HE WAS a bully. He was an ass. He was an arrogant American set loose upon the world, doing that arrogant American thing. Strutting. Finger-pointing. Talking trash. During the gold medal game he shouted at a French opponent, "Why don't you go back home?" He followed one fourth-quarter dunk by blowing a kiss to the crowd, then doubled his pleasure with two kisses after the next. He was great, He was insufferable. Soon he would have that Olympic gold medal. Soon he would be a symbol for everything at the 2000 Sydney Games that felt ugly and wrong.
His friends stared. His mother squirmed. His high school coach, his college teammates, his teammates on the Toronto Raptors, his ever-growing legion of fans—all were taken by surprise. Throughout the preliminary games and the entire Olympic tournament he carried himself like a different man: smile gone, anger boiling over. Twice he engaged in shoving matches; in a tune-up against Australia he nearly came to blows with Aussie national hero Andrew Gaze; once he tried to pick a fight with three Russian opponents as the first half ended. He literally leaped over a 7' 2" Frenchman named Frédéric Weis for one of the most mind-bending dunks in basketball history, then stood and yelled and gestured to the crowd—"as if to say," one scribe wrote, "Drink in the wonder of me."
No one had ever seen him act this way. For two years he had been the NBA's great nice hope, its antidote to the thug-lifes who had stripped the game of its lofty TV ratings and its buzz. He always talked about team. He called Mom after every game. But now, in Sydney, he had replaced his cute shaved scalp with a lopsided mini-Afro. After Team USA scraped by Lithuania, he walked off the court holding up his finger in a ridiculous No. 1 gesture. The Aussie fans jeered. They chanted his name and called him a wanker.
Later, he could explain none of it. Looking back, he, too, wondered what had gotten into him. His career had seemed so perfect, his image so pristine, that few could imagine any reason for him to change so jarringly. But few knew that the furies of modern sports celebrity had, in the previous months, set upon him en masse. Family, agent, endorsements, game: Each spoke in the wheel of his life had snapped, one right after the other, and he found himself besieged no matter which way he turned. He felt betrayed. He felt like a sucker. "Vince didn't want to be Vince Carter," his mother, Michelle, says. "He wanted to be somebody, anybody else."
The Olympics granted that wish, allowing him to get away, far from the brother who couldn't stop messing up, far from the cousin who'd let him down. No, the world didn't like what he became in Australia, but in the rush to rip Carter no one seemed to notice that something strange had occurred. He wasn't only a different person there. He was a different player. At first an afterthought, named to the squad because of an injury to another player, he led the U.S. in scoring and emerged as its dominant force. Freed for the first time from the bonds of decorum, Carter played better than ever.
Now, though, it was ending. Now, in the seconds after the U.S. won the gold medal, a feeling rushed through him like a fresh wind. All the pride and months of frustration and fear came bubbling out, and he began to weep. As he hugged his mother in the stands and the tears streamed down his face, that need to punish anyone who stood in his way left him too. He could feel himself coming back to himself.
Soon, the people around him and the instincts he had developed long ago would impel Carter to cut his hair. Soon he would be nice again, insist he was the old Vince again, and everyone would agree this was all for the best.
HE POSED the question only twice. Once to his dad, once to his mom, a seven-year-old trying to understand why his parents must split up. Vince Sr. and Michelle hemmed and hawed, reciting vague words that revealed nothing, and he never asked again. Learn to live with it, Michelle would say when a problem arose, so he did. He learned to live without his dad, learned to live with Michelle's new husband, her fellow teacher Harry Robinson. "I don't know how I handled it," Carter says. "I just let it go." He did his best to keep everything calm. He called the new man Dad. Vince Jr. was the sweetest boy, everyone said. If there was any sign of conflict, he always slid out of the line of fire.
"Vince goes all out to avoid confrontation," Robinson says. "Sometimes we would say, 'Vince, you've got to stand your ground,' but he'd just say, 'Oh, whatever.' Vince rolls with the punches, and he hopes things will smooth out on their own."
He and his father had been close once. The day the newborn Vince came home from the hospital, Vince Sr. and his brother Oliver Lee, who would soon embark on a solid collegiate basketball career at Marquette, stood over the boy's crib and passed a ball back and forth, as if conjuring the magic to come. Oliver gave little Vince his first ball, took the two-year-old outside to shoot it. When Marquette assistant Hank Raymonds showed up to recruit Oliver, the coach sat Vince Jr. on his lap until the boy squirmed away to dribble around.