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What an odd night Tuesday was in downtown Toronto.
The Raptors played 41 home games before Kobe Bryant entered the NBA. The win over Atlanta was the first home game they’d played since Bryant’s untimely death. Raptors game operations got it right from the start, playing a great Bryant tribute video before the game and having a 24-second moment of silence. The scoreboard also lit up in purple on 81 when Atlanta reached that number.
Once upon a time, Vince Carter and Bryant were the NBA’s biggest stars and arguably its most talented wings, with apologies to Allen Iverson. There were at least a couple of years where they were neck-and-neck. Things changed, Carter came back to earth, despite his unparalleled athleticism, while Bryant soared to the highest levels of the sport. But it seemed fitting to have Carter in Toronto for this first post-Kobe contest.
Earlier in the day, Carter had taken a trip down memory lane, explaining how he gave his Hawks teammates a history lesson about breaking in the building back in the day. Carter takes pride in scoring the first basket in the former Air Canada Centre. He also discussed how Toronto feels like a second home for a guy from far-away Daytona Beach, Fla.
I can’t remember another athlete anywhere going from the toast of a town, the absolute favoured son the way Carter was at his peak, to a hated heel, which he became after forcing his way out. He was booed and heckled as mercilessly as any athlete for years until things softened. And for half a decade or so, it has flipped back to Carter being beloved. Some are never going to forgive him and that’s fine. But many, many more are letting it go, thinking about how fun he was to watch and how much he did for the franchise. Carter got a massive ovation when he checked into the game and also when a tribute video was played as part of the 25th anniversary season celebrations.
“It’s a cool feeling, thanks to a lot of people, it’s a great feeling. It really is,” Carter said of how he is now welcomed back.
Carter also talked about how tough it was to slow down Bryant. He had to split the job with his cousin, Tracy McGrady.
“He wanted to go about the best competition and dominate, and I knew that coming in … (McGrady) and I together, we used to be like ‘take turns guarding this guy’ because this guy was coming at us and he was playing to win. You had to get your rest (for) that day,” Carter remembered.
Carter seemed pleased that he was already in New Jersey by the time Bryant dropped 81 points on the Raptors.
“I was like, I’m glad I missed that. I remember talking to Jalen (Rose) and (Morris Peterson) and obviously seeing some of the game,” Carter said. “And just hearing and watching and just seeing, it’s easy when you’re sitting at home, watching on TV. Like, just double team, but if you go back and watch it they were trying to send double teams, and when a guy’s in a rhythm like that, I mean, I can’t even tell you what a rhythm like that (is like). I’ve never scored 81 points.”
Only one other man has: Wilt Chamberlain.
It’s a small league, but there are still 30 teams, so the coincidences we sometimes see can be interesting. Like DeMar DeRozan being able to spend one of the most emotional days of his life with his close friends on the Raptors on Sunday. Or Toronto being the opponent when Carter became the 22nd player to reach 25,000 career points last season. Or Carter being in the house for Lowry’s big day on Tuesday.
The Raptors beat really appreciated Alex McKechnie sitting down with us pre-game to share his thoughts on Bryant, who he had a long relationship with. It was interesting to hear reflections from someone who was in the trenches with Bryant and knew how he ticked. McKechnie is clearly shaken by all of this and didn’t have to talk, but he told us he wanted to.
A couple of us talked with him briefly later in the night and I mentioned Kobe was to so many what Michael Jordan was to a previous generation, something we’ve heard so often in recent days, and McKechnie replied: “Absolutely.”
It still wasn’t a normal scene in the Raptors locker room. Lowry spoke about Bryant after only previously doing it briefly on Sunday’s TV broadcast. Norman Powell clearly wanted no part of talking to the media. Fred VanVleet was, as always, extremely eloquent on the subject. It still doesn’t seem real.
Sports is supposed to be a sanctuary. It’s sad and strange when real life intrudes.
1. Kyle Lowry
2. Serge Ibaka
3. John Collins
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020