by Chris O’Leary

You can’t blame Vince Carter for wanting to get out of Toronto as fast as he could.

Just seconds after throwing down an understated reverse two-handed lob to sink the Toronto Raptors on Friday night, Carter bolted off the floor of the Air Canada Centre.

The seven-time All-Star bounced down the hallway to the New Jersey Nets’ visiting locker room, a grin smeared across his still sweat-soaked face. With his jersey off, he slapped the extended hands of the ACC’s security personnel.

“Gotta go! Gotta go!” he chirped, before disappearing into the locker room.

After yet another epic performance against his former team (could this one have trumped them all?) in the house he helped build in what feels like a lifetime ago, it was probably best that V.C. got out of dodge. Any hostilities that time or Raptors’ success may have buried in the last few months and years were all unearthed in about six minutes of basketball game time.

The history goes way back, but let’s start with Friday morning.

Fri., 10:30 a.m. — ShootAround at the ACC

The man’s shoulders said it all.

Carter’s 6-7 frame sat huddled in the corner stall of the visitors’ locker room at the ACC Friday morning. As the media made its way into the room, then traced the inevitable path it would take to scrum up around him, Carter’s shoulders slumped. While TV cameras set up in front of him, recorder-toting reporters filled in the blanks of the semi-circle. The lights went bright, the mics went closer to his face and the question that Carter has to be beyond tired of answering showed up like the guest to a party that everyone hates but doesn’t have the heart to not invite.

“Vince, how does it feel to be back in Toronto?”

The contents of his reply were half boredom, half surliness.

“Next game.”

It also opened up a good, long, uncomfortable silence, where no one knew what to ask him next. Someone needed to say something, or VC’s media time would be coming to an abrupt two-word finish. I winged it.

“Does it feel weird at all to come back? Kinda give you memories, anything like that?”

“It’s been five years,” he says back to me. It’s actually been a little less than four, but Vince isn’t counting. “Next game.”

In the Raptors’ interview room, Chris Bosh is singing a similar tune.

“It’s kind of old news, man. He’s been gone for about four years now,” Bosh says. “I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal anymore. I know some fans get up for it, but we approach it like a normal, regular game.”

Everyone knows though, that when Vince Carter comes to Toronto, it’s never a regular game.

“I think it’s the fans that have the love-hate relationship with Vince,” says longtime Toronto print, radio and TV man Paul Jones. “Some say he never should have been traded, he’d look good here. Others say, You know what? We don’t want him; He quit on us.

Saying no sorries. At all.“Is it old news? It’s old news. But I know from talking to people close to Vince, I know for a fact that he still has a soft spot for Toronto.”

Ex-factor

It was a beautiful courting, the one that Vince Carter put on us. He was acrobatic Acrobatic flowersflowers and charismatic candy from the get go, and Toronto—the whole basketball world, really—fell way faster than it wanted to. But that’s the way these things always go, isn’t it?

The passion escalated almost as fast V.C. himself on a fast break. From a genuine like, to being smitten, then infatuated and finally straight-up, flat-out admittance: This was love, as pure and effortless as his spring loaded 360 dunks.
Too high.
And for a few years, it was great. Couldn’t have been better. Vince just about did it all: Scored in ridiculous fashion; crafted a lengthy playoff run that happened without TMac, jumped over a That’s high.French giant not named Andre and won a dunk contest that sent him into the stratosphere of the sports world. At 24, the NBA was Carter’s.

The highlight reels swelled until they seemed like they’d burst. Then they kind of did. Injuries and losses started to mount; whispers that doubted Carter’s effort blossomed into boo-birds. Averaging 15.9 points per game and suddenly refusing to dunk, the papers were filed and Vince got a New Jersey in the swamp. The settlement was less than favourable. The Raps lost their all-time leading scorer and the face of their team; in return came a bag of oranges, a subscription to Dog Fancy and the contract of Alonzo Mourning.

In Jersey, Carter was revitalized. With every Eastern Conference Player of the Month award and SLAM cover that followed, the fans in Toronto—millions of jilted lovers—grew increasingly bitter. While the Raptors have rebuilt and have moved on (it looks like that most days, anyway), Carter’s return to Toronto always stirs up those old feelings for ticket holders.

Fri., 5:30–6:30 p.m. — Pre-game

When the locker rooms opened up Friday night before the game, Carter was incognito. His teammates popped in and out of the room, getting out on the court and getting some shots up and stretching out with trainers. Apparently, Vince came over with the Nets on the first bus and got his shots in well before anyone was in the stands.

Inside the media room, after loading up on the pre-game info packets and media guides, I hear a guy going over the starting lineups.

“Bobby Simmons and Yi Jianlian up front, Brook Lopez in the middle. Devin Harris at the guard and some piece of shit named Vince Carter,” he says, laying the first brick in the foundation of the V.C.-hate for the night.

On my way out to the court, the second brick is heaped on. I cross paths with an ACC usher who’s carrying a freshly confiscated sign, folded in half so that its message is shielded. It’s going to be a good night.

First quarter

It’s not so much Carter’s reunion with his former teammate—Chris Bosh is the only Raptor left from the V.C.-era—or that he sits in the visitors’ locker room these days. It’s the 19,800 bitter, booing fans acting like lions who are having Carter thrown to them by the public address announcer during the starting lineup introductions that fuels this seemingly unending fire.

And it don’t stop. Carter gets booed every single time he touches the ball all night. Even on a touch pass, a short boo makes its way through the ACC’s stands. The standard “Let’s go Raptors!” chant that’s led by a pounding drum grows a tail on Friday, having a “V.C. sucks!” attached to it.

He looks unaffected by the taunts and jeers through the first 12 minutes of the game. His four points, two rebounds and two assists are inconsequential compared to Bosh’s 15-point, four-rebound start. Before getting subbed out at the end of the quarter, Carter yanked Yi out of the free throw lineup and took his spot next to Bosh. As the free throw leaves the shooter’s hands, Carter puts his arm around Bosh and taps his shoulder, trying to get him to look away to the right. Carter tries to scoot in front of Bosh on his left, to no avail.

The first frame ends with Carter on the bench, acting like he can’t hear the chants that a small and vocal pack of fans are still resorting to. Raps lead 33–22 after one.

Second quarter

With no let up to the heckling and hatred in the second, Carter starts to get it going. After a passive start with Devin Harris on the bench, Carter scores his first points of the quarter at the line, almost three minutes in. The two freebies open the gates though.
Too easy.
A drive on Jermaine O’Neal looks too easy. A “V.C. sucks!” chant follows and V.C. Too simpleanswers back with a nice looking little 10-footer over Jamario Moon. After Andrea Bargnani scores three of his career-best 29 on Carter’s head from deep, Carter forces up a shot over Bosh and scores again. Then he fades when he doesn’t have to (sound familiar?) over Bosh and hits another one. He caps the second with a drive past Bosh to score. Toronto seems un-phased though, leading 61–48 at the half.

On my way to the media room, I see a group of four young girls on a basketball team with a sign that says, “Vince Quitter Sucks.”

Third quarter

No significant scoring from Carter, but the Nets have taken five points out of the Raptors’ lead. The chanting, with or without Carter in the game, continues. At the end of the third with Bargnani at the line and Vince on the bench, a long voice rings through the stands:

“You suck Vince Carterrrrrrrrrrrr.”

V.C.’s line at this point: 21 points, seven rebounds five assists.

85–76 Toronto

Fourth quarter (BOSS LEVEL)

It was evident through the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter that if the Nets were going to mount any kind of comeback, it wouldn’t be from the offensive flair of Vince Carter. No sweat though, Vince. Devin Harris has your back. Scoring 23 of his 30 in the fourth, Vince plays a happy second fiddle to the burgeoning star.

With the Raps’ lead jumping from four to seven on a Jose Calderon three with under two minutes to play, I head downstairs from the ACC’s gondola to make sure I’m in front of what’s sure to be a huge Carter scrum.

By the time I’d gotten out of the elevator and outside the Nets’ locker room, Vince had scored nine points and single handedly chopped what was at one point a lead of 18 down to three. I head to the media room with Ryan McNeill from hoopsaddict.com to watch the final play of the game.

A few people are in the room watching as well. Filling us in on what we missed in the elevator, one guy talks about the elephant in the adjacent room that the 19,800 people watching are too proud or scared to own up to.

“Every time Vince comes here, I think he’ll score 50 on us,” he says. “He’s going to hit the three if he can get the shot off.”

Sure enough, Carter wets the net from 30-feet back over Anthony Parker—”A shot that he misses nine times out of 10,” someone says in the scrum after the game—to send it to overtime.

We head back upstairs with the game tied at 111.

Overtime

The extra session consists of the biggest names through the night one-upping each other for five minutes. Midway through OT, I head back down to the door of the Nets locker room. Watching on a tiny (TINY!) TV on top of a garbage can with an usher and some yellow-jacketed security folk, we watch it all unfold: the Bosh three to cut Jersey’s lead to one with 4.6 seconds left; Harris’ free throws that push it back to three and then Parker’s three to tie with 2.5 seconds on the clock.

Too perfectThen, the dunk. Bobby Simmons finds Carter for a jam that in his all-time reel wouldn’t crack his Top 100. Still, the play, that game, is one of Vince’s best and he knows it. He knows it when he puts the ball through the rim, slowly drops himself down to the ground and shows some swagger that’s circa 2000.

“That’s his specialty!” A security guard says, agonizing over the play.

Myself, I didn’t see the swagger, the rim pull, anything past the ball going through the net. I pretty much coiled away from the TV, reacting to the coldness of the play and out of instinct, or something, ended up smacking my hand on the seat of a wooden chair that was in the hallway. My hand instantly burned, but I didn’t have time to think about it because when I looked up, Carter’s celebration march had made its way down the hall, straight at me.

A calmed down Carter seemed to get nostalgic for his old home in the post-game.

“My career started here. I had six wonderful years here. I grew up here, I learned so much here and everyone watched me grow up here,” he says.

“From a 21-year-old kid trying to prove something to who I am today. It makes it fun. It’s like if we had a game in Daytona Beach and I got to hit the game winner at home, it would feel as sweet. That’s what it’s all about.”

Someone asked him if the fans’ boos bothered him. Carter smiled and answered.

“No. I know deep down this is sports and that’s the way it goes. I root for my team and you know, I’m a terrible fan also, for my team.

“It’s basketball and I’m used to it. The You Suck stuff, well, you know I can handle that. It’s comforting now. It’s not like anything that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t feel uncomfortable coming here. I feel at home. I played on this floor, I played at this arena, I enjoyed it.”

A hyped up Nets team made its way into the locker room after Carter. A lob-throwing Bobby Simmons gave Carter full props for his play against the Raptors.

“He’s a hell of a player,” he says. “Some guys probably couldn’t play through that the whole game but he kept his composure, he played the game and he made plays.”

“Vince has had some great games (in Toronto). He’s also had some tough games. We’ve played here a bunch,” Lawrence Frank says before dipping into some serious understatements that seem directed to the fans of Toronto.

“Vince is a great player, he plays well everywhere. Don’t take it personal. He’s a pretty good player.”

Carter’s line: 39 points, nine rebounds, six assists and one steal.

Aftermath

On the Raptors’ practice court on Saturday morning, the signs of a hangover aren’t readily apparent (those signs would come Sunday against Boston). The mood in the gym is a loose one. Sam Mitchell comes over to Bosh while he’s talking to the media and tugs at his shorts a few times, then says there’s no difference in pulling them down more when he wears them that low anyway. Bosh responds by pulling his shorts up to an Urkel height, all while answering questions.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Bosh said the rivalry with the Nets was pretty much dead, since the Nets had gone through so many changes and the Carter trade happened so long ago. Considering Friday’s game, the big man changed his stance.

“Yeah, (Carter) rekindled the flame a little bit. We had a chance to bury them and they stayed with it, they came back,” he says.

“Vince Carter and Devin Harris played very well. I mean, obviously Vince Carter still has it. He freshened that up for us and now every game we play him it’s going to be huge.”

“It was unreal,” Jones says of the game on Sunday.

“There are five games that I’ll never forget. Vince’s first game here (with New Jersey in 2006) where he won it at the buzzer with the three; this game Friday night; sitting courtside and calling Kobe’s 81. Watching Allen Iverson and Vince duel 50-point nights in the playoffs (in 2001). Vince’s game Friday night, it’s right up there. It was an unbelievably entertaining game.”

Maybe Jones only listed four games. I think he mentioned Friday’s game twice on purpose.