year; he debuted for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season wearing No. 15 -- an homage to the jersey number Carter donned early in his career. Many believe another Canadian, Kansas Jayhawks forward Andrew Wiggins, has a chance to be the top pick in this year's draft, too. And it was not just Canadian children under the spell of Carter's brilliance. Last year, Kevin Durant said on "The Dan Patrick Show" that, because of Carter, he wanted to play for the Raptors growing up.

Butch Carter likes to tell a story about basketball in Brampton, Ontario. The coach got a call a few months ago from organizers of the sport in the Toronto suburb. He was asked to advise how to make cuts for a team of 14 players.

"There was 550 kids in there trying out," Butch Carter says. "They said, 'We put a notice up for a tryout. They came out of the woodwork.'"

It was, Butch Carter says, another sign of the influence Carter left on the nation he once called home.

"The love that was shown on and off the court was great," Vince Carter says. "I got the chance to see people who didn't care about basketball all of a sudden love basketball."

Jason Buckland is a writer based in Toronto. He has also written for the Toronto Sun, MSN and the New York Times.