With less than 20 seconds left in the OT game between the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks last March 12, 2020, Vince Carter checked into the game. He took a hand off from Trae Young and drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key.
After that the buzzer sounded, both for that game and for the on-going season.
With the NBA season in limbo, that might have been VC’s last game in the league. Or, he could be back, dunking like he always has been, when the season resumes.
Either way, it feels like a good time to celebrate a full career from Half-Man, Half-Amazing.
Vince Carter was the centerpiece for the young Canadian franchise back in 2001. He’s the one who shouldered the load of the Toronto Raptors team after his running mate, Tracy McGrady, left. He’s Vince Carter, the superstar of the North. Even at 24 years-old, he’s also the same Vince Carter who was still a mama’s boy and who had a graduation to attend in the middle of an NBA Playoff series.
That’s why May 20, 2001, will be a date forever etched into the legacy of Air Canada, for both the right and wrong reasons.
Nearly 19 years ago, the Toronto Raptors were going into a crucial Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia Sixers. That game was arguably the biggest game in Raptors franchise history, as they were playing for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The series had it all. But taking center stage was the match-up between Vince Carter and Allen Iverson. It was the Dunk Champion taking on the MVP. The high-flying Toronto superstar versus the high-scoring Philly superstar. The stage was set for a legacy-defining game for either player.
But for Carter, that important game might not have been the biggest event on his calendar that day. He also had his graduation ceremony from the University of North Carolina to attend earlier that day. Carter wanted to fulfill the wish of his mom to be able to receive his diploma in front of his whole family. Unfortunately, the trip from North Carolina and Philadelphia would take two hours.
After consulting the Raptors officials, they came into an agreement. Carter would attend his graduation ceremony. But he could only stay 15 minutes after receiving his diploma and then quickly travel to Philadelphia, hopefully arriving five hours before tip-off.
Carter got to attend his graduation and still got to play that Game 7. In that game, Carter posted 20 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. Solid numbers but far from his 27.3 Playoff average that season. He also missed on a potential missed game-winner at the buzzer and with that, the Raptors fell to the Sixers, 87-88.
That was the last stand of that version of the Raptors. The team with Muggsy Bogues, Charles Oakley, Dell Curry, and Mark Jackson never saw the same success during their time in Toronto. The Raptors fans also didn’t get to see their team in the second round of the Playoffs for 14 years after that.
The biggest unanswered question from that game is what if Carter was fully locked in? What if he skipped his graduation and focused all his time during that day for that Game 7?
Looking at it now, that day, and the fallout from that game was a legacy-defining moment for VC. If he hit that shot and won that game, he would have propelled the Raptors to heights that the new franchise hasn’t reached before. Carter would have had an unforgettable Playoff highlight, a lasting memory that Raptors fans can look back on with pride. But with that loss, everyone, including Raptors fans see Carter a little differently now.
However, the events of that day really showed the humanity of Carter. He is a loving son who just wanted to respect his parent’s will. He continued to show that humanity throughout his career. After his stint in Toronto, Carter proved to be an understanding teammate who was willing to adapt his game to the needs of the team, all with the common goal of winning games. He gladly came off the bench for a contender or came in as a veteran leading a young team. He showed everyone that there are things bigger than basketball. If Carter had to do that day all over again, he probably would still choose to attend his graduation.
As he continued his career away from Toronto, the basketball gods smiled at him and the Raptors fans.
Carter was able to redeem himself somehow with a game-winner for the Dallas Mavericks against the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. Hitting a jumper from almost the same spot as where he missed from 13 years earlier. As for Toronto, the Sixers and Raptors met again 18 years later in a deciding Game 7. History did not repeat itself as, Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner helped them secure the first title in franchise history.
It’s still difficult not to look back at what could have been. Carter is definitely a legend in Canada and a surefire Hall of Famer. But he probably would have been a bigger icon had he had he skipped his graduation and played just a little bit better in that game.