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 Hard-away. "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."