When the NBA expanded into Canada in 1995, the league had the daunting task of attempting to tap into a hockey-mad culture. The sport was so unheralded at the time that fans banged clappers when their own team was shooting free throws.
“We didn’t have this basketball culture. We didn’t have any of it,” Toronto rapper Drake said.
Enter Vince Carter, the former Toronto Raptors swingman who left an indelible mark on Canadian basketball.
The Carter Effect, a documentary that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend, explores Carter’s rise to stardom and how it ushered in Canadian basketball’s own rise to prominence.
‘Barren wasteland’ before Carter
Prior to Carter’s arrival, Raptors games were such a tough sell even scalpers found it difficult to make anything off their tickets.
NBA players wanted nothing to do with the team either; B.J. Armstrong, Toronto’s first selection in the expansion draft, didn’t even report to training camp.
When Tracy McGrady was drafted by the Raptors in 1997, he said he had “no clue where the hell Toronto was.”
Sean Menard, the documentary’s director, remembers the future Hall-of-Famer’s rookie days with the team.
“When he first got here, they were playing at the SkyDome [now Rogers Centre]. He had never been to Canada, never experienced the winter to that level,” Menard told CBC Sports.
“It was kind of like a barren wasteland. No one wanted to come up here.”
That attitude changes when the Raptors acquired Carter the following year in a draft-day swap with the Golden State Warriors.
The Daytona Beach, Fla., native took the league by storm earning the nicknames “Half man, half amazing” and “Air Canada” for his electrifying dunks and high-flying acrobatics.
Carter was must-see television, even in the United States, where he was a staple on highlight reels.
“When he was ‘Vinsanity,’ I was enjoying it as a fan like everyone else and noticing the talks amongst my friends in the classrooms — it was no longer about hockey, it was basketball now,” Menard said.
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“It felt like the cool, young generation had their thing to hang to.”
The Raptors ended the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season with a 23-27 record and Carter was named the NBA’s rookie of the year.
Something special was brewing in Toronto, it just needed a bigger stage to show the rest of the backetball universe.
Putting Canadian basketball on the map
Carter’s performance at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest on February 13, 2000 forever changed the landscape of Toronto and Canadian basketball’s reputation.
The burgeoning star opened the competition at Oracle Arena in Oakland with a 360 windmill dunk and later executed the iconic between the legs dunk off a bounce.
A 12-year-old Menard remembers being at a friend’s house for a sleepover — huddling around the television — as he and the rest of the world watched in awe.
“Without that dunk competition, I don’t know if you have this type of effect [on Canadian basketball]. It was so important that he was wearing ‘Toronto’ across his chest for that dunk contest because it put the city on the map globally — he was representing our city,” Menard said.
Carter instantly became one of the faces of the league and soon after, the Raptors were given their first primetime game on NBC in which Carter delivered one of the greatest performances of his career. “He drops 51 points and after talks about how important it was for the country, team, and city for him to perform,” Menard said.
“I love hearing when an athlete cares about the city that they play in. Vince was coming back here throwing camps and at those camps were young players like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph.”
It’s no coincidence that Joseph and Thompson entered the league when they did — they were kids at the peak of “Vinsanity” and part of the first wave of homegrown NBA talent stemming from that era.
“I’m sitting down with these first-round NBA players that were born in and around Toronto. They’re not citing Steve Nash as their influence, they’re all saying Carter,” Menard said, referring to the two-time NBA MVP.
“I’m not taking anything away from Nash. But I just think Carter, because he was playing in this market and the way that he plays allowed him to have such an impact on all these young players.”
Resonating beyond Canada
The “Carter Effect” also impacted fans beyond Canada’s borders. Menard says it’s a reason why executive producers LeBron James and Maverick Carter — James’s childhood friend and business manager — were so passionate about making the film.
“I interview a lot of big famous athletes and stars and she never requests to be on location and this was the only time [my fiancée] when I was interviewing Vince,” Menard said about his fiancée, who grew up in China where Carter was an icon.
“Across the world, he had such a tremendous impact and it’s because the way he did it — he was able to fly through the air in a poetic style. His mother said it was like ‘ballet in the air.'”
Messy breakup, but closure coming?
In his seventh season with the Raptors, Carter was traded to resolve a messy situation between himself and the front office. For years afterwards, the eight-time All Star was booed mercilessly by fans.
It wasn’t until November 2014 when Carter and the Memphis Grizzlies were in town that fans took the first step to forgiving him. The Raptors honoured Carter through a video montage during a TV timeout as part of the organization’s 20th anniversary celebration.
An initial chorus of boos turned into cheers leaving Carter very emotional as he finally received some closure.
“Once you watch it and you see a young Vince doing his thing, how can you not stand up and cheer for him and forgive how it all ended,” Menard said.
“That’s what’s great about this film. It kind of allows people to step towards that. I think his jersey should be retired and there should be even a statue when he’s done playing outside of the Air Canada Centre like some of the Toronto Maple Leafs players because that’s how impactful he was to this country, this city, and to that franchise.”