ATLANTA—It is a complicated history that exists between Vince Carter, the Raptors and their fans. But as the greatest moment in franchise history unfolded in Oakland last June, the sense of pride he felt was real and the sense of history and his place in it were undeniable.
He was part of it, an outsider at the time but an integral part of the journey that ended with a wild championship celebration on the court at the Oracle Arena. Carter was on the floor that night, at the game, and when he found his way to the court to offer congratulations to those he knew best, those who know what he meant to the team sought him out.
“More than anything, I remember going down on the court and the one guy I wanted to see more than anybody was Kyle (Lowry),” Carter recalled in a wide-ranging interview Saturday night. “He was doing an interview and he wanted me to sit down and do it with him but there was no way in hell I would do that. I know what he was trying to do and everything, and I appreciate it, but this was their moment and it was cool to watch.
“I just wanted to be there to witness it, I didn’t want any of the shine of it, I just wanted to be part of the celebration like everyone else. I was just there to witness history. It was their moment.”
In many ways, it was also his. Carter is inexorably linked to the Raptors — he will be forever — and while it took time for him to be embraced by fans after he left Toronto, the wait was worthwhile. He’s in his 22nd NBA season, his 15th post-Raptors, and the fact that he is once again appreciated and welcomed by those fans in Toronto, who loved then loathed him, is important to him.
“I never felt that I should go out there and force people to understand me, my true love for the game,” he said in the quiet of the Atlanta Hawks locker room after they were hammered by the Detroit Pistons, 136-103, on Saturday night. The Raptors are in town Monday. “I just felt like it would happen organically over time, I just had to be patient.
“Time heals all wounds, but the approach that I chose to take, I preferred it be on their time. I knew I (couldn’t) win the war in the media; I didn’t feel like I could because of who I would be going against. I just had to be patient, take the blows, be myself, enjoy it, deal with it.”
The funny thing is that even though Toronto fans went through nearly a decade where they were unable to publicly embrace the first true superstar the Raptors ever employed, Carter’s reputation in every other city in the league is unblemished.
That’s mostly because, above all else, the game is in Carter, deep within him. All the practices, all the travel, all the games, all the different teams and the disappointing end to each season are part of him, part of his soul. It what has kept him doing it for longer than any player in NBA history, why he gets up each day and goes to work for a going-nowhere team in another lost season.
It’s the game. He loves it. You can’t do it for 22 years, can’t take the physical pounding, can’t abide the losing without the game being deep in your being. Carter is not doing it for the money, and he’s certainly not chasing a ring. He’s playing because he wants to. And loves to.
“It’s amazing that he’s still rolling and still dunking on people and shooting the three and playing at the level he is. I have so much respect for Vince, it’s not even close,” former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said Saturday.
That feeling is near universal, evident in what has been a de facto goodbye tour throughout the NBA this season. At every stop the Hawks make, he is feted. Video tributes abound, standing ovations are the norm. From friends and foes, from former teams and former opponents, the respect is well-earned. And much appreciated.
“Thankful, most of all,” Carter says of the treatment. “And I say that because I was an opponent for 22 years for most of these teams and obviously these are great organizations that are class acts and for them to do that is great.
“I just enjoy playing the game regardless of being an opponent of these different organizations … regardless, it’s a brotherhood, it’s a small community and it makes for an emotional roller coaster.”
The roller coaster is going to end with an emotional night in April when Carter plays his last game in Toronto. It will be the penultimate home game of the season for the Raptors and it will be special. Carter’s family will be there, his Toronto friends will be there, the cheers will be loud and full of appreciation and love. And he will hearken back to those glory days of the early 2000s and that special night in Oakland he got to witness in person.
“I tell you what, I was thankful that I was able to be there and see those guys win. I remember sitting next to Tracy (McGrady) and thinking, ‘Do you believe what’s about to happen?’ There was like two minutes left, and it was like, ‘Dude, this is unreal.’
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“I was thankful to witness it and to be a part of the history leading up to it, just like every other guy. We failed to accomplish that goal (but) it was like us doing it somehow.
“It was crazy.”
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