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NBA: Not just Toronto fans who are getting Carter

Mark Woods

Canadian basketball has always been treated with the same reverence by the United States public as Scottish football by the London media. Mostly as a lukewarm afterthought. Or at least that was the case in the age BC - Before Carter. 

Now the popularity of the NBA is threatening to upstage the hitherto unchallenged supremacy of ice hockey in Mountie territory and it's all thanks to the man who has, appropriately, been christened Air Canada. 

While the Toronto Raptors' fans have been enjoying his outstanding basketball skills for the past two seasons, the rest of the world has been slow to wake up to the phenomenon of Vince Carter. 

However five years after the NBA elected to extend their territory with expansion northward, his elevation into the elite coterie of superstars arrived recently when the Raptors' were given their first national television exposure south of their border. 

Inevitably, Carter bestrode his new stage like a vaudeville veteran, dropping a career-high 51 points on a defence-less Phoenix Suns. No wonder then that a match involving the ailing Chicago Bulls was erased from last week's American TV schedule in favour of a second helping of the Raptors, a sure sign of the new pecking order.

Since leaving the University of North Carolina for the professional ranks in 1998, Carter has become the torch bearer for the new generation of basketballers. No criminal record, no multi-coloured hair. The 23 year old from Florida simply possesses the type of talent which frequently draws comparison with the best. And with the Raptors enjoying their best season to date and on course for a first ever play-off berth, their principal player is going to have to get used to life in the media spotlight.

"I'm not surprised at it. I'm overwhelmed," he admits. "I have the ability to play in this league and to be where I am. I just didn't think it would happen so fast.  It's been pretty exciting so far and it's been due to the success of the team, not just myself. You just have to find some time for yourself and focus on what got you here. And that's basketball. We've actually turned our organisation around. We're winning games. This is very exciting for us."

Every week in the NBA, the television editors compile the top ten countdown of highlight reels, a mixture of spectacular dunks, passes and even the occasional spark of brilliant defensive play. Carter inevitably makes multiple appearances every time. Plus merchandise featuring a baby dinosaur rather than bull horns is suddenly overflowing on the retailing Shelves on both sides of the Atlantic.

Carter's individual popularity was affirmed as he emerged as the outright leader in the fan ballot for the 2000 NBA All-Star Game, coming out ahead of more established performers. Over 3 million votes in his name underlined his showman abilities and the 6'7" forward acknowledged its wider effects.

"It was a chance for me to go out there and play with the greatest players. It was a chance of a lifetime for me to be a starter in my second year in the league. And hopefully it was a chance for people to pay attention to the Raptors. Even though I won Rookie of the Year (in 1999), a lot of people still didn't see me. In the All-Star Game I was seen all over the world. It put me on the map and gave the Raptors an opportunity to shine."

Dormant in recent years, the Slam Dunk Contest was revived during the festivities and Carter invoked the spirit of past legends such as Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins en route to lifting the prize. 

Asking team-mate (and cousin) Tracy McGrady to bounce the basketball off the floor to rise in front of the hoop, the dunk master par excellence promptly sped forward, controlled the ball with his left hand, then switched it between his legs to his right before slamming it inside the ring. All while he remained airborne. No wonder his peers at courtside led the ovation.

Unfortunately for the Raptors familial twosome, they remain the main attraction in the midst of journeymen within their team, a situation which will prevent any thoughts of a NBA title just yet. But watch out, because for the Air Apparent, the sky really is the limit.

Pic: NBA Photos

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