By: Patrick Fuller
Growing up, my family spent most of our family vacations in Daytona Beach, Florida. Usually known for the historic Daytona International Speedway, or to most spring breakers, the only beach that you could drive your car on. Over the years, as we would cruise down International Speedway Boulevard, I began to notice an unfortunate looking high school that never really seemed to show any improvement. Like some sort of ghetto establishment straight out of Compton in the early nineties. A Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds kind of place… I always thought maybe they started rebuilding the school, ran out of money, and then just said f*ck it, we’re good here. Meanwhile, every time we drove by, I’m just looking out the window, expecting to suddenly see Coolio come out and start rapping “Gangster’s Paradise.” Little did I know…this was a special place. This was Vince Carter’s alma mater. Mainland Regional High School, Daytona, FL. But if you ride past that same school now, you will see a much improved scene. The Mainland High School Arena, now named after him, complete with a life size suitted-up Vince statue out front. His name emblazoned across the top of the gym doors. Nowadays, this high school would certainly be one of the nicest you will ever see (or at least that I have ever seen).
Growing up I got used to seeing Vince Carter absolutely destroy my favorite college basketball team, the Duke Blue Devils. He was known for his terrorizing dunks and unique ability to embarrass just about anyone that dared to try and reject him. Things got even more ridiculous when he embarked on his professional career. From the minute he traded in that disgusting tar heel (it is not capitalized on purpose) blue in for his Jurassic Park inspired Toronto Raptor jersey, I became a fan. I mean, this man was on a team that wasn’t even in the United States and I still had to tune in nightly to see what he might do next. I can remember watching the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest, where for the first time since Jordan v. Wilkins, the announcers were left completely speechless. This was a contest that changed the All-Star weekend for many years to come. It inspired me. I remember the work I put in; buying ankle weights, doing calf raises, literally praying every night that one day I could dunk just like Vince Carter, even just a little bit. Carter was given the name Air Canada. To most that may sound funny, or just serve as a reminder of the airline service that you’ve probably never ridden on, but who would have thought it could mean a lot more.
Recently Vince went back to Toronto as a Memphis Grizzly and was honored in one of the most respectful ways a franchise player could be; as an Ambassador for basketball in Canada. The Toronto Raptors have one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference of the NBA right now, with stars like Demar Derozan, Kyle Lowry, and Terrence Ross. And while they may play a big role in the Hawks season this year, it’s tough to think where they might be without Vince Carter. Would they have any fans? Would anyone have known who Chris Bosh was? Maybe, but either way Mr. Carter had a huge impact on the franchise and its fan base. It is that fan base that is slowly but surely making sure this new generation gets the respect it deserves. And whom should they Thank for this underground following that has remained since the 90’s? Air Canada, thats who. He is the reason that there are so many that are my age, 24 and a little older, that are so into the franchise in Canada. Well how does this make basketball in the US that much better?
There are more known Canadian basketball stars in the NBA right now than ever before. From back to back #1 picks in the NBA draft, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, to highly drafted college players like Tyler Ennis, Tristan Thompson, and Nick Stauskas. These guys are all under 30 years old, most under 25 years old, which means they grew up in Canada when Vince was the franchise player of the Raptors. They watched the same things I did; a man who could captivate an entire country and introduce them to the best sport on Earth (in my opinion). To think a kid from Florida would have an influence on an entire country and their future sports stars. Without Vince, where would these guys be? Playing hockey? Selling insurance? Who knows? So for me, a kid watching him on TV, I never really cared what he stood for or what his story was?
All I wanted were more sweet posters on my wall, since he basically dunked on EVERYONE. But there were more impactful things that he would eventually contribute to. He stood for progress and he stood for hope. Most important of all though, his impact on the game would lead to a wave of new basketball fans and players, that I believe has changed NCAA and NBA hoops forever.
Now as an adult, I still find myself sitting at my desk watching Vince Carter dunk on that poor 7 foot 2 inch center in the Olympics, or all the sub par leapers that decided to try and take flight with Air Canada. Vince Carter spent his time in basketball doing what most of us can never experience. He literally played basketball like he was a sniper picking off his pray from a crow’s nest. Who was going to slip up next and become part of his highlight tape?
To this day, I still find myself repeating the story of Vince Carter, every time we visit my parents’ condo and go past Mainland Regional High School. Over and over, here I am, babbling to everyone about the same old story, like I watched it happen, or as if he and I had been best friends. He inspired me to love basketball and become the fan I am today. He did all that for me as a kid from a small country town, just an hour outside of Atlanta. But Air Canada became more than that for the game of basketball. He became the poster child who proved, that with just the right kind of player, an NBA franchise in Canada could not only survive, but thrive. That it could help bring basketball to the kids in the streets of Canada. That it could provide a new opportunity for a generation of kids. The kids who might one day want to play ball in the NBA and NCAA. To showcase their talents to the U.S. and the rest of the world, and to make it to that stage. Each year, another great player, with their own Vince story. While it may be too early to get sentimental about a career that has yet to reach it’s conclusion, there is one thing we know for certain. Air Canada was a special player, with the level of talent and playmaking ability that is rarely seen. His impact will be felt on the NBA for many years to come, and for any true NBA fan, that is something we should all be thankful for.