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Raptor Rapture Canadians and late-night sports anchors have fallen hard for rookie Vince Carter, whose gravity-defying feats include lifting Toronto into the playoff race

Vince Carter gave the smallest of feints to his left, then
exploded to his right around Miami Heat forward Jamal Mashburn
and...well, you probably know what happened next because it made
every highlight show in the cabled universe last week. He threw
down a thunderous baseline dunk over 6'10" Alonzo Mourning, one
of those thank-you-'Zo-very-much slams that keep the cute 11
o'clock sports anchors in business. Carter is one of their go-to
guys. Two months into his NBA career the Toronto Raptors'
forward is not so much a prime-time player as a late-night
player--sort of a Leno with a 41-inch vertical leap.

The things you probably couldn't see as Carter, flexing a
biceps, ran upcourt after the dunk were the two identical signs
about 12 rows from courtside in the Air Canada Centre. They

Toronto may not got grammar, but it really does got game.
Despite a three-game losing streak, the once moribund franchise
is living on the edge of the postseason, with an 18-17 record
through Sunday that left it only one game behind the
eighth-place New York Knicks for the final Eastern Conference
playoff berth. After performing for their first three seasons in
the yawn-inducing expanse of the SkyDome and being regularly run
off their practice court (literally) at Glendon College by
intramural volleyball players, after being forced to trade
disgruntled 1995-96 rookie of the year Damon Stoudamire and
slogging to 16 wins last season, the Raptors have at last joined
the NBA. Not only do they have a swank new arena with a separate
practice court in the same building, but they also seem to be
filling it with the right people. General manager Glen Grunwald
traded for reliable 13-year veterans Charles Oakley and Kevin
Willis, picked up the league's most prolific three-point shooter
in guard Dee Brown and, most critically, acquired Carter, the
prohibitive favorite for rookie of the year, who has provided
something as tangible as 18.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.66
blocks per game, and something as ephemeral as buzz.

Carter is 6'6". He played at North Carolina. He has a shaved
head. He can shoot a jumper over anyone. He dunks. He has a
handsome face that offers a palette of expressions. His smile
lights up an arena.

Let's see. Six-six, Tar Heel, bald, hops, emotes. No, couldn't

They should all know better, but even teammates can't resist the
comparisons. "Mike seemed to hang in the air a little longer but
Vince gets up higher," Willis says. "He'll come at anyone to
prove they can't block his dunk."

Carter's 360s have made Torontonians do a 180 about the NBA.
Television ratings are up 30% over last season, and two Canadian
networks are in a tug-of-war for the rights should the Raptors
make the playoffs. Champion Canada, which supplies area
merchants with NBA replica jerseys, has been so overwhelmed by
demand for Carter's number 15 that it is airlifting more in from
its factories in Mexico. "I lost 200 sales this week because
[Champion] couldn't get them to me," says Ben Freedman, who owns
a shop on Front Street, a five-minute walk from the arena.
"That's $12,000 [Canadian, or $8,000 in the U.S.]." Carter's
jerseys are outselling the ones from Stoudamire's rookie year by
almost a three-to-one margin, while his rookie cards are going
for $10 (U.S.) and getting snapped up within minutes of being
placed on the shelf.

Already there is more Carter memorabilia than Carter memories.
"I didn't plan for it to be this way," says Carter, who was
drafted fifth overall by the Golden State Warriors but then was
flipped to Toronto for cash and No. 4 pick Antawn Jamison, his
North Carolina teammate. "My goal was to fit in, gradually work
my way to being an impact player. My whole scheme fell through
from Day One, but Butch [Carter, the Raptors' coach] is doing
his best to keep me grounded." The coach did just that to Carter
last week, passing on instructions to public address announcer
Herbie Kuhn to stick to bellowing Vince Carter instead of Air
Canada after spectacularly levitational baskets. But Carter is a
hard man to keep down on either end of the court, especially in
the final minutes of close games. Consider:

--In a 103-101 victory at Detroit on March 17, Carter scored 17
of his 28 points in the fourth quarter, the last six on drives
to his left, a weakness that Butch Carter had identified during
Vince's predraft workout. Carter's winning basket came after he
forced a bad pass by Pistons veteran Joe Dumars.

--Carter had 31 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in an 88-87
defeat of the Pacers on April 1 in Toronto, scoring the Raptors'
last six points on a 20-foot fadeaway over Reggie Miller, a
drive past three defenders and an offensive rebound on which
Carter got two tips at the ball before anyone else got one.
After an earlier loss to Indiana, Pacers coach Larry Bird said
that if Carter could consistently hit 18-footers, he would be

--To preserve an 87-85 win over the Washington Wizards at the
Air Canada Centre on April 3, Carter got a hand in Mitch
Richmond's face, forcing him to heave up a last-second air ball.

"He's more than just a jumper, although that overshadows the
other things," Mashburn says. "The real basketball fan, the
purist, knows Carter is fundamentally sound. He can play. That
highlight reel stuff is a disservice to him."

Carter does it all: He's a threat in the key, and in the key of
F major. He plays sax as well as that other late-night musician,
Bill Clinton, and even helped write songs for his marching band
at Mainland High in Daytona Beach, Fla. Carter was offered a
scholarship to Bethune-Cookman--not to play basketball but to be
a drum major. As a modern career choice, drum major ranks only
slightly ahead of slide-rule manufacturer, so Carter, who says
he has been able to dunk since he was in seventh grade and was
5'8", took the free ride at Chapel Hill. When he entered
college, his mother, Michelle Carter-Robinson, a teacher, made
him sign an agreement stating he would still finish his degree
if he left early for the NBA. "When I made my decision to go,"
says Carter, who came out after his junior year, "my mother took
that paper out of a drawer and waved it at me." He will return
to North Carolina this summer to take classes toward a degree in

Of course in the fall there will be the Raptors School of
Continuing Education, with master classes on passing out of
double teams, burying open jumpers, rotating on defense and
handling adulation. As the team roared through a home winning
streak of nine games in recent weeks, Toronto Maple Leafs
captain Mats Sundin, pro wrestler Brett Hart and CBC news anchor
Peter Mansbridge made the scene. (What? You expected Woody and

If Carter can add jump-shooting range and sustained defensive
intensity to his plays-of-the-week dunks and nuclear drives, he
will burst out of his highlight box and be acknowledged as a
preeminent force in the NBA. Clearly, he already is in Toronto.
Another Air Canada Centre sign last week declared VINCE
CARTER--1ST BLACK PRIME MINISTER, which, if the people have
their way, would also make him the first American PM. The rookie
doesn't merely defy gravity, he defies the Constitution.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN Air Canada Carter's acrobatics around the basket have helped make him the NBA's top rookie scorer, with 18.1 points per game.