Brian Hendrickson
Wednesday November 18th, 2009

Vince Carter spoke softly, at barely more than a whisper, keeping his voice from being conspicuous in the silent visitors' locker room at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte the other day.

The demeanor was similar to the way Carter has carried himself since arriving in Orlando last summer, stressing a desire to fit in rather than stand out -- to the point that Magic coach Stan Van Gundy had to publicly prod the 12th-year veteran to show his superstar side. His trade from New Jersey was one of the biggest moves of the offseason, yet Carter quietly downplays the significance, quickly pointing to other players who were acquired, and the Magic's success before his arrival.

He still commands attention, though, fielding unavoidable questions about what the trade could offer him personally -- for his image, and eventually his legacy. But Carter casually brushes them aside and eases back on a repetitive theme.

"It's not about me," he said. "It's about us. I'm here to possibly help and get this team over the top."

Vince Carter? Just trying to fit in?

The same player who became a go-to guy for highlight-film producers with his windmill dunks, athletic pyrotechnics and showmanship attitude? The guy who led the league in All-Star voting three times and was once viewed as an heir to the game's all-time greats?

Those individual accomplishments have defined Carter's legacy to this point, but also opened him to criticism for producing so many accolades for himself and not enough for his teams. Carter insists he has always been about winning, yet he has sat out the playoffs in five of his 11 seasons, never won more than 49 games and advanced beyond the first round only twice.

That is why the opportunity presented in Orlando could be the defining period in Carter's career. Championships reshape player images more than any other accomplishment, and Orlando offers Carter arguably his best shot at a title and a situation that is unique to his career. He is no longer looked upon as the franchise cornerstone -- Dwight Howard bears that weight. The offensive load he is expected to carry may also be the lightest he has felt in his career, with Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson (who is expected to miss four to six weeks with a knee injury) nearby to share the burden.

And Carter has made a concerted effort to make the transition smooth, stepping to the spotlight's fringe while pushing the team to center stage. Just look to his return from a sprained ankle in Charlotte on Nov. 10 for evidence: Van Gundy admitted to being anxious for the guard's return, but was shocked when Carter, a starter in all but seven games during his career, requested to come off the bench in his first game back.

"I didn't want to disrupt what was going on," Carter said afterward. "That's been my mentality since that day [the trade] happened. I want to fit in. I want to be the person that I am, and the player that I am. But I'm not going to say, 'Hey, I'm going to be the leading scorer on this team.' "

Van Gundy believes those words are spoken honestly. So much, in fact, that the Magic coach urged Carter during the preseason to be more than a guy who simply blends into the locker room. Orlando traded promising guard Courtney Lee, Rafter Alston and Tony Battie to get Vince Carter, not Anthony Carter, Van Gundy is quick to remind. He wants Carter to attack and be the same player who led his teams in scoring in each of his first nine seasons.

But at the same time, Orlando officials appreciate Carter's willingness to defer. It's a sign of a more mature player, they say, one who has already established himself as a prolific scorer and All-Star. Now 32, they see someone who is feeling the urgency to be more than a great scorer or dunker. They see a guy playing with purpose, with an eye on one of the final prizes that has eluded him. And that desire has made Carter comfortable in a lower-profile role.

"He's more of a team guy than he's ever been," Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "I don't think that he was ever going to be a disruption to this team. He knew from Day One that we were built around Dwight, the inside-out approach. He knew from Day One that there were enough bodies to get the job done. He's just an extra piece."

But don't view this as a recent adjustment, Carter stresses. His transition from superstar individual to team-oriented leader took shape during his last couple of seasons in New Jersey -- the first two of his career in which Carter did not lead his team in scoring. Instead, Carter tied his career high for rebounding average (6.0) and set a career best for assists (5.1) during that time.

And with his place among the league's elite players firmly established, he says he found a new challenge in teaching the young Nets -- building a new core around Devin Harris and Brook Lopez -- the habits needed to be successful, and pushing them to not settle for last season's dismal predictions.

"It was a satisfying situation, just to see us not settle for being last place," Carter said of New Jersey's 34-48 finish last season. "I learned a lot. It really helped me as a person. I was setting the example each and every day. There was some other things, other approaches to the game that I took on that I kind of toyed with, and it really worked out for me as well as for everybody else. Getting young guys to understand the importance of coming early, working on their games, all that stuff. It really helped my mentality. So, yeah, we weren't playing for a championship. But in our minds, that's the mentality we're trying to have."

The Magic are certainly playing for a championship this season. Carter understands what is at stake.

"The opportunity is here and now," he said. "And I'm hoping that I can have the opportunity to play for a championship from here on out. This is it."

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