In the early 2000s, Shaquille O'Neal was the big fish in the ocean that almost every player wanted to team up with. O'Neal was the most dominant player in the game, and when he was available (via free agency or trade), several teams did their part by going all out to land the big man in their city.
One team that was so close to acquiring the 4-time champion's services was the Toronto Raptors, who were then led by Vince Carter.
Carter recruited O'Neal
In a one-on-one interview with Sports Illustrated's Jacob Feldman in 2019, Carter admitted that he went out of his way to relentlessly recruit The Diesel to Toronto. The eight-time All-Star admitted that he was close to teaming up with O'Neal to the point that it was almost a done deal. However, what prevented the deal from going through was O'Neal's unwillingness to live in Canada.
“The only time I can recall is I tried to get Shaq to Toronto," Carter said. "I felt like it was close. It was tough at the time, just because ... a lot of guys were like, 'What's Canada about?' It was tough to convince players that it's a great place until they're actually there."
Knowing how O'Neal approached his basketball career, it makes sense why he didn't decide to team up with Carter on the Raptors. The big man has said throughout his career that his side gigs, specifically his music and acting career, were a big deal for him. Shaq knew that he wouldn't be able to pursue this in Toronto, nor did he like the idea of living outside the United States. It was a harsh truth pill to swallow for Carter, whose career would've probably been different if he had teamed up with O'Neal.
The reality of big markets vs. small markets in the NBA
As great as the idea of teaming up with a prime Vince Carter was, O'Neal's reasons not to take his talents to Toronto fully depict the NBA's market landscape. It's hard to blame O'Neal and other players who chose to go to a team that best suits their living situations and interests. That's how the NBA has worked throughout time, and it's one thing that will probably never stop. The disparity between the advantages of big and small markets has dictated the league for decades. It's smaller than ever, but still exists.
The league is aware of the disparity and has even embraced it over time. They focus their national attention on the big cities, especially when it comes to marketing, TV time, and even for individual awards and accomplishments. One can argue that Carter could've probably had O'Neal as a teammate if he was on a different team, especially in a big market — but alas, it's a player's league, and they get to dictate most of what they want to do.