"Bye Vince!" "Thanks Vince," alternately chime a chorus of young athletes as they roll by their idol. Eyes sparkling and sporting grins from ear to ear, the tykes have just participated in the Raptor superstar's annual wheelchair basketball clinic at the Air Canada Center in Toronto where Vince and his staff schooled them not only on basketball skills but also on important life skills like the value of goal setting and positive reinforcement. A few shy kids near the rear of the farewell procession are at a loss for words—though from their faces it is clear they are in the throes of a virus common to many Canadian basketball fans, Vinsanity. A chubby chef who had treated the children to a meal of chicken fingers, hotdogs and French fries in the ACC's Hot Stove Lounge rises to the rescue, loosening all tied-tongues with gentle stage prompts. All smiles and class, Vince Carter responds to the kids jovially with handshakes, hugs, and high fives. He treats them with the love and affection most people reserve for relatives and longtime buddies, not brief acquaintances. "Where's your boyfriend?" Vince teases a tween-aged volunteer as she passes by.
"The way they maneuver around on the court, especially the kids who came back from last year, its incredible" Vince confides when we sit down alone. The human highlight-reel is buzzing with good vibes. The awesome play of the wheelchair athletes is fresh on his mind and his spirits are rocket high. He is also pumped to get the NBA season started and erase fans memories of a year where everything that could went wrong. Plagued by a never-ending parade of injuries, the Raptors were easy prey last season good for just 24 wins and cellar dwellers status in the East. But all that is now a closed book, their slate is wiped clean, and the Raptors leader is concentrating on turning around this team from league possums to fang-bearing predators with the guidance of feisty new coach Kevin O'Neill.
"I love him, I love his attitude and I love what he's trying to accomplish," says Vince. Though when it comes to making a playoff prediction on whether the Raps will secure a berth amongst the East's elite eight, Vince is less resolute, reluctant to make a fortuitous forecast prematurely. He knows the team has the ability to pull a full 180 but keeps things real by adding the caveat that only "time will tell."
"I think it's possible. I don't think we're a shoe-in," Vince offers, pragmatically. "We have to go out there and earn it, but it's worthwhile when you have to do it that way."
In order to rejuvenate Toronto to their big game hunting play of yore that had the team a mere shot away from the Eastern finals just two years back, the Raptors acquired a slew of man-mountain sized players to support their marquee man: first round draft pick Chris Bosh (6'10), China's Mengke Bateer (6'11), Miami Heat Ken Johnson (6'10) and New Orleans Hornet Jerome Moiso (6'10).
"It's good to see that we have a lot of big men this year, and some young athletic guys because last year we were undermanned," comments Carter on the rush of genetically gifted new blood. "It's a new atmosphere, a new opportunity and it's going to be exciting." We'll certainly be watching.
QUICK QUIPS: VINCE ON…
An NBA without Michael Jordan
"His name is not there [anymore] and that makes a difference in itself. He'll be missed for who he is but we have a lot of guys around the league who can hold the fort as a group, not as individuals of course. I mean he's Michael Jordan and we are who we are."
"I think it's going to take a couple years for him to develop, I think he can have a successful first year but the hype behind him is unbelievable, I wish him the best and I hope he has an unbelievable year but that's a lot of pressure for a kid coming out of high school."
"I think he's a great player. I really love his game and the reason I say that is because I've had the opportunity to see him play more than Lebron. I've seen a couple clips of Lebron playing in summer league but otherwise I haven't got a chance to see him play. But Carmelo, he's strong and he's smart for his age. His decision-making ability is smooth and he seems comfortable on the court. I think he's going to really turn some heads."