OAKLAND – The Toronto Raptors are heading back to the place where a franchise and a fan base came alive nearly two decades ago.
On Feb. 12, 2000, in Oakland’s Oracle Arena, the awkward, less-than-ferocious dinosaurs bolted onto the basketball scene because of a dunk that shocked the world.
That was the night on All-Star weekend when Vince Carter put the Toronto Raptors on the map with his series of jaw-dropping slam dunks that are still talked about.
It was the night “Vinsanity” was born, dragging a franchise toward respectability along with it.
And now the Raptors return to Oracle Arena with an opportunity to finally fulfil the destiny the 23-year-old Carter helped set in motion.
Game 3 of the NBA Finals goes Wednesday, with the best-of-seven series tied 1-1, and the Raptors looking to once again move the franchise toward a different stratosphere — winning their first NBA championship. This is the historic arena’s last stand, the oldest barn still in use in the NBA. After this season, the Warriors will move into shiny new digs across the bay in San Francisco.
The Raptors have come a long way since arriving in the league 24 seasons ago. Those first few years in the cavernous SkyDome were a struggle to say the least. In their third year of existence, in 1997-98, the team — and its fans — suffered through a season in which they managed just 16 wins.
But even in that darkness there was a glimmer of hope.
There was the arrival of basketball sensation Tracy McGrady — at the time the youngest player in the NBA. And Butch Carter took over as coach. There was reason to believe Toronto might become competitive.
The real moment for the Toronto Raptors, though, was on the horizon. During the 1998 draft, the Raptors struck a last-minute deal with the Golden State Warriors to swap the fourth and fifth picks. Golden State got Antawn Jamison. Toronto got Carter.
Carter was coming to Canada from the University of North Carolina with plenty of hype, but most believed it was going to be his cousin, McGrady, who would own the spotlight while Carter acclimatized to the NBA.
It was supposed to be a process.
That didn’t last long. By his second full season, Carter was basking in the spotlight. He was everywhere — commercials, billboards and blasted all over the sports highlights. It all led to him garnering the most votes from fans leading into the 2000 All-Star Game.
For as much as Carter was doing to capture the hearts and minds of basketball fans across Toronto and Canada, he was also injecting life into the league itself with his flashy ways.
It’s partly why the NBA decided to bring back the dunk contest after cancelling it in 1998.
But Carter faced some difficult circumstances leading up to the dunk competition, including the stitches in his left hand after suffering an injury in the weight room.
And then there was Butch Carter’s rule banning dunks during Raptors’ practices. Any player violating the rule would have to pay a $500 fine or deal with veterans Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis or Antonio Davis.
So with the eyes of the world watching and the great expectations placed upon him, Carter had to make things up as he went.
For his first dunk, Carter executed a reverse 360-degree slam that brought the crowd to its feet and instantly caught the attention of every other player watching from the sidelines. Superstar Shaquille O’Neal was capturing it all with a bulky camcorder, his eyes bulging and mouth gaping.
“I didn’t plan it,” Carter said immediately following the dunk. “That was a winger.”
“Let’s go home! Let’s go home ladies and gentlemen!” former NBA great Kenny Smith yelled.
“This building just exploded,” said play-by-play man Marv Albert.
Carter was awarded a maximum 50 points, setting the stage for his second dunk in the opening round. That’s when he blasted from the baseline behind the basket and slammed it down — a thunderous wind-milling motion.
All Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves could do was smile and shake his head.
But it was all just the appetizer for the dunk basketball fans will never forget.
On Carter’s third slam, he needed to incorporate a teammate, a rule that had been added to the dunk contest. He called upon McGrady, who was also in the competition, to help him out.
With McGrady waiting with the ball just in front of the hoop, Carter began his approach from near centre court. McGrady’s bounce pass needed to be precise and Carter aborted the first attempt.
But it only served to build the anticipation.
In his second attempt, Carter took the McGrady bounce, worked the ball under his right leg in a fluid, almost machine-like motion, and slammed it down. He came back to earth with the building shaking, pointed to the roof and then strutted back looking at the camera, waving his arms back and forth saying, “It’s over, it’s over.”
For all intents and purposes, it was.
Carter would add one more memorable slam during the competition, the one known as the “honey dip” dunk — elevating above the rim and slamming the ball down, his arm also going through the hoop down to his elbow. Carter was suspended in the air, hanging with half his arm in the basket, for what seemed like a lifetime.
His last dunk of the night was safe and yet still explosive. Carter leapt from the free-throw line and used both hands to dunk. It was enough to win the title.
That night at Oracle Arena some 19 years ago breathed life back into a league and dunk competition that so badly needed it.
But more importantly, Carter’s dunking dramatics that night breathed life into a basketball team and fan base desperate for something to believe in.
It’s fitting then, so many years after Carter soared above the rim, and despite the setbacks that can occur on any climb, that on that same hardwood floor, the Raptors can put themselves in a position to reach the top of the summit.