He retired a bearded journeyman, extending the end of his career by becoming a role player for a range of teams; after leaving the Raptors, Vince Carter played for the Nets, Magic, Suns, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Kings, and Hawks over the course of 16 seasons. Carter is actually the first and only NBA player to play 22 seasons in four different decades. He never wanted his playing days to end, but this 2021 season was the first without Vince Carter since 1998-99.
It was different at the beginning, though; Carter was no role player. Immediately upon taking the court for the lowly Raptors, “Vinsanity” began and descended upon the league. This guy could dunk. He did so with Jordan-esque flair, soaring through the air before forcefully slamming the ball home. Carter had the moves to do it on his own, whether in the paint or from the field. He drained mid-range jumpers, threes, and buzzer-beaters. By season’s end, the Rookie of the Year award was his.
The next couple of seasons, Carter took things further; in 2000, during the All-Star break, the man they called “Air Canada” threw it down in his now-legendary Slam Dunk Contest debut. These gravity-defying dunks had his league mates on the floor in hysterics. As soon as Carter finished, he went ahead let everyone know that the competition was, in fact, over. During the regular season he averaged 25.7 points per game and lead the Raptors to their first-ever playoff appearance. The next year, Carter raised his PPG to 27.6 while the Raptors captured a franchise record for wins. They won their first playoff series, against the Knicks, and moved on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Carter and the Raptors went toe-to-toe with Allen Iverson and the 76ers, in a series dubbed the “Superstar Wars.” Both carried their respective teams, scoring at will; in the third game in Toronto, Vince bagged 50 points and tied the record for three-pointers in a playoff game. It was a fevered, high-scoring battle, which unsurprisingly went to game seven. In the final seconds of that final game, Carter had the ball and a chance to win it for the Raptors with a buzzer-beater. Alas, the shot rimmed out, one of the few misses that series for Vince.
From there, things began to go downhill between Carter and the Raptors; the team gave their star a big extension, but injuries started to take their toll, limiting his minutes significantly. Carter missed 22 games the next season, 2002-02, and then, following an off-season surgery, played only 43 games over the 2002-03 season. Without him, the Raptors started to fall out of contention; soon, the front office began thinking about rebuilding with young talent. A couple of months into the 2004-05 season, Carter was traded to the Nets.
While he would continue to play an important role for a number of playoff teams, Vince Carter was never quite the transcendent figure he was with the Raptors. And though the relationship between Carter and the Toronto fans has not always been rosy since his departure, the last few years have seen that relationship heal somewhat; during the Raptors' 20th Anniversary season, while playing in Toronto with the visiting Grizzlies, Carter got an extended standing ovation. It mended that divide, and was truly well deserved – the Raptors' early years would undoubtedly have been less fun without him!