Editor's Note: This article appears in the February 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Dear Good People of Toronto.
Wait, don't rip this up! Hear me out. For the past few weeks, I've been kicking butt in Jersey. They're saying I'm rejuvenated, that the old Vince is back, that the change of scenery did wonders for me. If you've watched any Nets games, you probably have noticed that I care again. Like maybe you saw me drop 43 on the Spurs -- the Spurs! -- in three quarters before I got thrown out. In retrospect, I overreacted to Bowen's undercut. Then again, it's been so long since I felt any emotion on a basketball court, I wasn't sure how else to respond.
But you don't want to hear about that. Or how I averaged 30 for a solid month. Or how much I love playing with J-Kidd. You want answers. You want to know how someone could go from "superstar" to "irrelevant" to "superstar" without a catastrophic injury or drug addiction.
Well, how can I explain this? I'm the only athlete with an on-off switch.
Here's the deal. As I admitted a few weeks ago, I stopped trying in Toronto. Looking back, a number of things were at fault. First, the $94 million contract the Raptors gave me after my 2001 playoff duel with Allen Iverson. NBA contracts are, of course, guaranteed, so no matter how poorly I played, my huge check was going to arrive every two weeks. I mean, what would you do?
I stopped driving to the basket because, frankly, I didn't like getting knocked down. Once I started settling for jumpers I became easier to defend than Tommy Heinsohn in an old-timers' game, and players and coaches started to whisper that I was soft, that I was the biggest baby in the league. But, I swear, I suffered a bunch of nagging injuries, not to mention various allergies (to defense and rebounding). Within three years, we were back in the lottery. And everyone blamed me.
Did I let it all get to me? Absolutely. Plus, I hated the freezing weather in Canada and going through customs and calculating the exchange rate. I wanted to play in a big market where everyone wasn't talking about hockey all the time. When I asked for a trade, the team said no, but they'd forgotten that I'm good at weaseling out of deals -- Puma had me locked up once, until I jumped to Nike. I knew what I had to do, but it was tricky. It's hard to tank a season without killing your trade value. In November the coaches benched me in Portland, and then we came back and nearly won. Well, that looked bad, like they didn't need me. When we played the Clips three nights later, I drained my first five jumpers to show everyone I still had it. Then I went back on cruise control.
Within a few weeks my little ploy had worked: the Raptors panicked and dumped me for Alonzo, two guys named Williams, two picks and a kidney to be named later. Really? That's all I'm worth? Now I had something to prove. Sure, I had to remember how to attack the rim and how to sweat, but it didn't take long for everyone to start comparing me to Kobe and T-Mac again. When the fans voted me an All-Star starter, for once I wasn't embarrassed. I haven't felt this good in eons. Of course, you could argue I have fresh legs ... you know, since I haven't used them in four years. But at least I'm relevant again.
So where does that leave us -- you and me? I think you should blame the system. If the NBA were the NFL, where contracts aren't guaranteed, there's no way I could poison a team the way I did here. And now that I think about it, maybe I'm not the only NBA player with an on-off switch. Funny how Ray Allen is playing like an MVP again in this, a contract year. Surely you've noticed free agents-to-be Damon Stoudamire and Antoine Walker are having comeback years. And that as soon as Mark Blount, Erick Dampier and Theo Ratliff landed new contracts, their numbers plummeted faster than NBC's ratings. Heck, Shaq is in shape for the first time since Clinton was prez. I'm not the problem, I'm a symptom. You have to believe me.
Anyway, I'll be dropping by in April and you have every right to boo me. Just know that if I had to do it differently ... well, I'd do it exactly the same way. Don't hate me; pity me. Imagine if someone said you lacked integrity, and you couldn't defend yourself because it was true? I live with that every day.
Consider this my final mail-in to the people of Toronto.
(P.S.: Best of luck in the lottery this summer. And next. And the one after that ... )
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.