A Brush With His Airness
“We went to an Italian restaurant after the game, I remember that, and walking down the streets, you would have thought we’d won the NBA championship.”
Toronto coach Brendan Malone, after beating Jordan’s Bulls in the Raptors inaugural season.
SkyDome served as a strange home for NBA basketball, with a retractable clamshell dwarfing the court. Alvin Robertson swished the first bucket in franchise history, and the stadium disappeared in a roar, only fans and ballers remained in view. A large volume of passionate, naive fans filled the SkyDome for a unique NBA experience. Raptors loyalists were rewarded with the best expansion club in NBA history, a record which stands today.
When Michael Jordan rolled into town, the audience had the option of watching from the Hard Rock Café, which hovered over the action, protected by thick, home run resistant glass.
As the Raptors withstood and countered Chicago late into the game, the tables shook and the servers became part of the audience. Rookie Damon Stoudamire’s 31-point, 11-assist masterpiece included shooting 6 for 8 from deep, becoming one of the few clubs capable of beating the best regular season team in history.
Claiming a small chip of Michael Jordan’s greatness inspired the club to believe in the potential of Toronto basketball. Unfortunately, the Stoudamire era would never deliver on the promise on the first great game played by the Raptors. Jordan was in the process of another three-peat, excluding all clubs from competing for a ring. Seasons of losing eventually gifted a global superstar in the draft, jumpstarting an explosive new era for Raptors basketball.
Vinsanity Spins Out Of Control
“I don’t want to dunk anymore.”
Hard to understand why one of the world’s most extraordinary athletes would decide to deny his gifts.
Vince Carter’s reputation already buzzed around the NBA before the 2000 Slam Dunk contest. Carter’s all-around game drew praise, but most noticed the smooth violence of his savage jams and slashing drives. This dunk contest was must-see for all Raptors fans.
For once, Raptors fanatics were rewarded. Vinsanity peaked above the rim with unprecedented power and grace, unleashing a slew of galaxy brain dunks which froze the basketball world with awe. As this spectacle unfolded at the defunct Thorncliffe Bowlerama Bar, patrons dropped their pool cues and servers stopped taking orders. Only a few basketball fans were sprinkled among dozens of Leafs faithful; nobody dared look away from Carter, the on-screen phenomenon.
At the time, many believed that Carter had a legitimate chance of emerging as Jordan’s heir, and Toronto basketball whipped into a frenzy. Allen Iverson, Carter’s only eastern nemesis, would place a dagger in those plans.
“Allen’s dropping 54. Vince comes back he’s dropping 50 - it was like they were taking turns.”
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, on the playoff rivalry between Vince Carter and Allen Iverson.
Belief lifted the Raptors franchise after their first-ever playoff series win, powered by a 32-point game four and a 27-point match from Vince to clinch the fifth match. After the Raps stole a game in Philly to start the conference semifinals, Allen Iverson pulled off one of his all-time great performances, willing the 76ers back into the series with 54 points in a 97-92 victory.
Carter responded with 50 of his own when the clash returned to Toronto, setting a new record for three-pointers made in a single playoff game. Iverson silenced Raptors faithful with 30 points in the fourth match and an incredible 52 points to solidify the series 3-2 in favor of the 76ers. Vince dropped 39 to send the proceedings to the seventh.
Game seven turned into an unraveling instead of a triumph for the Toronto Raptors. Carter clanked a potential game winner after attending his graduation earlier in the day – a decision questioned by teammates and fans alike. Injuries mounted, playoff success remained elusive, and fans eventually grew impatient with Carter’s apparent aloofness.
On court, he seemed unwilling to drive with his previous enthusiasm. Off the court, when Vince appeared in-person at the Thorncliffe Bowlerama, patrons noted how he opted not to engage with fans. Vince Carter didn’t want to dunk again, and he didn’t want to stay in Toronto.
Raptors Serve As Kobe’s Canvas
"Coach, for us to win that game, I had to get 81. It was just one of those nights. There was nothing you could do to stop me."
Kobe Bryant to Sam Mitchell, years after an historic 81-point evening against the Raptors.
Vince Carter morphed from the Raptors greatest promise to Toronto’s worst mistake. Opposing GMs preyed upon the Raptors weak-willed GM Rob Babcock, stealing Carter for pennies on the dollar while acquiring another star who refused to play for Toronto.
Somehow, zero competitive assets were gathered in the Carter trade, dropping the Raptors into another long losing spell. The last remaining player from the trade was Luke Ridnour in 2015, waived after spending 10 days with the Raptors.
This era turned into a second dark age for the Raptors, despite Chris Bosh’s best attempts to lift Toronto to respectability. However, the Bosh-lead version of the club will never be forgotten.
On January 22nd, 2006, Kobe Bryant pulled off the greatest individual performance in modern NBA history, hitting 28 of 46 field goal attempts, 18 of 20 foul shots, and 7 of 13 three-pointers to finish the game with an absurd 81 points.
Coach Sam Mitchell and swingman Jalen Rose were roasted by the NBA for their inability to stop Kobe, a meme which persists today whenever the number ’81’ is mentioned around Sam and Jalen. The Raptors weren’t a respected franchise. Instead, Toronto basketball was a canvas for Kobe’s masterpiece.
LeBron Giveth; LeBron Taketh Away
LeBron James and his Decision poached the talents of Chris Bosh to South Beach for a pair of championships, unofficially beginning the current era of the Raptors. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey unexpectedly evolved the best version of the franchise.
Casey’s the winningest coach in franchise history, setting new highs in wins for a season (59), consecutive playoff appearances (5) and division titles (5), becoming the first Raptors club to finish atop the eastern conference.
Five years of work crumbled to dust this post season, with a flick of King James’ wrist.
LeBron’s absurd game-winner in game three lifted the Cavaliers to a 3-0 lead in the 2018 eastern conference semis, dooming the Raptors campaign. According to numerous reports, President Masai Ujiri stormed into Toronto’s locker room after the final whistle, incensed that coach Dwane Casey didn’t double-team LeBron during the final moments.
A couple of days after LeBron and the Cavaliers swept the Raptors for the second consecutive season, peers voted Casey the Coach of the Year. Two days after earning the award, Dwane was relieved of his duties by President Ujiri, removing the best coach in franchise history.
Social media blew up with #LeBronto memes throughout the series as the Raptors helplessly flailed against the greatest player in the association. Once again, an entire generation of Toronto basketball transformed into an anecdote which confirmed the greatness of an era-defining superstar.
Greatness conflates, erasing details from history. Few remember the infinite hours of DeMar DeRozan evolving in the gym; the physical and psychological transformation of Kyle Lowry; the remarkable development of Valanciunas, OG, VanVleet, Siakam and Wright. Coach Casey and his staff successfully altered the philosophy and strategy of the Raptors, a change which few bench bosses make during the latter stages of a long career.
My Team's Next MatchCleveland Cavaliers
Given the rapid development of Boston and Philadelphia, along with the potential for LeBron to stay in the east, the Toronto Raptors will face long odds to win their first NBA championship with the current roster. The firing of coach Casey represents the easy way out. Finding useful trades or proceeding deeper into the luxury tax presents a greater challenge to Raptors front office.
Only time will tell if releasing Casey was the correct decision, or whether a new coach makes any difference at all. This departure can’t harm the franchise worse than the disastrous Carter trade, but the decision-making behind Casey’s firing feels similar, dictated by the external influence of all-time greats.
Despite a Raptors history defined by the greatness of others, fans of Toronto basketball shouldn’t brood and fixate on LeBronto. Instead, Canada should never forget the exceptional growth of this franchise over the last half-decade, marked by continual improvement which smashed franchise records, creating newfound respect for The North.
Category : NFL News
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