The smile is still there, that big toothy grin Vince Carter debuted to an NBA audience in 1999, with Toronto. It’s the patches of grey whiskers flecked around it that declare the passage of time. The athleticism is still around, too, that same burst that turned the Grizzlies forward into one of the game’s most feared dunkers. These days, Carter is just more judicious about calling on it.
“I always tell guys, it’s the landing that sucks,” Carter said. “Getting up there is fun. It’s like a road trip; it’s fun going but it sucks driving home.”
At 37, Carter is a member of a select group: All-Stars turned role players, superstars turned subs. The transition is difficult. Some have succeeded (Jason Kidd, Jermaine O’Neal) and others (Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady) have failed. The willingness to accept a lesser role isn’t wired into all and the ability to maintain a breaking down body is embraced by fewer. Said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, “Generally, guys later in their careers still want to start. What Vince is doing, it’s not the norm.”
It’s easy to forget how good Carter was in his prime. Athletically gifted with a rapidly improving perimeter shot, Carter was an offensive force. He averaged 20-plus points in 10 of his first 11 seasons. He was an eight-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection. He has a Rookie of the Year award on his résumé and spent most of the 21st century ranked among the league’s most feared scorers. Had he retired when his contract expired with Phoenix in 2011, Carter would have already had a solid case for the Hall of Fame.
But he didn’t. Carter has never had a specific number of years he planned to play -- “I want to say 15, but I really don’t know,” Carter said -- but when he left the Suns, he knew he wasn’t finished. To keep playing, though, Carter had to adjust. A starter virtually his entire career, Carter understood he needed to accept having to come off a bench. “But honestly, I didn’t care,” Carter said. “I just wanted to play basketball.”
In Dallas -- which signed Carter to a modest three-year, $9 million contract in 2011 -- Carter was initially a starter. He shifted to the bench and struggled to find his rhythm during the lockout-shortened ’11-’12 season. He averaged 10.1 points on a career-low 41.1 percent shooting. Defensively he battled to stay in front of younger, quicker two-guards. “It was tough,” Carter said. “I’m not going to sit here and say it was a quick change. I watched a lot of film and I was patient with it. When you get in that role, you do think, ‘Oh I don’t know if I can do this.’ But you have to give it a real chance. I did and it got better and better.”
Indeed, Year 2 in Dallas was measurably improved. A full-time reserve -- and small forward -- Carter settled into a secondary role. Jason Terry, the Mavericks longtime sixth man, was gone, and Carter told Carlisle: Put his responsibilities on me. “He came to me and told me he wanted that role, he wanted to be that guy,” Carlisle said. “He was willing to do anything.” That season Carter’s scoring improved to 13.4 points per game and he knocked down 40 percent of his three’s for the first time since the ’04-’05 season.
Why was Carter successful with the second unit? Carlisle has a few theories. His dynamic scoring ability, for starters. “He can come off the bench and get hot immediately,” Carlisle said. “He is wired to get the ball in his hands and knock his first shot in like very few are.”
Said Carter, “I have to come in with a scorer’s mentality. As a starter, you can come in and ease yourself into the game but still be aggressive. When you are playing shorter minutes, you have to be ready to go immediately. There are limited minutes. The approach changes.”
Being naturally comfortable in a supporting role helped, too. In Toronto, Carter was burdened with unrealistic expectations. He was “Air Canada” and “Half Man, Half Amazing," the physically gifted phenom expected to lead the expansion Raptors deep in the playoffs. He did once, in 2001, taking the team to the Eastern Conference semifinals. That season was bookended by a pair of first-round exits; Carter was labeled soft and after two playoff-less seasons was traded to New Jersey in 2004.
“He had been through a lot as a star,” Carlisle said. “The expectations on him [in Toronto] were ridiculously high. Going through that, I think, made him more comfortable going to a team with good veteran players and taking on a role.”
Said Carter, “There was a lot expected of me [in Toronto]. I thought I was able to attack the challenge. But I think that did help me understand the process of changing my role.”
To help, Carter has put in countless hours maintaining his body. He does regular leg work to try and keep as much of his spring as possible. He routinely lifts weights after practice. At home, he does daily light work- -- “Old man workouts,” Carter said- -- before practice to stay loose. The result: Carter played 81 games in each of his last two seasons in Dallas. “I work like hell to make sure my body is in top shape and I am able to last throughout the year,” Carter said. “The older Vince feels better at season’s end than I ever have before.”
As much as Carter contributed on the court, the Mavericks were equally as happy with his work off of it. In Toronto, Carter’s transition was eased with the help of a strong group of veterans. Charles Oakley, Dee Brown, Doug Christie and Kevin Willis are a few of the names Carter cites. “They all played with the greats in our league,” Carter said. “Who better to listen to than those guys?” On his second day of practice, Oakley threw an arm around Carter’s shoulder and told him he was going to teach him to be a pro. It’s a gesture Carter has never forgot -- and one he is now eager to pass on.
“He would talk to our young guys, work with them, encourage them, take them out to dinner, you name it,” Carlisle said. “He has an inherent loyalty to the game in his DNA. He gave back. He’s as good a guy as I have ever been around.”
Last summer, Carter signed a three-year, $12 million deal with Memphis. His numbers are down (5.8 points per game) and he is shooting a ghastly 28.7 percent from three-point range. His minutes continue to dwindle -- he played a season-low five against Toronto on Wednesday -- and the recent acquisition of forward Jeff Green threatens to gobble up even more of them. The reduced role has not soured Carter though; just the opposite.
“Every day it’s ‘How can I help?’” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. “It’s so refreshing. A lot of times you see guys at the end of their careers trying to stay relevant. Vince doesn’t worry about that stuff. The Dallas guys told us, ‘You’re not going to like Vince Carter; you’re going to love him.’ And we have.”
Carter won’t commit to playing beyond his current contract. He will be a 19-year veteran when this deal expires and admits the idea of playing 20 is intriguing. “I never would have imagined it,” Carter said. His production will dictate his future and, though limited, he still shows flashes of brilliance. Earlier this month, against San Antonio, Carter froze Tim Duncan with a hesitation dribble. He burst past Duncan with two long steps and threw a one-handed dunk down over him. Yes, old Vince is gone, but occasionally the old man can still get up.