Turns out there is one person in the world who has always loved the dunk contest as much as I have, and that's Vince Carter. In the new UNINTERRUPTED documentary The Carter Effect, which premieres this September at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film's initially somewhat elusive main subject explains that aside from getting drafted in the NBA, being in the dunk contest was so formative to him that just entering was one of his life's wildest dreams.
It's a little ironic that the guy who is now the first name any basketball fan would offer as the player they most associate with the contest initially counted mere participation in the event as the big one on his bucket list. Carter's epic performance at the 2000 dunk contest was also the starting point for Sean Menard, the filmmaker behind The Carter Effect.
"The [dunk] contest was the most important part to me in the film. It was the very first section that I edited. Because when you hear Vince Carter, you think about that," Menard told VICE Sports.
"It's so iconic."
What that contest led to was an unprecedented era in Canadian basketball, and you can say that without even meaning to be dramatic.
The Toronto Raptors, along with the Vancouver Grizzlies, were expansion teams in 1995, with the league essentially using the entire country of Canada as a test demographic. Toronto's name, chosen in a newspaper poll that listed Tarantulas, Towers, T-Rex, and Raptors as possible options was a no-brainer. It's also why you don't allow 6-12 year olds to vote, especially not in the year Jurassic Park comes out (guilty).
The team played in a baseball stadium to fans that, in most cases, had never been to a basketball game and did not know the rules. They waved their foul shot distraction signs when their own team was shooting, and wore Blue Jays hats to games because it probably seemed more appropriate. There is some wild footage of Toronto's waterfront before it flooded with condos, and the naming ceremony of the Raptors that for some reason featured Robocop as a ribbon-cutter. It seems bygone and hokey, but also endearing in how unsure the entire enterprise was when it hatched from a big paper-mâché egg, the way the Raptors' own Raptor did before he back flipped across the court for the very first time.
This footage sort of whistles but when Menard leads us into the dunk contest in question the whole thing starts to hum.
The best way to describe the Carter Raptors era is energy. It might be a feeling that American fans were familiar with, especially living in legacy franchise cities like Los Angeles, Boston, or New York, and likely even more in the underdog runs of Detroit and Philadelphia, but it was something Raptors fans hadn't felt since the franchise debuted (and promptly flopped). The energy built as if Carter was a metronome being tipped faster and faster. All of a sudden games were getting televised on US networks, endorsement deals came in droves (a certain Canadian VICE Sports editor had not one but two pairs of VC Shox, I'm told), Vince Carter went into business co-owning a Toronto nightclub that hosted out-of-town players and was basically responsible for bringing the practice of bottle service to Canada.
In the film, David Stern seems fairly smug about sensing that Toronto was ready for a team. He says it was his business and despite tone-deaf dealings with players during his tenure as commissioner, and a fairly clunky end to his career, it was. But the more interesting question is did the conditions create the culture, or did the team create the conditions for someone like Carter to thrive? In one way or another Toronto has been experiencing consistent growth since the inaugural season of the Raptors. A steady-climbing economy, population growth and our newcomer culture are all closely tied and people who didn't grow up with hockey or baseball, even a lot who did, wanted an accessible sport that captured and celebrated a new, forward-facing ideology of enthusiasm to get behind. The conditions were ripe, as Stern says, but it also didn't take a trained capitalist eye to see that. What Stern could not foresee is that wellspring of energy the league tapped into in Toronto would be a catalyst for conditions to change league-wide, initiating something bigger.
The style and confidence that Carter played with was in many ways the first big push toward the desire for player-driven basketball. The flashy dunks and signature expressions that Vince caricatured across his own face after delivering them, often still in mid-air, suddenly threw open a window for players to shore up their talents with personality. For fans, it loosened the stuffy proscription that relating to an athlete, just liking them, somehow counted less than encyclopaedic knowledge of some guy's stats. It changed the access points for what it meant to be a fan.
For some people, IQ of any given sport is going to come down to holding a library's worth of really absurd numeric facts and footnotes over other people's heads, but aside from being boring, in basketball it seriously limits the experience of what it means to engage, to get caught up. For Menard, it goes beyond athleticism. He acknowledges that there's artistry in the way Carter shaped his own skill set.
"I would refer to him more as an artist than athlete, just because of the way that he did it. If he was a guy that was shooting 3-pointers or just like a boring, big guy, who would just lay it up, I don't even think we'd be having this conversation, or there'd be a Carter effect," he said.
Menard is from Hamilton, Ontario—situated about an hour west of Toronto—and saw his first Raptors game during the team's first year, in a pre-season exhibition at Copps Coliseum. He soon went back to watching hockey. He remembers when Carter got there because what it looked like, to play or to watch or even be peripherally involved in Toronto basketball, suddenly shifted. The air was charged and everybody felt plugged in.
"For people who didn't necessarily have a high basketball IQ, like me, I was able to identify with the dunks and the excitement and the energy. I got it," he said.
It was magic time in Toronto. Carter put the city on the map and so many artists and musicians can trace the ripple effects of that confidence back to their own industries. Menard captures the timeline of this shift through a full roster of generational Raptors interviews. Former players, coaches, and the decision makers behind all the trades you hated, some of them who are still embedded in the franchise today. Better still are the interviews with Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson, Nik Stauskas and, though no one needs to see his facial hair in HD, Kelly Olynyk. Canadian kids who grew up in the era of Vinsanity and went on to enter the league and play alongside him, their jaws still hanging open when they talk about their first encounters.
Carter's city summer basketball camps, his showing up at Toronto legacy courts like Harbourfront and Regent Park, opening a brand new, $100,000 court at Dixon—there's a reason the Carter era of Canadian basketball built such a wide bridge for involvement and game evolution. He was an ambassador in the city before it was something players really did.
From the start The Carter Effect is a pacey and triumphantly thrumming film that makes you feel good and eager and a bit light-headed because you know what kind of horrific, emotionally crippling crash is inevitably coming.
Menard doesn't shy away from the cleaving moment that came with Carter leaving Toronto for good, but he does draw it out and softly stuff all the still-raw wounds, which fans will appreciate. Honesty from Carter's mom, some wistful remorse from Tracy McGrady, on-the-nose insight from Jalen Rose—we all know that Carter ended up leaving but Menard frames it in the forgiveness that only this much time passing really allows.
There's a clip of the 2014 game where the Raptors played Memphis and that shift finally happened. Carter was announced in the starting lineup and the booing started, and then stopped, and people stood up out of their seats and the whole stadium erupted. Vince Carter cried. I was at that game and I cried, too. I cried again watching the clip and wondered what kind of astral sob-plane I was meeting my past self on. It felt like the stadium let go of something all at once.
As cathartic as it was in the moment, framed with the whole history it highlights how good Toronto is at cannibalizing its own while complaining about being overlooked, the gristle of the past still stuck in its teeth.
Menard's movie almost didn't get made. Canadian funders didn't pick up the film and none of the traditional media outlets were interested. As perfect a match as LeBron James' UNINTERRUPTED is for it, and the access that and Drake's personal support allowed Menard, it still seems a dumb loss for a movie like this not to get made by a media which would have been more familiar with the intimacies of that era, the big feelings, and what could have been a step toward some needed self-awareness. Turning a mirror on an insular culture that is still so nervous to celebrate itself without outside approval.
Carter's not Canadian, not from Toronto, but he still got the brunt of that cyclical cynicism and it whipped up the perfect conditions for one big chip on his shoulder. Menard said the one on his own shoulder was huge, but acknowledges that he wanted to scratch his own itch. "I wanted to see something like this. What I had seen hadn't been done to the level I thought it deserved," he said.
It's a catch-22. That insular attitude that kept the Raptors out of the NBA's spotlight in the Carter era, that keeps them at arm's length today, still creates the best conditions for underdog motivation and mentality. It forces athletes and artists to figure out other ways to prove it. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are doing it now. Vince Carter and that era of electric Toronto basketball laid groundwork that they've built something completely different up out of, but all the chips are there, still adding up to something bigger.