There was a moment yesterday that epitomized what makes basketball special.
The moment before the big shot. The moment of anticipation.
Vince Carter had the ball. The final seconds of the fourth quarter were ticking down.
Carter's Raptors were tied with the visiting Portland Trail Blazers. Carter turned and stared at defender Nick Van Exel, whose eyes were worried. Not panicky, not terrified, but worried.
The fans rose in unison, screaming louder and louder and louder. Every person in the Air Canada Centre had a knot in his or her stomach. The fact that it was the smallest crowd for a home game in Raptors history temporarily was irrelevant to everyone except the bean-counters.
"As I went left, everybody went left, so I just stepped back and said: 'Hey, do or die,'" Carter said. "And fortunately, it went in."
Carter's three-point jumper over Van Exel with 4.8 seconds to play gave the Raptors a three-point lead en route to a 101-97 victory, their third in as many games in this young NBA season.
Carter used to have a flair for the spectacular on a regular basis. But he had to go back a ways when asked if he could recall the last time he nailed a game-winning shot.
"Huh ... I don't know," a puzzled Carter said. "As far as a game-winner like that, the last one I made probably was against the Clippers, back when Muggsy (Bogues) and Dell Curry were here. So we're talking about a long time ago."
For the record, Carter is referring to a game on March 8, 2000 in Los Angeles. A week before that, Carter hit a similar shot to win a game in Boston, and later that season he had a winning drive-and-dunk around Hakeem Olajuwon to subdue the Houston Rockets.
But regardless of which of those games Carter remembers best, how he determines what a game-winning shot is, or whether he has forgotten some more recent heroics, he's talking about five seasons ago. Five years since he remembers hitting such a dramatic shot.
A LOT HAS HAPPENED
A lot has happened to both Carter and the Raptors in the interim -- more negative than positive, to be blunt. But yesterday, for one afternoon at least, it felt like those heady days of 2000, when all things were possible.
Of course, the one alarming development for a club that improved to 3-0 for the first time in franchise history was the fact that only 13,863 took in the proceedings. That's a new low for a Raptors home game, the previous mark being 14,088 for a titanic showdown with the New Jersey Nets at the end of the disastrous 1997-98 campaign.
"Really?" a surprised Carter said yesterday when informed of the bleak numbers.
After two brutal seasons in a row, the Raptors finally appear to be suffering through an attendance hangover. They had a sellout throng of 19,800 for the home opener last Wednesday against Houston, but attracted only 15,284 for a Friday tilt against the defending-champion Detroit Pistons.
Carter was asked if games like the one yesterday will bring the fans back into the purple fold.
"I hope it changes a lot and it sparks interest in a lot of fans," Carter said. "But first and foremost, we have to continue to play our style of basketball.
"I think the way we play, whether we're 0-3 or 3-0, we're a more exciting team to watch. That's not our main reason to play this way, but I know this is what fans come to see, fast-breaking, high-flying, a lot of shots, just acrobatic plays. You'll see a lot of different stuff this year than you've seen in past years.
"I hope this will be the last time you'll see (such a low turnout). It really didn't sound like a small crowd, though."
Especially at that special moment of anticipation, just before the big shot that won the game.
"It felt like 19,800," Carter said, "so in my mind it was sold out."