The Accidental Superstar
Rejuvenated since his move to Jersey, Vince Carter is still capable of reminding us why we care so much about his place in the game
It’s been over a decade since Vince Carter entered the League. In that time, he’s accomplished amazing feats on the court and gained love from the fans in the process. Sometimes, though, especially upon exiting Toronto, VC has been the recipient of ridicule. People accused him of not going his hardest, and of not caring enough about winning. In the last few years, playing in the Meadowlands, VC has quietly put up rock solid numbers and, for the most part, put out solid effort. Carter’s stint there did a solid job of repairing his damaged rep. On the move again, and on his last legs, Vince has returned home to Orlando. With any luck, the now-happy non-franchise player will get to play sidekick to Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis on the way to the 2009-2010 NBA Finals. We’ll just have to wait and see.—Tzvi Twersky
by Ben Osborne
It’s 90 minutes before the Nets tip off against the Toronto Raptors—Vince Carter’s first game against his old team—and the first row of seats at Continental Airlines Arena is already filled with kids, all of them chanting in unison, “We want Vince! We want Vince!” Though he’s nowhere to be seen, the one and only Vincent Lamar Carter is the object of their affection, and the chants are a reminder of the sway he holds over his fans, particularly the young ones. Jason Kidd may have done wonders for this franchise, but neither JKidd nor Richard Jefferson, Stephon Marbury, Kenny Anderson or anyone else who has played for this franchise has captured the hearts of Nets fans like Vince.
A fortnight later, after practice, he is asked what it means to be cheered when he isn’t even in sight, to have his jersey consistently sell well, to be handily voted a starter in the All-Star Game for five straight seasons. “Well, um, I don’t know,” Vince begins. “I can’t figure it out and I’m not going to try to figure it out.”
Well, um, OK. A player so talented he single-handedly puts fans in arena seats, and so explosive he makes those same fans get out of their seats and scream—“a couple of times every single game” says Nets coach Lawrence Frank—claims not to know what makes him so appealing. And as much as you might want to shake some sense into him when you hear that, it’s also likely that you have no clue what it’s like to fly—and get gawked at for doing so.
All of which is a metaphor for Vince Carter’s entire situation, that of a player at a confusing career crossroads who cannot, or will not, be figured out. Watching the 28-year-old play simply offers too many contradictions, and getting any real opportunity to hang out and actually converse with him is impossible, thanks to his absurdly over-protective handlers. The rest of this story encompasses what we do know, augmented by quotes we got from Vince and some other folks in the League. Read it—we know you will. And when you’re done reading, pull out these awesome photos of a man who still, occasionally, does things on the court that are akin to great works of art. We know you’ll do that, too. We know this because of the All-Star votes, the Trash Talk letters and the viewers who made this February’s Nets’ telecasts the highest-rated of any month in the team’s three years on YES. For better or worse, y’all cannot get enough of Vince Carter.
The Vince Carter-Toronto marriage was pretty rocky ever since ’01, when he capped a terrific season—27.6 ppg, second-team all-NBA honors—by leading the Raptors to the second round of the playoffs, then attending his college graduation on the same day as Toronto’s Game 7 meeting with the Sixers, in which he missed the potential game-winning shot. The following season got off to a decent start but was marred by Vince missing 22 regular season games with an aching left knee, including the last 14 and the Raps’ brief playoff run. The next season was even worse, as Carter played just 43 games and saw his scoring average plummet to 20.6 ppg while teammates questioned his desire to play. He was still elected as an All-Star starter that season, but even that was tainted by the silly controversy about Michael Jordan “deserving” his spot due to career achievement. Looking back, the summer of ’03 probably would’ve been the best time for Toronto to trade Vince and start fresh, but the team rightly considered his value to be unnaturally low at that point—little did they know—and VC was still saying the right things about coming back strong in ’03-04.
Playing for a first-year coach, the nutty Kevin O’Neill, Carter managed to suit up 73 times last season, averaging 22.5 ppg along with a career-high 4.8 apg. He also garnered a whopping 2.1 million All-Star votes, easily the most in the East. Still, something was missing. The highlights seemed to come less often, and the team spiraled from a promising 20-17 start to finish 33-49. Soon after, O’Neill was fired, Sam Mitchell hired, little new talent appeared on the horizon, and Vince had officially had enough. “Last summer is when I knew,” he says. “I told them what I was feeling, but I left it up to them. I wasn’t trying to shortchange anybody. They had the opportunity to go out and try to find something that was good for them. It just got harder and harder as time went on.”
Speaking of the malaise Vince exhibited as his T-Dot days wound down, brother-in-law and college teammate Antawn Jamison says, “I’d never seen that side of him before, and I pretty much grew up with him.”
His willingness to cash max-level checks while putting forth less than max-level effort—he was averaging career lows of 15.9 ppg and 3.3 rpg through this season’s first 20 games—is what really irks the Toronto faithful, and this story is not meant to absolve Vince of blame. But those of us in the real world put forth less than our best all the time, and, according to Mitchell, the people who theoretically should’ve been bothered most by Carter’s relative mailing it in have no problems with him whatsoever. “If you are one of the fortunate handful of players who can actually demand a trade, you’re in a different situation than 90 percent of the players in the League,” says Sam, whose 13-year playing career allow him to speak with authority on the topic. “Vince expressed a view that he wanted to be traded, and guys kind of felt like, if that’s what he wants and he has the clout to get it done, then that’s kind of what happens. You just accept it as part of the business. There’s nothing you can really do about it anyway.”
For the latter part of Carter’s career in Toronto, his problems with losses and injuries were compounded by family drama; according to the New York Daily News, Vince’s brother, Christopher, spent the early part of the millennium shuffling in and out of prison on a variety of drug and theft charges. “They say leave your personal life at home, and I agree,” Carter told the News in February. “But sometimes it’s tough.”
Christopher told the paper his life is back on track now, which has coincided with Vince getting married last summer, finally getting dealt by the Raptors in December and expecting his first child in May. There has also been the not- inconsequential warming of relations between Vince (and many of his fellow alumni) and the revered North Carolina basketball program. With our talk taking place a day after the Tar Heels beat Duke in the ACC regular season finale, Carter gets truly animated when asked about his school. “I was tuned in to that game,” VC emphasizes. “I was watching with my brother, sitting on the edge of the seat, and when Marvin [Williams] got that rebound and and-one, I got up yelling and ran to the front room.
Remembering the down days under Matt Doherty, Vince goes on: “It had kind of dropped off a little. You had a guy like Eric Montross, who is the biggest alum I know, not even going back. Those were tough times. But last August, Stackhouse had an event [The World’s Greatest Alumni Game, pitting ex-UNC players against former ACC standouts; Vine ended it with an emphatic tomahawk.] and a lot of guys showed up. We also played pick-up with the current guys. We’re talking about big names, and they were all there. I think it’s good for the young guys. When you get the opportunity to talk with NBA guys and be around them and learn from them and then get to play with them and see the style and the pace of the game, you have an inside track right there.” He smiles. “Maybe we’re the reason they’re playing so well now.”
So that’s better. As far as the aftermath of his trade, Carter makes efforts to underscore the fact that he does not have any real beef with Toronto. “[The media] is rough in Toronto. They never rattled me, though,” he begins. “I miss everything about Toronto, but they’ve moved on, I’ve moved on, no hard feelings. I just think it was more of a business decision for both sides, but they didn’t understand that… I still plan on going up there in the summer and hanging out. I still own a club up there. I’ll be back. That’s my point: regardless of this trade, I still have ties to Toronto and I plan on keeping them.”
Almost from his first game as a Net, Carter has shown enough basketball ability to justify being the absolute face of this franchise, which it could use with RJ hurt and Kidd working the trade phones behind closed doors. However, even in the wake of a franchise-record 18 straight games with 20 points or more and Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for February, Carter doesn’t have any interest in being the “man” here. “It’s still Jason’s team, and it always will be his team,” Vince smiles. “He brings too much to the table, he’s done too much for this franchise. I’m just here to lend a helping hand and take a little pressure off him. Other than that, I never intended on it being my team. My goal is to try to do that for him, just be another guy out there that can draw double teams and is willing to give the ball up.”
So he’s got the high-scoring, high-flying, wide-grinning act back, but the Ws aren’t quite there yet. Through mid-March, the Nets have been about a .500 team with him and Kidd in the lineup together; Jefferson’s absence has hurt, but many observers look at the Carter-Kidd duo alone and see at least a playoff team. “We haven’t done that bad,” is Carter’s reply to a shouldn’t-you-guys-be-doing-better line of questioning.
This Vince also says he expects future improvement, particularly in his own game, and the stats show the 6-6, 220-pounder has become a better shooter from beyond the arc (42 percent) and at the line (83 percent) since coming to NJ. But generally, he’s playing the same hyper-athletic, slightly inefficient brand of ball he’s played since ’01, with Net averages of 25.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 4.7 apg through mid-March. “I want people to see that I can do a little bit of everything well,” he says. “My goal now is just to continue to learn. I always wanted to get better. I got hurt in Toronto, but I feel like I’m still young and can still learn a lot. Being here is rebirth, but I’ve always been trying to get better whether I was on the floor or off.
If this is true, you might wonder, why does Carter continue to execute pull-up Js, Starbury-like jump passes and entertaining-but-contact-avoiding forays into the lane at the expense of hard drives to the hoop that should result in free throws or and-ones? Ask Dwyane Wade, a 6-4 guard who’s going to get rich off his willingness to attack and the 9.8 free throws it affords him each game. “Vince is so smooth,” Miami’s second-year All-Star says. “He has lift and an ability to glide around guys that other players don’t have. Instead of going into the contact, he can glide around them and make certain plays.”
It’s certainly an awe-inspiring “ability,” but is it best for Carter and his team? “It comes from my imagination,” says VC, who was averaging 6.8 FTAs per game since the trade. “Sometimes I let my imagination get involved. And what that means is, the hell with trying to worry about if the refs gonna call it, I need to put the ball in the basket because if not, I’ll miss an opportunity to get my team points. I have talked with L [as in Frank] about it because he’ll say, ‘Golly, Vince, a 360? Come on.’ But he understands where I’m coming from. When I’m at home, I sit there like, I’m not getting the calls, so what can I do to offset this? And that’s what I come up with—trying to do something to make sure I can get around the defender.” He ends with a laugh: “If you watch me in practice and see me do what in some people’s minds are wacky moves, well, I do them in the game. So technically, it’s not a wacky move.”
As Carter’s first Net season winds down with a now-familiar combo of disappointment and promise, it’s like his career has woken from the relative hibernation caused by injuries and controversy. But people’s view of the erstwhile Dr. Funk has changed forever. There is no longer any illusion that he will be the next Jordan, capable of carrying a team to a title and his League to greater pop culture relevancy. As basketball fans, we can be sad about the first part—that Vince remains unwilling to take over a team and make it unapologetically his own, even when his talent seems to indicate he could. But maybe we shouldn’t care about the second part. We love ball whether Johnny-come-lately media types think it’s hot this month or not. And Carter can most definitely ball.
True enough, when Vince is asked why fans like him, he doesn’t immediately know what to say. That initial quote about “not trying to figure it out” comes quickly, but then Vince sits there, making that distant eye contact, and ponders. Finally, he goes on. “I think fans just appreciate what I bring to the table, and I’m thankful for that. I’m blessed with the ability to do some things that fans enjoy seeing. I also think I got a little game, so when you put those together, you get something good to see.”