Fourteen years ago this month, the Toronto Raptors were waging a turnaround for the ages, and Mike James, the Human Stat Sheet, was right in the thick of it.
Georgia’s own Sam Mitchell, in his second season as a first-time head coach, had a lot of work cut out for him. Coach Smitch had to work with two top-16 rookies, Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham, along with a first-timer from Spain named Jose Calderon. He had a lottery pick Rob Babcock drafted from the year before, Rafa Araujo, to build up from the ground floor, and a second-rounder in Matt Bonner that was proving himself worthy of more playing time.
There were veterans for Mitchell to turn to, to be sure. But a vestige from a more lauded time, Morris Peterson, and the Net proceeds, Eric Williams and Aaron Williams, from Babcock’s failed trade of franchise star Vince Carter for Alonzo Mourning, were getting a bit too long in the tooth. That’s to say nothing of 33-year-old Jalen Rose.
One lottery pick had panned out -- a 21-year-old big, lean Texan out of Georgia Tech, Chris Bosh, that would soon be named an All-Star for the first time (All-Stars from losing teams? Madness!). Unfortunately, the remake of the Raptors around their newest young star had not been going well.
Toronto went winless in the first 9 games to start the 2005-06 season, then 1-15 by the end of November. Two days after Christmas, the Raps returned home from a loss in Detroit bearing a 6-22 record, forced to play a back-to-back with Joe Johnson’s similarly awful Hawks in town. That next day, the turnaround campaign began.
James, Bosh and Peterson carried the Raptors to victory that day, and again in their first game of the New Year in Atlanta. Those victories sparked a five-game streak that included big home wins over Dwight Howard’s Magic and ex-Raptor Tracy McGrady’s Rockets. The momentum resumed on the road in Seattle, with Rose pouring in 28 points to muffle the Sonics.
Two days later, it was halftime at STAPLES Center. Mike James was feeling pretty good about himself, already at 19 points, including makes of all 5 threes, and 9 assists. Up 63-49 on the once-mighty Los Angeles Lakers, this game was shaping up to be remembered as Mike James’ Night, the wayfaring 30-year-old’s overdue breakout on the NBA’s most star-studded stage, the evening his Raptors put their losing trajectory in the rear-view mirror, once and for all.
Kobe Bryant had other ideas.
Mitchell had few recourses but to contain Bryant with Rose, and the good news was it was working in the first half, since no other Lakers were scoring. The bad news was, Bryant would double his 26 points in the second half. Oh, scratch that, Bryant doubled that total before the end of the third quarter. 27 for Kobe in the third, 28 in the fourth, 81 for the game, as the Raptors, like everyone else watching around the world, seemed to forget there was another side to the floor.
For Kobe, coach Phil Jackson and the Laker Nation, this was a watershed moment at a transitional time. Memories of the Three-Peat era had waned, as were recollections of a Finals run with Gary Payton and Karl Malone that fell short of a ring. Shaq set off like a literal hot-air balloon, seeking to win titles with a fresher, more receptive shooting guard companion, Dwyane Wade, and former Laker legend Pat Riley in Miami.
Around Tinseltown, the Phil-Shaq-and-Kobe era was looking more and more like the Just Kobe era, even though The Zen Master had returned, one season after getting fired by his girlfriend’s father, to coach a star player he once deemed “uncoachable.” Having STAPLES’ superstar stage to himself without the gravity of Shaq, 81 points and a pair of assists was enough to overwhelm a shell-shocked Raptors club.
Certainly, though, Kobe was going to have trouble going forward as a ball-dominant guard against more nuanced defenses than what Mitchell and the Raptors could throw at him. Certainly, Bryant was going to be a hard sell, with his acerbic nature and cutthroat reputation, for the Lakers’ brass to woo other quality talents to play alongside “just” him.
It seemed reasonable, by this point, to assess that Kobe’s future involved chasing record books with personal stats, firming up Hall of Fame and jersey-retirement credentials, addressing his lagging off-court reputation after a sordid ordeal in Colorado, satisfying the growing legion of fantasy hoops aficionados, helping Team USA redeem the gold-medal world standing where Vince Carter had left them, and settling down with the knowledge that the birth of his second child was merely months away.
But unless he pulled a Shaq and demanded out of L.A., there was certainly no future involving Kobe that involved claiming another NBA championship trophy.
Kobe Bryant would have other ideas.
In the meantime, Toronto, post-81, was thrown for a loop. Within a week, the reeling Raptors sent Babcock packing, collaring Bryan Colangelo to help turn the franchise’s spiral. By the next week, Rose was on the outs, too, shipped to New York to bring back Antonio Davis for a Raptor rental.
The back end of the season for the Raptors, a 7-23 finish, consisted basically of Bosh staying healthy (he could not), and Mitchell enduring the Mike James Stat-Pad Variety Hour. Toronto’s turnaround had to wait for the next season, a franchise-tying 47-win season that brought back, for Raptor fans, hints of competitive days gone by with Vince Carter and coach Lenny Wilkens. Sadly for them, the gross errors of executives past were already being compounded by Colangelo.
The salve for the Raptors season that collapsed for good after Kobe’s 81 Game was one big “win,” leapfrogging four teams to win the top prize from the 2006 NBA Lottery. However, in a draft loaded with lottery minefields, Colangelo and the Raptors went with for biggest, well, at least, the tallest one, in Italy’s Andrea Bargnani. That pick had Toronto looking like a Leaning CN Tower. Standing tall in the NBA universe, but an already weathered symbol of monumental missteps.
The nation that brought us Naismith had already squandered one NBA franchise, the Raptors’ sibling expansion club Grizzlies relocating in 2001 after just six error-filled seasons in the western outpost of Vancouver. Yet even with the Raptors’ sad-sack reputation that lingered after 2007 and beyond, the sports fans, the citizenry, the governments and the sponsoring business community of Toronto remained all-in. It was largely this way because a Raptor from the bygone era, Vince Carter, left behind a foundation.
One could argue that Damon Stoudamire, the first-ever Raptor draft choice that also had a tumultuous exit, had as much to do with establishing Toronto as a legitimate basketball town from its infancy. But beyond Canada, Mighty Mouse was a mere curiosity. Vince was a tour-de-force that every NBA fan saw coming, from his high school years in Central Florida to his time in Chapel Hill, yet still couldn’t believe with their own eyes once he arrived.
By 2001, two team’s purple NBA jerseys were in hot demand around the world. One was from a blue-blood franchise in a major American market that had hauled in a dozen NBA titles and was preparing to grab a couple more. The other was from a team that hadn’t existed a decade prior, and occasionally still featured a basketball-dribbling dinosaur.
That the latter jersey bore the letters, TORONTO, and gave buyers pride rather than pause, was immensely valuable in locking the Raptors down in town. That jersey #15 belonged to an American-born player who welcomed being known as “Air Canada” proved a boon for the city’s and country’s sports economy.
The Raptors’ current leader in scoring average, Vince graces the court formerly known as Air Canada Centre, now Scotiabank Arena, for likely the penultimate time today as a member of the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, SportsNet One in TOR). He celebrated the early part of his 43rd birthday on Sunday. By afternoon, though, it became obvious that this and ensuing birthdays for Carter would be dates shared with somber remembrances, of the untimely passing of one of his greatest basketball peers.
Until the latest news got around, about petitioners trying to replace the NBA’s logo with Kobe’s, I had to think hard to recall what either Kobe’s or Vince’s logo even looked like. As is the case with Trae Young’s initials-merger thingy, I’m sure sneaker company marketers have foisted something upon everybody in the pros by now. Guys like MJ, Shaq, Jerry West can simply point to a single silhouette. Kobe or Vince never needed a silhouette, or a logo for that matter.
Explosive, finishing plays were enough to sear Carter and Bryant as symbols in our minds. The best-ever preseason dunk. Best-ever in-game (and Olympic) dunk. Best-ever contest slam, which may or may not involve a rim hang. Best-ever dunk over a future Rookie of the Year, best-ever dunk over a reigning MVP. Best-ever dunk over a probably retiring Hall of Famer. Best-ever lob dunk to clinch a playoff series.
Kobe’s iconic persona also became marketable, once he was able to wrap up his NBA career and pursue his many post-retirement endeavors. It’s great to Be Like Mike, but Bryant dared anyone he encountered to strive to Be Better Than Kobe, in some fashion.
Bryant felt that competition, in its undistilled form, makes the world go ‘round. Resistance creates sparks. If you weren’t competing with him and his team, if you weren’t competing ON his team, if you were not challenging him in some meaningful way, he wasted little time associating with you. He redirected his aim to become the best basketball competitor, toward becoming the best sports analyst, the best entrepreneurial philosopher, the best filmmaker, the best father. And he only wanted to associate with people who dared to be better, which required commitment to become better than their own selves every day.
You have all likely had a conversation, with someone a generation older or younger than yours, or with a colleague of a wholly different background, that goes like this:
“Aww, wow, just saw the news that (Mean Gene Okerlund / Nipsey Hussle / Neil Peart / Toni Morrison) just died.”
“Darn, rest easy… wait, who was (Mean Gene / Nipsey / Neil / Toni)?”
“WHO WAS ((Repeat their full names here))??? Uggh! I can’t even!”
Such a convo was not held on Sunday. Not a single soul had to explain to anyone who Kobe Bryant was, what he had accomplished, or why his passing was a gut punch on multiple fronts. Carter made that observation to media yesterday, after Atlanta’s emotional 152-133 victory over Washington, as people around him of every age range had similar heartfelt reactions to the story as it was developing. The death of Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and their associates hit Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and Hawks #24, Bruno Fernando (doubtful for tonight, calf strain) much the same way.
Players who weren’t born when Vince and Kobe were rivals at the AAU level. People who were well grown, if not mature, and tracked both players, even through the summertime scrimmages when both were teens, as debates flared on “the next MJ” within the prep-school pipelines. People who dedicated their athletic lives to becoming “the next Vince,” or “the next Kobe,” charting their ups and downs throughout their careers. People that never so much as dribbled a basketball in their natural lives. All needed at least a minute to gather themselves and consume the tragic news.
Kobe saw to it that people felt some kind of way about him, whether he met them or not. He could be one of two things to you. Your undying hero, the embodiment of what unquenchably competitive fire, when applied the right way, could forge. Or, the bane of your existence, the person who takes great pride in thwarting what you hoped would be your, or your favorite team’s, successful destiny. Your inspiration, or your foil, it’s your choice. He could occasionally be both. He would not possibly accept becoming anything else.
The bi-coastal, multi-national impact of Kobe’s ascension into our basketball consciousness is evident just with a glimpse into Toronto’s climb from annually going through motions to world championship contention.
Vince Carter is the Raptors’ per-game scoring leader, but the current all-time points leader is a young man from Compton, California, and USC, who was not yet 11 when Kobe and Shaq began their three-peat. DeMar DeRozan was told in 2018 by the Raptors’ English-born executive with Nigerian roots, Masai Ujiri, that he envisioned DeRozan could one day become the Raptors’ Kobe. “For (Ujiri and the Raptors) to say I could be in (Kobe’s) position – it was an honor accepting that fully,” he shared with ESPN at the time.
The Compton kid embraced Toronto fully, guiding the Raptors into playoffs and conference finals, until Ujiri saw the opportunity for an upgrade. Out went DeRozan that same year. In came someone a couple years younger from Riverside, California, and San Diego State, who closely watched not only all the Laker titles of the 2000s, not only the Finals MVP awards, but Bryant’s 12 All-Defensive Team seasons. Kawhi Leonard returned to L.A. last summer to continue his pro career, but not before he completed his mercenary mission by leading the Raptors to their first NBA championship.
The Raptors point guard feeding both DeRozan and Leonard the ball through those seasons? A kid from Philadelphia, born and raised, who idolized and followed Kobe, the local high school hoops legend ten years his senior.
Kyle Lowry is 9 dimes away from passing Calderon for the all-time Raptors team record. He just happened to be in San Antonio, where the Raptors ended their own decade-plus drought (12 years) on Sunday night to extend their season-high seven-game winning streak, and had DeRozan coming across the court to share a mournful postgame embrace.
DeRozan, Leonard, Lowry. Norman Powell, a San Diegan and UCLA alum who proudly wears #24. All Kobe-inspired. Each of these players’ greatest NBA moments could just as well have occurred while wearing a K.C. Raptors, or a Louisville Raptors jersey. But this team, now with sustained success (NBA-best 21 straight winning months), is anchored, economically, emotionally, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, a certified NBA city. That’s because Vince Carter (3rd all-time in NBA games played with an appearance today, tying Dirk Nowitzki) came along at the right time.
It wasn’t always this way in this city, but you can rest assured Toronto will give Living Legends like Vince their roses while they are here.
Let’s Go Hawks!