It was just another afternoon in Raptorland, with a horde of media waiting for Vince Carter. A day earlier, stories had appeared about how the Air Canada Centre had increased its security staff for a Raptors game because of some vague threats that had been made against Carter in an Internet chat room.
So the next day at practice, reporters flooded the Raptors' workout facility, looking to advance the latest version of "Vince-gate."
Carter was shooting free throws when he was approached by a team employee. Carter glanced over his shoulder at the sea of reporters, and said warily, "What did I say now?"
What did he say?
What did he do?
Where is he going?
What was he thinking?
The latter half of 2004 was all Vince Carter, all the time. This after rumours surfaced in the spring that Carter privately had asked the Raptors to trade him. Those private hunches turned public in the fall, when Carter finally decided to go on the record. But by then, the hysteria surrounding Vince was in high gear since there's nothing that gets the blood of Torontonians boiling more quickly than someone famous saying he doesn't want to be here.
After several months of trade talks and rumours -- the Portland Trail Blazers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat and New Orleans Hornets were among the clubs known to be involved -- Carter finally got his wish on Dec. 17. That's the day Raptors general manager Rob Babcock announced that Carter had been traded to the New Jersey Nets for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams, Alonzo Mourning (who likely never will play here) and two first-round draft picks.
"I had a special bond (in Toronto)," said Carter, although that bond was not strong enough to hold him here. "I'm going to miss the organization. I'm always going to see (how the Raptors) are doing.
"Now that it's over, I think everybody can breathe a sigh of relief. Things did go bad (in Toronto). We tried to make things happen. It didn't work."
There subsequently were quiet suggestions from some of Carter's ex-teammates that he really hadn't wanted to be traded anymore, but he was too embarrassed to take back his demand. Frankly, we believe that to be hogwash, despite what Carter may have felt comfortable telling the other Raptors.
According to numerous sources, Carter repeatedly was saying to his closest confidantes as the season progressed that he had widened his list of preferred destinations to, well, anywhere. He just felt he needed a fresh start.
A heck of a lot happened in the world of the Raptors in 2004, in addition to the trading of Carter.
There was the firing of GM Glen Grunwald and coach Kevin O'Neill; the hiring of Babcock and coach Sam Mitchell. Add into that the trading of the marquee player, and you have more major off-court changes than, say, the Utah Jazz has experienced in two decades.
In fact, there probably was more of significance to occur with the Raptors in 2004 than in any year since 1998. That was the year in which the franchise and the under-construction Air Canada Centre were purchased by the Maple Leafs, coach Darrell Walker walked away, star player Damon Stoudamire was dealt to Portland and Carter was acquired in a draft-day swap.
But despite all the front-office activity in 2004, Carter still dominated the headlines.
His comments were dissected. His facial expressions were studied. His body language was scrutinized.
Carter was in the news repeatedly, sometimes through his own actions, sometimes through the overreactions of fans and media, and sometimes by accident or happenstance.
Here are some of the various "Vince-gate" highlights, based on a five-star rating system for their overall relevance:
- Dunk funk.
The story: Carter, in the heat of an exchange with a TV reporter, says, "I don't want to dunk anymore." Asked to clarify, Carter does not back off. The media go crazy with the story. The next day, Carter says he only was kidding.
Relevance rating: One star. Carter not only had dunked in the games leading up to his declaration, but he dunked the next night, especially for the two print reporters present in Washington. Carter then looked toward the reporters with a grin on his face, as if to say, "See?"
- No space for Mom.
The story: Carter's mother, Michelle, is upset that her parking privileges at the Air Canada Centre have been revoked.
Relevance rating: Two stars. This had nothing to do with on-court matters, but it was a small sign that the Raptors weren't going to bend to every one of Vince's whims anymore. And if mom isn't happy, Vince isn't happy, as we all know.
- The Internet threat.
The story: Someone in an Internet chat room says he's going to a Raptors game to cause trouble and mess Vince up, and encourages others to join him. The Raptors take the threat seriously and increase security, but the game proceeds without incident.
Relevance rating: Two stars. In the wake of the big brawl between Detroit Pistons fans and Indiana Pacers players, nothing about these matters is a joke these days. It was another sign that the relationship between Carter and Raptors fans had deteriorated.
- A tip for the Sonics.
The story: Three Seattle SuperSonics players claim that Carter tipped off a Raptors in-bounds play late in a game on Nov. 19. The story first appears in a Tacoma, Wash., newspaper and spreads through Toronto like wildfire.
Relevance rating: Three stars. It's a serious charge, but impossible to prove. There are lots of reasons Carter might have uttered the words, "It's a flare, it's a flare." Carter already had been traded when the story was published. Babcock had been contacted about the allegation a few days before the trade, but he claimed there was no link between the two events.
- The Doctor isn't in.
The story: Carter and his mom suggest to Raptors ownership that they consider Julius (Dr. J) Erving for the club's GM position. Ownership says it will do so, and will keep Carter informed as the GM search continues. Neither of those things happens, and Erving is given a perfunctory interview only after news of his interest becomes public. The club already had decided to hire Babcock.
Relevance rating: Four stars. It wasn't that Vince had to have Dr. J, or else. But to use a cliche, this was the straw that broke the camel's back. Carter was told he would be updated, and the next thing he knew, Babcock had been installed. Carter felt as if he couldn't trust the team's hierarchy. Not long after that, Carter privately asked to be traded.
- The crowd says boo.
The story: Fans at the Air Canada Centre begin to boo Carter regularly.
Relevance rating: Four stars. This development might not have had a direct impact on the trading of Carter, but it probably made management far less worried about post-trade backlash.
- Carter finally dealt.
The story: Carter now resides in New Jersey.
Relevance rating: Five stars.
It was a watershed moment for the franchise, but after the months of speculation, it seemed almost anticlimactic when it occurred.
As the Raptors enter 2005, they are Vince-less.
For better or worse, depending upon your point of view, things never will be the same.
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