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Vince Carter and the championship that began with him

Atlanta Hawks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Rick Osentoski/Getty Images

ATLANTA — As the Toronto Raptors celebrated during their championship parade, the man that began the Raptors championship journey made sure he was in attendance.

“It was pretty cool to actually be there and not have to see it on TV,” said Vince Carter.

He might not have been on the roster, but Carter was essentially the first step in bringing a Larry O’Brien to Canada. And to him, it’s one of his crowning achievements.

“Winning that first playoff series was huge for Toronto,” Carter said following Atlanta’s narrow loss to Toronto on Saturday. “It was the building block of where they are today.”

Carter is talking about the first-round series against the New York Knicks in 2001, which the Raptors won 3-2. Carter averaged 22 points per game during the series, and it included a monster Game 4, when he dropped 32 points. The Raptors would go on to play the Philadelphia 76ers in the next round, a series Carter believes — had things went a little differently — could’ve been another staple in Raptor history.

“I missed that shot in Game 7,” said Carter regretfully. “Like you don’t know, the team we lost to made it to the Finals that year.”

The 76ers did indeed make it to the Finals after defeating the Bucks. They would go on to lose to the Lakers in five games, and Allen Iverson would have a game for the ages. Carter believes they would’ve beaten the Bucks too, and then anything could’ve happened in the Finals. He was also at Game 6 with his cousin, Tracy McGrady, and when the realization started to set in that the Raptors would pull off the upset, he shared a moment with McGrady.

“It was about a minute left in the game, I turned to Tracy and was like I can’t believe this is about to happen,” admitted Carter. “Like the reality of what me and him used to talk about making happen when we were teammates.”

The Raptors drafted McGrady in 1997, and then they drafted Carter the following year. The two became a solid duo, even leading the Raptors to the playoffs in 2000. That offseason, McGrady would leave Toronto for the Magic and become a superstar in his own right. Had they played together longer, who knows the heights they could’ve reached together.

“Yeah, we always talk about what if, but I can’t fault a man for trying to grow and pursue what they want.” McGrady said. “And when he got to Orlando, he became a beast. He was a monster.”

That was just one of the many what-ifs Carter admitted to having across his 22-year career, a historic achievement in itself. Once the calendar flips to 2020 next year, Carter will add another landmark milestone to his Hall Of Fame career: Only player in NBA history to play in four decades (the 90s, 00s, 10s, 20s). Which of the decades is Carter’s favorite?

“I’ll be honest with you, they all starting to run together,” Carter said with a laugh. “But, I can honestly say I’ve had great memories in each decade.”

The Hawks will celebrate this significant milestone by offering the fans the new “Vince Carter H15tory Pack.” This ticket package includes five games, four of which are against Carter’s previous teams, and the fifth game against the Cavaliers.

The first game of the package will be MLK Day, where the Hawks will host the Raptors again. He is undeniably one of the greatest Raptors in franchise history. He won Rookie Of The Year with the Raptors, won the Slam Dunk Contest as a Raptor, too.

But surprisingly, facing the Raptors is almost just another game to Carter.

“Maybe because I played with them such a long time ago, but it isn’t weird at all or any different,” Carter said. “It’s more fun to me; I’m super cool with Lowry and a couple other guys on the team.”

But to the fans, especially the Canadians and Raptor fans, it’s a game they will cherish. They know what ‘Vinsanity’ meant to not only Toronto but to Canadians everywhere. He was the reason a lot of Canadians — myself included — started to play basketball, and he birthed a generation of Canadian hoopers who all wanted to be like Air Canada.

Tristan Thompson summed it up best in saying “he’s our Michael Jordan.”

Carter didn’t play a minute for the Raptors when they won their first championship in franchise history. But if it wasn’t for him, the foundation for that championship might’ve never materialized.

So it was only fitting he was there when the championship confetti finally fell.