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Until then, Carter and Bryant had been the most popular candidates to assume Michael Jordan's mantle. Bryant would go on to win three straight championships, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would enter the conversation, and Carter would fall out of it completely. "The truth is he was never interested in that," says Cavaliers forward Antawn Jamison, one of Carter's closest friends. "You'd tell him he was the next Jordan, and he'd say, 'Nah, bro, not even close.'"
Vince Carter always wanted to be the next Julius Erving. He had Dr. J jerseys and an autographed Dr. J ball. He would write his book reports in school on Dr. J biographies. "I like that he took pride in winning," Carter says, "and also entertaining." In the spring of 2004 the Raptors were looking for a general manager, and Erving, then senior vice president of the Magic, called Carter to express his interest. Carter called the Toronto brass to recommend him.
"I was like, If we can get Dr. J in here, coaches will want to come here, players will want to play here, we'll be on our way!" Carter says. "They were like, O.K., we'll look into it, and that was it. After that, my communication with the organization was different. I didn't get calls returned. It felt like they didn't want me anymore."
The divorce between Carter and the Raptors was one of the messiest in modern sports. Coach Sam Mitchell would sit him on the bench for long stretches of the fourth quarter—"He was never a distraction," Mitchell says, "but you could tell he didn't have the passion for it"—and Carter would in turn tell new general manager Rob Babcock, "Move me if you don't want me." Fans came to games dressed as babies. Teammates questioned Carter's injuries. Even former Raptor Charles Oakley, a keeper of NBA cred, told a Toronto newspaper, "My heart beats different."
Nets officials watched the ordeal unfold and saw a player who had gone from overrated to underrated in record time. "He became a victim of his own ability," says former Toronto coach Kevin O'Neill. "He'd make a three-pointer falling away from the basket with two guys on him, and then if he missed an open 14-footer, it was like he wasn't trying hard."
When Carter was traded to New Jersey in December 2004, his game expanded, though he insists his effort level stayed the same. He became a better passer, a better leader and better under pressure, shooting 50.0% last year in clutch situations, according to 82games.com. After he left, the Nets flirted with the worst record in NBA history, a backhanded tribute. "He's one of the more maligned superstars we've had in the past 10 to 15 years," Frank says. "But the perception doesn't meet the reality."
The Magic declined to sign Carter as a free agent two years ago because Smith thought he floated through parts of games. In fact, Smith still thinks Carter floats through parts of games, relying on his jumper despite his ability to drive. Carter makes fewer than half as many shots at the rim as he did four years ago, according to hoopdata.com, a common side effect of aging, and he rarely gets to the line. "You don't know if he just loves his jumper," says one opposing coach, "or doesn't want the contact."
Orlando was poised to re-sign free-agent forward Hedo Turkoglu after reaching the Finals last season, but when Turkoglu rejected the team's initial informal offer, Smith revisited Carter's numbers. The Magic opted to trade for Carter (giving up guard Courtney Lee in a five-player deal) and let Turkoglu walk, and at the beginning, management looked like fools. Carter vacillated between shooting all the time and passing all the time. He had the worst month of his career in January, scoring 8.7 points on 28.4% shooting, and he was booed lightly at home. But at week's end he was averaging 17.8 points on 48.7% shooting since Feb. 1. Meanwhile, Turkoglu has replaced Carter as a target in Toronto, where he signed for five years and $53 million and was scoring 11.5 points per game through Sunday, amid familiar questions about commitment.
Several contenders made splashy moves last summer and did not get any better—the Lakers with Ron Artest, the Celtics with Rasheed Wallace, the Spurs with Richard Jefferson. The Magic is the exception. Point guard Jameer Nelson is back at full strength, Barnes is thriving as a bouncer for Howard, and Carter says he's eager to show off "all the parts of my game they didn't know I had." While the Cavs and the Lakers will try to win with their headliners, Orlando will do it as a group.
There will come a time, though, when the clock is ticking and the Magic needs someone to sink the kind of shot that Carter missed nine years ago. He is raising his hand again. "You know why I missed it?" he says. "Because I wanted so bad for it to go in. I live for that moment." And if the ball rims out again, he fails to win a title and all he leaves behind are highlights, the judge he cares about most will appreciate him still.