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Air Canada to fly again

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Toronto Raptors.

TORONTO -- Remember the nicknames? Remember when Vince Carter was the most popular player in the NBA?

Injuries and criticism over the past two seasons caused Carter to go from the king of the NBA to a battered player trying to climb his way back to the top. But now that the high-flying Toronto Raptors forward is healthy, he plans on showing everybody that he's back this season.

"Oh yeah. I know so. I'm not worried about that," replied Carter when asked if fans will see the old VC. "I'm at a point now where my play is going to take care of itself. I need to do what I need to do, basically, and let the team's success glorify a lot of things for a lot of players on this team. Not just for me, for the team."

Carter's rise and fall is a story that every person sitting on top should take note.

The 6-foot-6, 225-pounder became an NBA star during his first season in 1998. He received 95.8 percent of the votes for Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 18.3 points and winning the slam dunk contest. Next came commercials for Nike and Gatorade, sold-out arenas across the league and comparisons to Michael Jordan. Strong proof of his popularity was seen in the fact he was the leading vote-getter for the NBA All-Star Game from 2001 to '03, including earning the second-highest vote total in league history in 2000 with 1.9 million votes.

"Vinsanity" was running rampant. But before Carter could get too comfortable with his crown, he fell back down to earth after several events on and off the hardwood.

During the 2001 NBA playoffs, then-Raptors teammate Charles Oakley criticized Carter for trying to deflect attention away from himself and onto the team as a whole.

Also during that postseason, Carter received strong criticism on one of the most memorable days of his life -- the day he graduated from the University of North Carolina. That same day, the Raptors faced a deciding Game 7 in the second round against the 76ers. After the ceremony in Chapel Hill, N.C., Carter flew on a private plane to Philadelphia, where he ended up missing the final shot of the game -- a 23-footer just before the buzzer that was a little too long.

Next, Carter missed the final 14 games of the 2001-02 season following left knee surgery. Despite being voted an East starter in the 2003 All-Star Game, he was criticized heavily for not giving up his spot to Jordan and was booed during pregame introductions. Carter gave up his place in the lineup before tipoff to Jordan, who strongly stated after the game that Carter was wrongly criticized. Due to three stints on the injured list, Carter missed a career-high 39 games last season as the Raptors missed the playoffs last season.

"I know it's a business. I know it's a job. I understand now how things change and how it goes," Carter said. "People [love] you when you're doing real well, and when you're not, the NBA can be a tough road for you. I can accept that. The big picture is I'm still here."

And Carter also has extra motivation to take the Raptors far since he says they never gave up on him.

"It hits you hard," Carter said of his plummet. "But for me, you shrug it off and say, 'Hey, I know what I can do.' I know what my worth is to this team. They told me all the time, 'We believe in you.' And that's a jolt of confidence right there night in and night out that the organization is behind you and believes in you. That's why my sole focus is to satisfy this organization."

Carter says his body now "feels great." Raptors forward Antonio Davis and guard Morris Peterson are back, forward Lamond Murray is healthy and heralded rookie forward Chris Bosh has looked great in the preseason.

"Vince is going to have an outstanding year," Raptors coach Kevin O'Neill said. "Looking at the last two years, the guy was hurt. He was in a situation where he wasn't healthy, and he still averaged 22 points a game. So, I think Vince Carter is going to have a great year. I've said this a lot of times -- he's the least of my concerns."

By the way Carter played for Team USA during the Tournament of Americas in Puerto Rico, "Vinsanity" seems to be prepared for having a great year. But even if he can't get fans to chant his old nicknames again, his appreciation for the good old days will be much stronger now after going through all the bad.

"It's been great, a great career," Carter said. "I don't know [if it's what I expected]. I just wanted to be a part of this atmosphere, being an NBA player. That's what it's all about, not all that other stuff. I have the opportunity to be here every day to have good days and bad days. Every player in this league doesn't have all great days and all good years.

"I'm lucky. This is the best job in the world, in my opinion. I'm doing something I love to do. I'm healthy and I'm happy."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.