TORONTO -- The Atlanta Hawks gathered around Vince Carter after Tuesday morning's shootaround at Scotiabank Arena and sang "Happy Birthday" to the NBA's oldest player.

Carter had actually turned 43 on Sunday, the same day retired Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash, and the entire NBA was in mourning.

Carter, who'd played alongside Bryant on numerous U.S. national teams, found solace that day on the court.

He initially believed Sunday's game against visiting Washington should've been cancelled, but the 152-133 win over the Wizards ended up being cathartic, and perhaps the best way to honour Bryant.

"It was fitting for a lot of us. Guys wanted to go play like they did, for him," Carter said. "That's where you give a tribute for a guy like that. You go out there and play hard. And being in the moment. Because that's what Kobe is about, the Mamba mentality, being in the moment, dominating in the moment."

The former longtime Raptor was back in Toronto on Tuesday for his penultimate game in the city where his NBA career began. So Raptors fans who loved/hated/then loved the superstar dubbed "half man, half amazing" will have one last time to say so long when the Hawks play in Toronto on April 10.

"The next (game in Toronto) is my last," Carter said. "This is the easy one in my mind."

The NBA is still reeling from Bryant's death. His impact in the league was like few others. When he and the Lakers played in Toronto, there were often as many gold and purple Bryant jerseys in the crowd as Raptors shirts.

"He was a star," Carter said. "So regardless if he played for your favourite team or not you had an appreciation for him. It was like when Michael Jordan would come to town. . . obviously there were towns where you hated him and wouldn't dare wear a Kobe jersey, (like) Sacramento, but you still respected him for his drive and for his willingness to be the best and to try to win by any means.

"So it was something special (to play Bryant) and to battle him head up was what it was all about, man. It wasn't like, 'Ah man, I gotta play Kobe.' It was more like, 'I better be ready for Kobe or my job might be blown up."'

Drafted in 1998, Carter played just over six seasons for the Raptors before they traded the eight-time all-star to New Jersey. He recently became the first NBAer in history to play in games spanning four decades.

Carter was Public Enemy No. 1 in Toronto for a long time after he left, but fans have since warmed up to the man who was a huge reason why Canada is now rich in young basketball talent.

He said it's "always special," to play north of the border. Carter said he likes to educate his young teammates about the history of each city in which they play, particularly Toronto.

"We try to play the music of the city where we're playing so Drake got a little love today," Carter said. "They look up at the rafters, see that (NBA championship) banner here and the other one over there too from when the arena opened. I was a part of that.

"I always give them a history lesson and I hold it near and dear to me. And I do think about the fact that I was the first person to score a basket in this arena. . . It was surreal at that moment, and that's forever etched in the history of this building and that's special."

Carter also won the NBA rookie of the year award in 1999, and the dunk contest in 2000.

There is one memorable Raptors game was happily not to have been a part of. He was traded about a year before Bryant exploded for 81 points against the Raptors -- the second most points in a game in NBA history. Carter was still close with former teammates Jalen Rose and Morris Peterson at the time, and watched the game with keen interest.

"I was glad I missed that," Carter laughed Tuesday. "It's easy when you're sitting at home, (to say) 'Just double-team him.' Well if you're watching, they were trying to send double-teams. When a guy is in a moment, rhythm like that, I've never scored 81 points, I've scored 60-something in some summer games.

"You watch Kobe Bryant playing the game like he was playing against college, high school guys. He was scoring at will like that, it was just amazing to see, and I was like, 'Hooooo!' Imagine what would be said about me if I was still in that game. I'm fouling him out. I'm gonna foul out first."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2020.