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.