In the closing moments of Sunday's game, Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger subbed Vince Carter in and then took him out moments later. Down double-digits, it was a move aimed not at a last-ditch comeback attempt but at getting Carter a final moment in the building that he built. The Air Canada Centre crowd that remained proceeded to shower him with an ovation for the second time that night.
Carter, always genuinely touched by these moments of acknowledgment over the last few seasons, raised a hand and, after a clear-path foul review that mattered only to those with money on the point spread, embraced DeMar DeRozan with a hug.
"I remember my first couple a years, it was crazy. I can't imagine how it was when he first left," DeRozan said. "To see the shift, I remember a couple years ago when we gave him the tribute video and everything, the reception and everything, it changed, as it should. It's great to see that from our fans because he's the one who started this whole thing."
He did start the whole thing, more or less. There is a generation of basketball fans in Toronto who may never have found their way to the sport without Carter's rise as one of the league's premiere entertainers and rising stars. The relationship is complicated, though. Carter orchestrated an exit from the team that left no party looking particularly good, innocent, or adept in PR, and the wounds from the superstar wanting out festered for a long time.
For Carter, there's been no change in how he feels, only in how he's been received.
"Nothing changes. I still love being here, whether it's 10, 12 years ago, or today. I still love being here," he said after the game. "There's nothing like it. I was telling the young guys when you come in, there's nothing like it. I've been on two different sides of [it]—there's nothing like it. But it's still a place that's near and dear to me.
"It’s a great feeling being here, nothing has changed. It's just, at that time, I felt it was unfortunate people didn't know that and didn't understand that. Here now, it's just a great feeling. Nothing has changed for me."
Since Carter landed in Memphis a few seasons ago, the mood for these games has shifted. Any residual boos have felt either playful or misplaced, and the franchise has taken steps to prime their supporters for an eventual welcoming of Carter back into the Raptors family.
This summer, they flirted with bringing Carter back as a player. Sacramento's offer of $8 million was something a tax-strapped Raptors team couldn't match, and more importantly to Carter, neither are the 14 minutes per-game the still-hungry, still effective 40-year-old gets to play. He's unsure if he'll play another season as the league's elder statesmen, a decision that changes by the day. What's clear to him, and to anyone who's been following along the last few years, is that his career is ending in Toronto, some way or another.
"It'll happen, for sure. Somehow, whether it's one day or something, it'll happen," Carter said. "It's supposed to happen, I think. I can say that now. I've had a lot of people say it's supposed to happen, so now I guess I have to believe."
Had he said this five years ago, it would have seemed ludicrous. At that point, the Raptors still hadn't gained a footing in the post-Vinsanity NBA, and Carter stuck out as emblematic of all the problems that plagued the franchise for nearly two decades. Around that time, the Raptors stumbled into some unexpected success, flipped all that negativity about being the league's unwanted northern outpost into a bold and galvanizing marketing strategy, and saw DeRozan and Kyle Lowry reach heights Carter teams never touched, like winning a seven-game series, a trip to the conference finals, or what will be a fifth consecutive playoff appearance.
It's that ascension, along with time and a better understanding of the situation in retrospect, that's made Carter a more palatable and once again beloved figure. The Raptors no longer need to point a finger of blame at a solitary figure for their struggles. Time heals, or whatever, but success is the best dressing.
Achieving those things without Carter doesn't make his impact any smaller. It seems likely at this point that Carter won't go down as the "best" Raptor of all time, this recent period holding too much playoff success for two perennial All-Stars, his peak being flirted with by Lowry from an advanced stats perspective, and DeRozan's longevity with the team, in particular, giving him an inside track at the crown. Short of a championship, though, Carter will never not be the most important player in franchise history, the man who made purple fashionable, the ACC a tough place to play, and basketball a way of life for an entire country of fans who didn't have that before him.
"I hope not. Personally, hope not," Lowry said of Sunday being Carter's last game in Toronto. "Vince, his number will be retired. He's a guy I've always looked up to, respected, someone that has earned the right to have his jersey retired in the Raptors' arena. What can you say? Tip the hat to the guy that pretty much changed the game of basketball for a whole country."
There is a segment of the fan base, it seems, that will never forgive Carter, which is the prerogative of fans, who by definition, can be oft-irrational. There's also a group too young to have truly felt the sting of Carter's departure or too new to have experienced the frustration of the nomadic decade between his departure and the franchise's return to relevance. For everyone else, new successes have long since cauterized old wounds, Carter at once representing how they got here and just how far they've come.