Vince Carter is honored at the Air Canada Centre.  (USATSI)
Vince Carter is honored at the Air Canada Centre. (USATSI)

TORONTO -- Vince Carter didn’t know how it would go. A video tribute was coming — how would he feel? How would he react? What would he do? Beforehand, he couldn’t say. He just wanted to live in the moment.

During the first quarter of the Memphis Grizzlies’ game against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, the veteran saw his face on the video board. It started with a clip recorded last season: Carter saying he was proud to be a former Raptor, proud to be a part of a great time in the Toronto basketball history. Highlights played on the screen -- dunk after dunk after dunk -- and he remembered each one like it was yesterday.  

Throwback Carter jerseys were all over the arena. One guy behind the Grizzlies’ bench sported a Memphis No. 15, even. Like old times, his mother sat courtside with good friend Nav Bhatia, the man known in Toronto as “superfan.” The current Raptors applauded. 

For the first time in about a decade, the Air Canada Centre gave Carter a standing ovation. It was slow to start, but it built to a roar. He kept his eyes fixed on the screen as the old, unforgettable plays were replaced by a live shot of his reaction. As he shook his head, “wow” was the only word he could muster. Carter raised his arms to say thank you. There were tears in his eyes.

“I was just reliving that moment and really enjoying it,” Carter said. “To hear the cheers of people enjoying it right there with me was, I think, that was the backbreaker.“

Every so often, Carter is asked about the impact he had on basketball in this city, in this country. He was once the most popular player in the league, and he changed everything for the franchise. If Toronto didn’t acquire him on draft night in 1999, perhaps it wouldn’t have survived. Canada now has more active NBA players than any nation save for the United States, and this entire generation grew up watching him. The young players have told him that, and he can’t quite wrap his head around it.

Still, he’d been booed every time he’d visited. There was some anxiousness in the arena. It went as well as anyone could have hoped.

“I couldn’t write it any better,” Carter said. “It was great. I’m extremely thankful for it. Really.” 

In January, Carter came to Toronto as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. He met with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke, with Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s permission. The Raptors wanted him to know they were open to reconciliation. You could still find plenty of Torontonians willing to rant about the way he left and his effort level at the end of his tenure, but the hatred was dissipating.

Around that time, Sportsnet’s Michael Grange published a story urging the city to forgive him. There was an accompanying television special, entitled “The Re-imagination of VC.” That night, he received a mixture of cheers and boos. Rumors spread that he could come back in free agency.

While a return to the Raptors would have been a heck of a story, what transpired on Wednesday might have been more appropriate. After showing their appreciation, a decent portion of fans booed the first few times Carter caught the ball. As always with this particular city and ex-superstar, it’s complicated. 

For players, though, the respect has always been there. Raptors wings DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross grew up idolizing Carter. Ross still watches his highlights, and said playing against him is like a dream. DeRozan said it was “dope” to see him honored. 

“He deserved it,” DeRozan said. “He deserves everything, honestly, because he was the one who, I think, pioneered the whole thing with the Toronto Raptors. So you gotta give him his credit [for] everything he brought to this city. He made me a fan at an early age.”

Grizzlies guard Mike Conley had never seen anything like it. He said it was fantastic to share that with Carter, to see his emotion and congratulate him on his career. 

“I told him, ‘Man, it’s a pleasure,’” Conley said. “It’s a pleasure to play with him. To see the imprint that he’s left wherever he’s been, it’s always been positive. You can’t knock the person that he is, and he’s an even better player. So I was happy to see the fans be so receptive.”

Carter didn’t believe it at first when he found out it was going to happen, he said. He couldn’t be sure that it would play out this way. After talking to reporters for 10 minutes, he signed some purple Raptors jerseys and a photo of a classic dunk. When he handed them to a Raptors staffer and walked out of the arena, it felt like he still owned the place.

“In time, everything could change,” Carter said. “That’s how I just look at it. That’s how I’ve looked at it since I left here: ‘In time, things’ll get better. In time, things’ll get better.’ And here we are.”