No one is lighting up the NBA like Vince Carter, but can he continue to soar under the rising weight of expectations and the burdens of celebrity?
By Phil Taylor
Issue date: February 28, 2000
The plane was ready to take off, and so, in a sense, was Vince Carter. He was at the airport in Toronto on Feb. 10, about to board a spacious private jet with Raptors teammate Tracy McGrady and several team executives, bound for an NBA All-Star weekend in Oakland that would change his life. Caterers had stocked the flight with a feast fit for the man who two days later would be Slam Dunk King, including shrimp cocktail, prime rib and champagne, but Carter and McGrady had a different meal in mind. An airport courtesy van was dispatched to McDonald's, and by the time the jet was off the ground, Carter was munching on a 20-piece pack of Chicken McNuggets.
Gobbling fast food while flying in luxury is typical of Carter's life these days -- he's trying to stay grounded while enjoying his soaring popularity. If the 1,911,973 votes he received from fans for the All-Star Game, second only to Michael Jordan's 1997 tally, weren't proof enough of his appeal, his electrifying performance in winning the dunk contest catapulted him from emerging star to megastar Vince-tantaneously. Shoe companies clamored for his endorsement; entertainers buzzed about his acting potential; legends of the game such as Julius Erving and Magic Johnson trekked to the locker room just to pay homage; and kids across North America fantasized about replicating his 360, windmill dunk and his between-the-legs tomahawk slam. Two of his 12 points in the next day's All-Star Game came on a double-clutch sidewinder dunk off a lob from Allen Iverson. "It's been fantastic, and I'm just trying to enjoy it," the 23-year-old Carter said on Sunday of his ascension to a new level of celebrity, "but it's been tough at times, too." The tough part included a wearying off-the-court schedule that caused his play to suffer, at least temporarily, and the discovery that the demands of international stardom are sometimes at odds with the demands of being a small forward for the Raptors.
It's no wonder, then, that Carter has seemed alternately at ease and on edge during the last two dizzying weeks. He was effusive and enthusiastic at a clinic for grade-schoolers in Oakland during All-Star weekend, but two days later he barely acknowledged fans during an autograph-signing appearance. "It's not easy when everybody wants a piece of you," says Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill. "I went through it, I'm sure Shaquille [O'Neal] and Kobe [Bryant] went through it when they first came into the league. Eventually he'll learn how to handle it, but it can seem overwhelming."
On the whole, though, Carter welcomes the trappings of his new celebrity. He moves easily between the worlds of sports and entertainment, counting actors such as Jamie Foxx and Bill Bellamy among his friends. Inquire if he's interested in acting, and he casually says, "Brandy was asking me that just the other day." For now, however, playing the role of the NBA's ace drawing card is enough of a challenge. Although he politely tries to steer clear of Jordan comparisons, the parallels are unavoidable -- from the ties to North Carolina to the shaved heads to the gravity-defying acrobatics. At times it seems as if His Airness has passed through a Xerox machine. "Am I tired of Jordan questions? Yeah," Carter says. "It's a great compliment, but everybody in the league has flashes of playing like Mike sometime. I'm more interested in establishing my own identity."
There are those who think Carter has already matched Jordan in at least one key area. "Vince Carter is a great player and one of the most exciting talents in this league, but he's getting all the calls that Michael used to get," said Pistons coach Alvin Gentry, after an overtime victory over the Raptors in early February. "If Vince Carter is shooting 15 free throws, Grant Hill should be shooting at least 20."
But aside from the occasional complaint of coddling by the officials, Carter hasn't encountered any of the professional jealousy that other young NBA stars faced when they became media darlings. He wasn't frozen out by the veterans in his first All-Star Game, the way Jordan was as a rookie, in 1985, or triple-teamed whenever he touched the ball, as O'Neal was nine years later. He also didn't do anything to incur the wrath of older All-Stars, as Bryant did two years ago when he waved off a screen set by Karl Malone.
In fact Carter has been embraced by his fellow stars, old and young alike. O'Neal calls him his favorite player. Iverson ran off the court after the dunk contest shouting, "Vin-sanity, baby, I love it!" The idea of Carter replacing Jordan as the face of the NBA in just his second season has yet to meet with resistance. On the contrary, with its attendance and ratings sagging and its revenues stagnating, the NBA desperately needs someone with Jordanesque appeal. "The league should turn to him," says Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway. "He's not wearing braids, he doesn't have any tattoos. He's just a regular guy who comes out and works hard every night."
Actually, Carter does more than that -- he entertains. The dunk contest may have been a turning point in his career, but the slams he comes up with in games are often more thrilling because they happen so suddenly. Where lesser leapers would settle for short jumpers, Carter continues floating to the basket for stuffs that didn't seem possible when he left the floor. Though these glides to the basket begin gracefully, they end viciously when he jams the ball with a snap of his arm like the crack of a whip.
But Carter wants to be known as more than just a rim rattler, in much the same way that Ken Griffey Jr. is uncomfortable being pigeonholed as a home run hitter. "Dunkers come and go," Carter says. "You can go down to the playground and find a bunch of guys who can do fancy dunks. The great players excel at all aspects of the game. That's what I want to be." He spent much of the off-season working on his jump shot, and the effort has paid off, especially beyond the three-point arc, where he has improved his accuracy from 28.8% last season to 36.3% at week's end. His scoring average (24.7 points, sixth in the league), rebounds (6.0), assists (3.8), steals (1.4) and shooting percentages (45.5 from the field, 79.7 from the line) were up as well. "I remember the first time I played against him, I said, 'If this kid gets a jump shot, he's going to be awesome,'" says Heat swingman Dan Majerle. "He developed a jump shot pretty quick. So if he continues to work on his game and not be satisfied, the sky's the limit."
Carter's turnaround jumper, especially his fadeaway from the baseline, is almost as reminiscent of Jordan's as his stuffs are, but overall his midrange game remains the weakest part of his repertoire. "I think he needs to handle the ball better, but he certainly has the ability to do that," says Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel. Others cite this flaw in the 6'7" forward who spends so much time above the rim: "He could be a better rebounder," says Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire, "but that's nitpicking."
Defensively, Carter is no ball hawk. He's like an outfielder who can outrun his mistakes, tending to rely more on his athleticism than on positioning to contain an opponent. In a 91-70 win over the New York Knicks on Feb. 15, Carter lost track of Latrell Sprewell, who slipped open for a baseline jumper, but recovered in time to get over and block Sprewell's shot. "He's about 60 percent of what he could be as a player," says Raptors coach Butch Carter (no relation). "Eventually, he's going to come out and play at a level every night that will amaze you. Do I think that's going to happen in his second year in the league? Absolutely not."
Despite his desire to be known as a complete player, Carter is sometimes as dunk-conscious as his fans are. He doesn't keep a written list of the players he has thrown down on, as he did at North Carolina, because he now commits his list to memory. Mention a player, and Carter can tell you if he has victimized him. "'Zo? Yeah, I got him," he said of Miami center Alonzo Mourning, a few days before the All-Star Game. "[Dikembe] Mutombo? Got him twice. Got the big dude in Indiana, [Rik] Smits. Got Dale Davis, too. Haven't gotten [Patrick] Ewing yet." Then he paused and smiled. "We play them on Tuesday." He added Ewing to his list just eight minutes into that game, and then, as if he had suddenly remembered his desire to display his diverse skills, moved outside to stroke three-pointers and baseline jumpers for 15 first-quarter points, en route to 29.
That's the sort of talent and devilish self-confidence that makes Carter attractive to advertisers. He already has endorsement deals with Gatorade, Kellogg's, Skybox trading cards and Spalding, and his agent Tank Black's cell phone was ringing constantly in Oakland with calls from other companies wanting to deal. Black estimates that Carter will earn $20 million in off-court income by the end of the year. Some of that will no doubt be from a sneaker company. Carter signed a five-year contract with Puma before his rookie season but moved to end that relationship earlier this year. Neither Carter nor Black will discuss the matter because it is in arbitration, but Carter has complained to friends that the Puma shoes hurt his feet. Meanwhile, other footwear companies are pursuing him; he returned to his hotel room one afternoon during All-Star weekend to find four Adidas boxes, unrequested, waiting for him. The sneaker endorsement issue is no insignificant matter. "All he needs is the kind of publicity machine that Nike's been for Jordan," says NBC broadcaster and CBA pooh-bah Isiah Thomas. "If he gets that, in terms of his status as a major star, it's going to be Michael all over again."
With Butch Carter around, the business of being a star isn't likely to distract Vince from his primary occupation for long. That became evident the night after the defeat of the Knicks, when Carter looked tired in a 109-101 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Although he finished with 21 points, he was overwhelmed in his first-half matchup with Jalen Rose, who outscored him 23-4 before intermission as the Pacers built a 20-point halftime lead. The Raptors coach moved swiftly to make it clear that he would not let such a low-energy performance pass, even if it was the inevitable result of his fatigued star's whirlwind week. He warned that Vince's time on stage would be reduced if he didn't see a better effort, mentioning the possibility of replacing Carter in the starting lineup with McGrady, the Raptors' sixth man, on the second night of back-to-back games. "I want [Vince] playing more minutes, but I don't want him pacing himself," Butch said. "I'll play him shorter minutes to start the game if I have to, to give him a wake-up call."
Vince seemed surprised by Butch's comments but didn't consider them either a threat or a punishment. Indeed, the Raptors' meal ticket doesn't see himself as too big to take criticism from his coach. "I'll just play as many minutes as he wants me to and go from there," he said of the prospect of reduced minutes. "What's important is that I'm productive when I'm on the floor. That's how I see it." Carter wouldn't be the first player whose willingness to listen to criticism decreased as his fame increased, but he does have a watchful coach and veteran teammates, such as 6'9", 245-pound forward Charles Oakley, to keep his ego in check. "If we have any problem, I'll have to take him into the ring," Oakley says. "It would be like a heavyweight and a flyweight, wouldn't it?"
With a coach who won't coddle him and teammates who will keep him grounded, Toronto seems to be the best place for Carter to develop as a player. At week's end the Raptors record of 27-24 ranked sixth in the Eastern Conference, and they seemed well on their way to qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's five-year history. But whether it is the best place for him to develop the star power that can draw casual viewers back to the NBA is another issue. Even though his All-Star vote total is proof of his popularity in the U.S., playing half his games in Canada limits his exposure south of the border. When the Raptors face the Phoenix Suns in Toronto on NBC this Sunday, it will mark Carter's regular-season debut on the network; the NBA even moved the time of the 76ers-Knicks matchup, which was also scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m., to make the Raptors the national game and bring Philadelphia and New York to the broadcast. But showing his games won't give NBC, TNT or TBS as big a ratings boost as it would if he played in a U.S. market, because the Toronto audience isn't measured by Nielsen.
The notion that Carter can do for the popularity of basketball in Canada what Wayne Gretzky did for hockey in the U.S. is a stretch as well. Although he has brought more Canadian viewers to the NBA, the only way Carter can attain high-level star power in Canada is if he trades in his jump shot for a slap shot. The night he won the slam dunk contest, TSN's Sports Desk, the Canadian equivalent of ESPN's SportsCenter, opened with nine minutes of NHL highlights before getting to the news of his victory. The next morning the Toronto Sun sports section had a photo from the Maple Leafs-Vancouver Canucks game on the front page instead of one of Carter. (There were encouraging signs, however: Despite tepid interest in Toronto, the All-Star Game set a Canadian record for an NBA telecast, drawing some 806,000 viewers.)
The Raptors hope that Carter will appreciate not having every member of the Toronto media tracking his every move, and that he won't be lured by a U.S. market when his contract runs out. His four-year deal expires after 2001-02, with the Raptors retaining the option to keep him for a fifth season. Carter is offering them encouraging signs, but he is careful to remain noncommittal. "I just play," he says. "It's never mattered to me where I was playing as long as I'm comfortable with the organization and the city."
It's too early for either side to spend much time worrying about that, anyway. There is much that can change during the next two years because, hard as it is to believe after watching him soar through the air, Vince Carter is still rising.
Issue date: February 28, 2000