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In this Nov. 2, 2016, file photo, Memphis Grizzlies guard Vince Carter (15) reacts in the first half of an NBA basketball game against New Orleans, in Memphis, Tenn. Unfortunately for his Canadian fans, the hip he injured in Monday’s game against Charlotte prevented Carter from suiting up for what might have been his Toronto swan song. (Brandon Dill/AP)
In this Nov. 2, 2016, file photo, Memphis Grizzlies guard Vince Carter (15) reacts in the first half of an NBA basketball game against New Orleans, in Memphis, Tenn. Unfortunately for his Canadian fans, the hip he injured in Monday’s game against Charlotte prevented Carter from suiting up for what might have been his Toronto swan song. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Former Toronto Raptor Vince Carter ‘put Canada on the map’ Add to ...

During a recent game involving the Memphis Grizzlies, the ESPN talking heads were sitting courtside and conveying their wisdom to the broadcast audience during a break in the action when Vince Carter ambled over and started hamming it up with the panel.

You’ve all seen it before – the unscripted appearance of the star athlete during a live TV segment, tousling the hair of the on-air talent while exchanging clever bon mots that leave everybody laughing uproariously.

Thing is, that sort of spontaneous public banter was never part of Carter’s modus operandi, at least back in the day when he was cutting his teeth with the Toronto Raptors and assaulting the basket like few before, or since, have ever done.

As important as Carter was to the development of the game, both at the grassroots level and the pro ranks in Canada when he was a member of the Raptors for the first seven years of his NBA career, his public persona was always somehow strained.

“A knee is a knee,” Carter once infamously sniffed to Toronto reporters trying to dig up information on an injury that nagged at Carter when he was at the height of his powers with the Raptors and the high-flying dunking darling of the NBA.

Now, 18-plus seasons down the road, Carter has obviously mellowed and the role of the league’s elder statesman is obviously suiting him just fine. He even appears to be having fun.

Carter was in town Wednesday night with the Grizzlies to do battle against his old squad at Air Canada Centre.

Unfortunately for his Canadian fans, the hip he injured in Monday’s game against Charlotte prevented Carter from suiting up for what might have been his Toronto swan song. And Carter was not made available by the team to talk about what might have been his final visit as a player.

Although it is hard to fathom for those who recall his heydays in Toronto, Carter is 39 – he’ll be 40 in January – and is the oldest player in the NBA this season.

His rim-rattling ways a distant memory, Carter is still acquitting himself well on the court. He poured in a season-high 20 points Nov. 8 against Denver, becoming the oldest player in NBA history to score 20 or more off the bench.

“I think he’s going to be remembered as one of the pioneers of Toronto basketball,” said Jerry Stackhouse, a former NBA colleague of Carter’s. “I think he’s probably one of the guys [players such as] Cory Joseph and Andrew Wiggins will tell you he’s the reason why they first started to fall in love with basketball.

“Vince was the one who really started to put Canada on the map.”

And the rest of the league also started to take notice of the Raptors, which in the early 2000s was a franchise generally regarded as a northern upstart.

“His style of play was a SportsCenter event,” Stackhouse recalled. “Every night you were checking SportsCenter [on ESPN] to see what kind of dunk Vince did that night. Everybody really saw him as that next guy and he put everybody on notice.”

Stackhouse, who now coaches the Raptors 905, the club’s D-League affiliate, had the misfortune of being in the same NBA all-star game dunk contest as Carter in 2000 in Oakland when Carter showed a jaw-dropping display of power and finesse.

It was Carter’s NBA coming-out party and he took no prisoners in walking off with top honours in the only dunk contest he would ever participate in.

For Stackhouse, who was next in line to dunk behind Carter in the contest, it was a thankless task – like a comedian who has to follow an animal act to the stage.

“I’m getting ready for my dunk and people are still looking at the person sitting beside them in amazement of what Vince had just done,” Stackhouse said.

Even getting to the arena that night for the all-star event was a bit of a circus. “It was like travelling with the Beatles,” one insider with the team said at the time.

A car was rented to get Carter and teammate Tracy McGrady, who was also in the dunk contest, to Oakland from San Francisco, where all the players were staying.

Unfortunately, whoever did the renting forgot to mention that the car had to accommodate a couple of rather large individuals along with a couple of their friends.

So when a small sedan pulled up in front of the hotel, Carter and McGrady had to wedge their way into the vehicle, their knees up around their ears for the duration of the trip.

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