- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Vince Carter scooped up the ball at half-court, 47 unobstructed feet in front of him, a blank canvas awaiting his impression. He took a dribble, considered all available forms of aerial gymnastics, then decided to do the prudent thing. He would simply lay the ball in, run back downcourt with his head bowed and assume his defensive stance. He would act his age (33) and his position (veteran presence on a championship contender). He would be, for perhaps the first time in his high-flying life, pedestrian.
Then he took another dribble and heard the siren song that still accompanies every one of his breakaways, the expectant gasp formed by thousands sucking in their breath at once. He thought about the Easter Sunday crowd at Orlando's Amway Arena inching forward in their seats, folks at home creeping off their couches, his mother flashing him the sideways look from the fourth row that says, Come on, give me somethin'! He feared that if he went through with his all-business finger roll, even his mom might boo. "I still feel an obligation," Carter says, "to do what you've never seen before."
For 12 years he has filled airwaves with windmills and tomahawks, honey dips and reverse 360s—like the one he finally chose to punctuate his Easter breakaway with against the Grizzlies. He does not levitate the way he once did, but he complements his occasional jams with age-inappropriate half-court jumpers, kick-out fadeaways and lefthanded three-pointers he throws up after the whistle. More remarkable are the stunts he saves for scrimmages and layup lines, passed down like folklore. At 6'6" he has swiped change off the tops of backboards, hung from rims by his elbows and finished alley-oops that he threw to himself off gym walls. In practice he once dunked over nine players, including his four teammates. In a shootaround he walked into the stands and made 7 of 10 from the lower bowl. "He does things with a ball," says former Nets coach Lawrence Frank, "that astronauts do in space."
After one workout this season he plopped next to center Dwight Howard in the key and fired a fastball from a sitting position at the basket on the other side of the court, 86 feet away. Even that went down. Orlando general manager Otis Smith has tried to figure out Carter's fascination with trick shots and has come up with only one explanation. "He's so talented, he gets bored," Smith says. "He tries to increase the degree of difficulty." In that way his career has been an endless extension of the 2000 slam dunk contest, for which he spent weeks choreographing an intricate routine, scrapped it at the last moment, improvised every move and still put on the most mind-bending display in the history of the event.
Carter dreamed of dunk contests before championships, but he was a kid then, and the dream has changed. "Now I need a championship," he says. Of course, that goes for every thirtysomething ringless athlete looking to round out a résumé. Carter has something extra at stake. He is one of the NBA's great showmen, but in this era the entertainers take a backseat to the assassins. Even though Carter is an eight-time All-Star and a probable Hall of Famer, a title would prove once and for all that he is more than a mix tape.
When Carter first heard about the trade that made him relevant again, he was in the middle of his summer basketball camp at the Orlando Sports Center last June 24, and he sprinted out the door screaming. He made such a scene that he had to tell the campers about the deal, even though the Magic did not announce it for another day. For someone who grew up an hour north of Orlando in Daytona Beach, played pickup games with Magic regulars Nick Anderson and Bo Outlaw in high school and begged the team to draft him out of North Carolina, it felt like another 80-foot prayer answered. On the day in August that he dedicated the Vince Carter Sanctuary, a gleaming drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility he helped establish outside Daytona, he choked up when he saw the crowd that formed to greet him. Patients at the Sanctuary now watch Magic games on the flat screen in the dining room, next to a photo of Carter.
For the first time he has a dominant big man in the post, a deadeye shooter on the wing and a picture of the Larry O'Brien Trophy in his locker. For the first time he won more than 50 games in the regular season. "In the next couple of months," says Magic forward Matt Barnes, "people will find out who he really is." Carter has long been defined by extraordinary plays made under modest pressure. But the postseason is defined by routine plays made under suffocating pressure. Carter does not have to amaze anymore. He just has to execute: dump down to Howard, kick out to forward Rashard Lewis, bury the open jumper. Then he might do something else that no one has ever seen before.
"Vince has never had the personality of an assassin," says Nets president Rod Thorn. "Guys like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan want to put you in the dirt every day. Vince does not have a killer's edge." So does that mean he cannot lift Orlando to its first title? "No," Thorn says. "I think he can do anything."
During the NBA postseason, reputations can be sullied or remade in a series or even a game. But Carter has not been to the playoffs in three years and has never been past the second round, so he is still most commonly associated with a shot he took for the Raptors nearly a decade ago in the Eastern Conference semifinals. "Oh, man, I should have made that shot," he mutters, shaking his head. "I should have made it."
On the morning of May 20, 2001, Carter attended his graduation ceremony at Chapel Hill. (Carter, who left school in 1998 after his junior season, got his degree in African-American studies.) He ducked out before the commencement address and was back in Philadelphia for the Raptors' 12:30 p.m. meeting. He ate with the team. He took his afternoon nap. But that night, down a point in Game 7 to the 76ers, he missed a shot with two seconds left. It was no gimme—an off-balance 18-footer—but it left him open to a line of criticism that has followed him ever since. "It made you wonder," says one former teammate, "how much he wanted it."