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Flights of Fantasy

Half-amazingly, Vince Carter took it all in.

Whether sitting with Raptors guard Muggsy Bogues under a basket, videotaping from the scorer's table or standing alongside the new Raptors coaching staff, Carter witnessed everything from air balls to dazzling passes to torn knee ligaments at the inaugural Vince Carter Fantasy Flight School.

What a time it was.

Vince Carter goes one-on-one with a camper.
Raptors Photo

"You're seeing guys trying to make themselves better than what they probably are," Carter observed on the third day of the fantasy camp, which was organized by the Raptors Foundation. "That's the beauty of it. They're trying hard to win. The intensity is like the playoffs. I would've expected some guys to come off the floor looking for the oxygen mask, but nobody's asking to come off the floor. They're working hard on their game and their goal is to win a champion-ship. It's wonderful."

Wonderful might also describe the work of the Raptors Foundation, which has raised more than $6 million during the last five years, donating that money to more than 3,000 youth-oriented charities. Support for the foundation comes from Raptors season-ticket holders, corporate partners, fans and, of course, the players, who donate their time.

It was one thing for Carter to sign autographs at the fantasy camp, pose for pictures and give clinics on the basics of free-throw shooting and one-on-one play. That was expected. After all, the campers had paid princely sums to come from as far away as Hawaii, California, Texas and Virginia to join Ontario locals for the August weekend.

But it was another for the NBA all-star to stand on the floor of Air Canada Centre and watch the action, the flow of which must have appeared to him as a soap box derby would to Paul Tracy.

"I am not bored," Carter insisted. "I enjoy watching basketball at all different levels. I never get tired of watching basketball. I just bring my focus down. These guys aren't pros, and they never will be. But this is their chance to go out, show their talent level and get to live the NBA life, stay in the nice hotel, ride the limos."

A camper low-fives his bench.
Raptors Photo

The weekend was not designed as a survival camp. Far from it. Besides the open bars, sumptuous dining and stretch limos, the Raptors Foundation took care of every need, from sizing shoes to massaging muscles. The other campers and I just tended to make it into a gruelling ordeal, sometimes. Couldn't help ourselves, really. Take 33 campers aged 30 to 55, most of them very successful Type-A business people, make them NBA players for a weekend and what happens is instant, unabated competition.

"The No. 1 attraction of fantasy camps is to play and compete with other people under the umbrella of a Michael Jordan or Vince Carter," says Raptors assistant coach Stan Albeck, who won everyone over with his enthusiasm and humour. "But every-one here is successful in his own right. They're all competitive by nature, and that comes out on the court."

Just say we indulged full-bore in three days of guy stuff. We practised, played five games and took part in individual competitions, sampled scotch, smoked cigars. We came out with a week's worth of stiff muscles, sprained ankles, cuts and bruises - and memories to last a lifetime. Already, reunions are planned.

"My expectations were fairly high and they were surpassed," says Geoff Cole, who runs a fish processing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. "Real courts, real change rooms, coaches, assistants, trainers, agents, etc. I got a real flavour of what the whole game and the game away from the courts is all about.

"Vince is surrounded by some excellent people, not all experienced people but good-hearted and, as far as I'm concerned, that's more important. I left with the impression that he's a happy kid, respectful, intelligent and generous."

What more can Toronto fans ask for? He's got game, and what game it is. Jason Vowell, 30, makes his money in a risky business, investing in oil wells with his brother Todd, 32. They keep in shape by playing basketball at least twice a week. Vowell says he's such "a huge Vince Carter fan, there's a basketball court in my backyard painted in Toronto Raptors colours. His leaping ability is what amazes me. I can slam, but it's amazing how he can jump. I know he doesn't want people to like him just for his jumping ability, but I can't help it."

Jason, who was the first chosen when teams were drafted on the Friday night, pointed out that anyone can head to the Y or the beach and find a good, hard-nosed pickup game. What made this camp irresistible was the opportunity to be in close quarters with Carter, along with a supporting cast of players, NBA and U.S. college coaches and Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald.

A few campers were slightly disappointed that Carter wasn't working the room on the first evening. Two nights later, at the wind-up banquet in the same room, they were giving him a loud, raucous standing ovation.

"I felt somewhat sorry for Vince Carter, insofar as we all wanted a piece of him," says Walter Dubowec, a season-ticket holder from Oakville, Ontario. "Nonetheless, he did not disappoint any of us. In fact, he exceeded my expectations. What I saw was a polite and somewhat shy young man who exhibits tremendous class in handling the demands placed on him. I had a great opportunity to see Vince for what he really is - a great, personable kid with a great attitude."

It's one thing to address a TV camera or an arena full of nameless faces, quite another to overcome a natural shyness when challenged to deal personally with strangers.

"I've adjusted to it," Carter says. "I've learned how to do it. What makes it easier is when you realize people are interested in what you have to say." Following tryouts and scrimmages, there was an hour to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into. Then a photo was taken with Carter, followed by drinks and dinner in the hotel's 18th-floor dining room.

Lenny Wilkens, the new Raptors coach, appears. So does Grunwald, actor Denzel Washington, Bogues, Raptors centre Antonio Davis, TNT commentator Kenny Smith and the entire coaching staff.

A camper drives down the wing.
Raptors Photo

Ed Janka, of Nike fame, introduces the ultra-supportive, unendingly patient coaching staff - Albeck, Jim Brewer, Brian James, Bob Zuffelato, Craig Neal and Walker Russell of the Raptors; Lon Kruger of the Atlanta Hawks; Charles Brinkerhoff, Carter's high-school coach; Steve Robinson, Florida State basketball coach. Each is donating his time, for charity, for friendship, for future considerations. Russell makes up nicknames for the players. Vik Rao, the camp's MVP and a teammate on the "Lakers," sticks him with "Big Daddy." Returning to our rooms later, we discover an unexpected gift- a No. 15 Raptors jersey, signed by Carter. We'd already received our own jerseys, personalized with our last names, shorts, socks,

T-shirts, a gym bag, perfumes from Tiffany's, a cigar. There would ultimately be three pictures, two of them autographed. But this, of course, was something special.

Come Saturday, the teams selected, they darken the arena and introduce everyone by name over the loudspeaker system. At centre court, each camper gets another photo taken with Carter, arm-in-arm.

At one end of the court, Carter uses campers as props to give a demonstration of one-on-one play. "My first year, opponents were playing up on me," he tells the group, with a wry smile. "My second year, guys were playing off me because they wanted me to take the jumper.

"This year, I'm excited."

After explaining how to attack the defender's lead foot, Carter misses three consecutive shots with Kevin Schaded defending him. Carter hasn't warmed up and he's playing at about 10 per cent speed. Nonetheless, Schaded, an intensely competitive individual from Dallas, proudly snaps the ball back at him.

Chett Friedman, 43, of New Jersey, who's in the auto-leasing business, got the trip as a birthday present from his wife. A wide-body, he's the Charles Barkley of the Vince Carter Fantasy Flight School.

"I couldn't spend the money on myself," he says. "If my wife said to me, 'I want to go to Canyon Ranch (spa) for the weekend,' I would've spent the money on her, but not on myself. That's just the way I was brought up. Just before I left she said this was the most fun she'd ever had giving a present. That's what made this special."

Vince chills with some of the campers in the lockerroom.
Raptors Photo

Carter asks Friedman to play offence, so he can demonstrate defensive technique.

"Post him up, baby," one of the campers yells at Friedman, drawing a laugh. Friedman spins, drives right, tries a hook shot. Carter swats it back. "I don't give up free points," he says, drawing a laugh.

Later in the day, Bogues gives a clinic on ball handling while Carter videotapes from the sidelines. Stressing the importance of keeping the head up while dribbling, Bogues says: "Guys like Vince want the basketball, so I've got to see him."

From the peanut gallery, Carter chirps: "Glad you understand."

Someone asks Bogues how to defend somebody taller than you who has a good outside shot.

"That's everybody in the league for me," Bogues cracks. Turning serious, he points to the floor and says: "Defence is played down here. A lot of guys don't like to be crowded."

Carter is asked whether he engages in a little trash talk when he's being crowded - or doing the crowding.

"What's a little?" he asks, smiling. "Some guys don't like when you get in their ear and tell them what's about to happen."

Following team practices and a second game, a question-and-answer session in a hotel meeting room, Carter stuns the group by musing about skipping the slam-dunk competition at this season's All-Star Game.

"The dunk contest is not that important to me," he says. "I don't like to get caught up in the hype. I was asked to be in the dunk contest, but I was made the No. 1 vote-getter by the fans because of hard work."

He gives everyone a peek inside him, saying the 3-and-out loss to the Knicks in the playoffs "left a bad taste in my mouth." After the long, hard season, he took one day off, then got back into the gym the next day.

Afterwards, each camper is allowed to have two items autographed - and out come the U.S. Olympic jerseys, the basketballs, the T-shirts, the shoes, the programs, the magazine covers. Tim Lee, an affable teammate of mine from Hawaii, is a serious sports collector and a benefactor of the Raptors Foundation. For a year, Lee searched on the Internet to land a Carter jersey from his days at the University of North Carolina. It's autographed now. Cole, uniquely, brings an 8-by-10 of his two children.

On the Sunday at Air Canada Centre, Carter lectures on free-throw shooting, talking about balance, vision, straddling the line, the follow-through, rotation, concentration, mechanics.

Gary Sudhalter, a good shooter from near Washington, D.C., had enjoyed the Saturday evening out at the Academy of Spherical Arts. Besides a Southern-style buffet, there was an open bar, cigar rolling, scotch tasting.

On his first attempt, Sudhalter misses everything.

"How was the scotch last night?" someone inquires.

Carter laughs, along with everyone else. He's relaxing with these strangers now.

Vince Carter addresses the crowd.
Raptors Photo

After lunch, comes the moment to cherish most from the weekend. A "lecture with Vince Carter" on the schedule turns into into a magical, informal bull session in the Raptors dressing room. The room is circular, with locker stalls on the perimeter and the one straight wall containing high-tech electronic equipment. Carter sprawls on the floor in front of a big-screen TV showing a highlight tape from his 1999-2000 season.

It's Carter and the campers; no one else is permitted in the room. He comments freely as the scenes come up, answering questions without reservation, offering intimate peaks inside NBA culture.

The tape shows the between-the-leg jump at the All-Star dunk contest. "I wouldn't do that again," he says. "I made it up on the bench."

Then there's the elbow hang, where he put his arm through the rim from on top."Why I did it is because it's something you don't see," he says.

"After a dunk, when you hear from the crowd, it's usually 'Oooh,' 'Ahhhh' or 'Booooo.' After that one, it just got quiet."

A clip shows former Raptors GM Isiah Thomas falling over in his chair while judging the contest.

Later that night, Carter says, Thomas stopped the limo taking him back to the hotel and bowed, in homage. Carter is opening up now. Somebody asks him about trash-talking again. "I invite it," he says. "It's wonderful."

This goes on for 30 minutes, at least. As he speaks, Sudhalter slyly gets every camper to autograph a pair of Carolina basketball shorts without Carter catching on.

Finally, the session breaks up so the championship game can be played. Ahead of the finale, Bruce Silcoff, 35, of Concord, Ontario, wins the 1-on-1 title from Cole, while Friedman takes the free-throw shooting contest in a sudden-death playoff with Rao.

Vince Carter and Ray Allen played a little one-on-one during the camp.
Raptors Photo

The Lakers lose the championship game to the Trail Blazers. It's too painful to furnish the details. Fortunately, there was something else to look at, besides the Trail Blazers posing for championship photos. Carter and Ray Allen started playing one-on-one.

"Ray Allen came up here essentially on holidays to visit Vince," says Rao, a Merrill Lynch executive in charge of interest-rate risk, "and he spent about an hour at the far side of the court shooting about 500 jump shots. I wish my kids were old enough to appreciate seeing that, because when I tell them about it and use it as an example of how important a good work ethic is, they will probably just sluff it off as 'dadspeak.'"

Back on the Hyatt's 18th floor for a post-game banquet, each camper is given a silver trophy and a briefcase emblazoned with the Raptors logo. Janka, who also runs Michael Jordan's fantasy camp in Las Vegas, reveals that Jordan initially turned down the idea at age 25. He praises Carter for accepting at so young an age - just 23, with the proceeds going to charity - and remarks that the locker room session "showed what he's all about."

Proceeds go to Raptors Foundation, and Carter's Embassy of Hope Foundation. Carter's mother, Michelle Carter-Robinson, administrates the latter. Carter and his mother present the MVP trophy to Rao and later compliment him as an "amazing" player.

"I looked at her dumbfounded, looked at Vince sitting beside her and started laughing," he says. "If she's got Vince Carter and she's saying that about me, then I don't care how polite the compliment was - I'd take it. I won't ever get a better one."

A video made during the three days of action elicits wild cheering for Sharm Sirju, 32, of Richmond Hill, Ontario. Sirju obviously had played very little basket-ball, but stuck to it among some impressive talent. The film shows him making a basket during a game and raising his arm in spontaneous joy.

And Carter was right there with everyone else, putting his hands together. He knows how it feels to make a big basket.

Tom Maloney is a writer for The National Post