It still feels just a little weird saying this, but it's true. The Toronto Raptors are the number one team in the NBA.
Led by legit all-stars like Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, and filled out by a cast of exceptional talent (including Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Fred Van Vleet, and Jonas Valunciunas), this team is the real deal. Last night they won again, beating the Atlanta Hawks 104–101. Leonard was amazing, scoring 31 points and making an unreal six steals (the guy is a defensive machine). But the loudest, longest cheers of the night were reserved for a bench player on the Hawks.
Confused? It might seem strange because it all began 20 years ago. But without Vince, the Raptors probably wouldn't even be here now.
Brand new, not so shiny
It's 1995. For the first time in its history, the NBA is adding two expansion teams from outside the United States. The Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors. In both cities, it's a big deal and it's a big risk for the league. How will basketball go over in these two hockey-crazy Canadian cities?
The early answer was 'Not great'. Like most expansion teams, the Grizzlies and Raptors are really bad. In their first season, the Grizzlies lose 19 games in a row. Then they lose 23 more in a row. In 1997-98, the Raptors win only 16 out of 82 games, losing 17 games in a row at one point. And even stranger? The Raptors played their first four seasons ... in a baseball stadium.
Things didn't look good for either team. But the next season, two big things happened in Raptor land. By February 1999, they finally moved to a proper building—the newly-built Air Canada Centre. And the Raptors made a trade, sending Antawn Jamison to the Golden State Warriors for a promising young rookie.
The house that Vince built
In Carter's first season, the Raptors are still not a great team. But he leads them in scoring and wins the Rookie Of The Year award. Not bad. Then, it all really starts to click ...
In 1999-2000, the Raptors have their first-ever winning season. They go to the playoffs for the first time, too. And Carter? He is now a league-wide sensation. He receives more all-star votes than any player. And at All-Star Weekend, he does this ...
After winning the Slam Dunk Contest, Vince Carter is arguably the most popular player in the entire league. His jersey sells everywhere. Toronto begins selling out the Air Canada Centre, setting league attendance records. And Carter even shares a nickname with his adopted home: Air Canada.
Turn of events
For a while, it's true love between Carter and Toronto. The team keeps improving, and Vince proves that he is a superstar, leading the team higher and higher. Then, things take a turn.
Carter gets knee injuries. He starts missing games. Then on December 17, 2004, he is traded to the New Jersey Nets. Fans take the news hard. The Raptors aren't as strong without him, and so begins a new tradition in Toronto: booing Vince Carter every time he comes back to play at the arena he used to share a name with.
Time heals all (so does winning)
So, uh, how did we get to last night?
We think what happened is two things:
First, the Raptors finally got good enough that fans got over Vince leaving. Toronto is a better team now than they ever were with Carter on the roster. But second? Fans have had a chance to appreciate that without Vince Carter, there probably wouldn't even be a Toronto Raptors.
Remember those Vancouver Grizzlies? Well, they've been playing in Memphis since 2001. Turns out, Vancouver fans just didn't care about a team that kept losing. Would that team still be there if they had Vince instead? Even more than that, from Andrew Wiggins to R.J. Barrett, basketball is now full of young Canadians from the Toronto area who are future superstars. Can you guess whose poster they had on their wall?
Which brings us all the way back to last night. Vince Carter, at age 41, may have played his last NBA game in Toronto. Or maybe he hasn't. He tells reporters that he still wants to play. But whatever happens, one thing is for certain: from cheers to boos and back to cheers, Carter is probably the one of the most important things to ever happen to basketball in Toronto.
Take a bow, Vince!