The thaw came in 2014, with Vince Carter a Grizzly and a decade of distance between Carter, and an ugly end in Toronto. A year earlier, a SportsNet article (“Michael Grange,” Carter said, remembering the author) was published under the headline IT’S TIME TO FORGIVE VINCE CARTER. Enough time had passed, the story argued. The ending was bad, the revision of it was worse, but Carter had served his penance—it was time for everyone to move on.
A year later, Carter long since removed from his days as an NBA star and wearing his fifth post-Raptors jersey, took the floor in Toronto. That season, as part of the franchise’s 20-year anniversary, the team was honoring its all-time great players. During a break in the action, a video of Carter flashed on the big screen. An early mixture of boos became cheers. Suddenly, the arena was giving Carter a standing ovation. The man once known as Air Canada rubbed tears out of his eyes.
“That was special,” Carter said.
With the NBA on lockdown, there’s an increasing likelihood that Carter has played his final NBA minute. Carter, 43, announced his retirement last spring, a 22-year career ending in an Atlanta uniform. Carter has no regrets, however. Not about spending his final season with a sub .500 team. Not about retiring without a title. There is one thing: Missing out on a chance to play in Toronto one last time. The Hawks were scheduled to travel to Toronto on April 10, which would have given Carter an opportunity to say goodbye to a city that loved him, hated him and eventually re-embraced him.
“It's an unbelievable feeling,” Carter said of his healed relationship with the city he started in. “It's really impossible to explain. But it's refreshing, satisfying, and makes the walk out of the door satisfying and peaceful, when that door closes. Just because, Like I say, I played the game because I love it. And I want everyone to understand it, see it and appreciate it. And I prided myself on it since I walked into this game. Be a good guy, enjoy the game, and just play the game that I love, my way. And that's all I ever wanted to do. And I think people are understanding that now at this age, more than ever, that I just love playing basketball. And I want to play basketball. And as a young guy I didn't think about, the impact I would have on people.”
“It's just I wanted people to see that ‘Hey, I was blessed with this ability to play basketball.’ You've given me the opportunity to play at the highest level, in front of all these people. And I didn't really see it as playing in front of all these people. And understand that I can impact generations years to come. You know? It's just, I loved playing basketball. And 20 something years later it’s the same approach—I love playing basketball. So to really see and be appreciated and everybody just on the same page now. It's a great feeling. And it just makes it easier to walk out of the door.”
Earlier this month, Carter sat down with Sports Illustrated for an extended interview.
Chris Mannix: So I was watching back a few times, the last press conference you had after the Knicks game. And one of my takeaways, Vince, was that you really seem to be kind of at peace with everything. Like, if that was your last game, that was okay with you. Is that a fair assessment?
Vince Carter: Yep, for sure. For sure. I'm very appreciative. Let me say that before I even say the statement. But a lot of people are like, "No, it can't be the last." And that's just, they want what they want. And I'm okay with that. And it's a great feeling to know that people feel that way. But I've always been a realist, and try to be real about situations as possible. Like, it is what it is approach. And it's unfortunate. And it's one of those situations I have zero control over. So that's just how it goes. I looked at the positive side of it. And that if it was my last game, I ended on a pretty cool note.
Shared it with the home fans, which is always great. It had been a little different, obviously, on the road. And not in front of your fans. You're in front of some fans. I'm sure the fans there. But nothing like being at home. And I was just thankful it ended like that. If anything. There had to be a way to end, and it was like that. So, I just said, it is what it is. And if it comes back, it'll be like a pleasant surprise. "Hey, you've been rewarded 15 games." Or five games. Whatever the case may be. You know? And if not, I'm one with it.
Mannix: In that Knicks game, can you just talk to me about the information you were getting in real time? Like was there a point where it kind of occurred to you that this could be it?
Carter: As I was checking in. I didn't really think about it. I was just kind of enjoying the moment, enjoying the game. Still locked in and engaged in the game. So it was hard to really think of anything else. Until coach gave me a look to go back in while people were chanting. At that's kind of when everyone was thinking. They're like, "Oh shoot, maybe this is the last game." Because at that point, we didn't have all of the information of the virus and how serious it is. You know? Like we know now. So for me it was just like, two weeks, whatever, a month,. You know? Whatever it may be. Whatever. I don't know. It's just it'll resume Or it could be over.
In real time, it was just like, "Oh, you know, this could be the last game. I don't know, whatever." That's why I was like, "No, I didn't want to go in. I didn't want to go. It's all good." And actually the second time they started chanting, that's when it kind of hit me, like "You know, maybe this might be the last one. So let me go back in there." And when he looked at me I was just like "Let's do it." And I was just happy that I made my last shot. It's one of those just in case things. Just in case. You know? End it on a solid note. And I was just glad I was able to knock the last one in.
Mannix: Yeah. It seemed like the crowd kind of was more aware that this could be it, before everybody else was.
Carter: And that's the next thing I'll say. I think they had a better understanding of what was going on, than we did. Because obviously we're out there on the court. We got very little information of what happened right before the third quarter started. So that was about as much as we got. Because coach, I remember when he came up to me, he's like, "You heard about what happened with the Utah player? Gobert." And I was like "No." He explains it. By the time he explained it, it was kind of time to tip off the third quarter. And we go from there. So that's why I was just kind of like "All right." You know? And so they don't really have much time to sink in. Because we're still trying to sign a way to win.
Mannix: When you came into the league back in '99, was your mindset then like, "I'm going to play until the wheels fall off" at that point? What was it?
Carter: I said that was to 15 years. And I don't know why. I look at some of the great players of all time. And I'm talking about the superstars. The Michael Jordans, Larry Birds, and all those. The majority of the guys played 12 to 14 years, if you would. Somewhere in there. So I said, if I can make it to 15 years, playing at least a year longer than some of the greatest of all time that played the game, I'm doing something, I've accomplished something. And that's kind of, I guess, where I got that from. As I moved forward, I don't know. I couldn't figure it out. I don't know where I got 15 years from. But that kind of was my goal coming in.
Mannix: There must've been a point of course that changed for you. You Said, "Well I'm going to play as long as I can play."?
Carter: At 15 years, I said, "Hey I'll just play two more." Because I felt good at the end of year 15. I was like, "Man, I'll feel great. I could still do this. So I'll just try two more. See what two more looks like." And got to 17, and tried two more. And that's kind of what I said. It's funny, Rachel Nichols always joked about that situation. It might've been at year 17. Somewhere in there. Just seeing her in general, but I know in The Jump, she's like, "Well, how many more?" Is this your last one?" I said, "Two more." And I've been saying that because it's like, at that point, once I got to 17 years, I didn't want to put a cap on what it was.
I mean, obviously when your body or your mind is tired of playing, and ready to move on, that is what it is. But that wasn't the case once I got there. So I was like, "Just stop saying it and just play it out until you know." And that was kind of the scariest thing of this whole, probably since year 17 on, is asking some guys like, "When did you know?" Like T-Mac. I remember asking T-Mac, and he's like, "Oh, you'll know. You'll know when." This past year, I was talking to Kobe [Bryant]. Even talking to Dirk [Nowitzki], he's like, "you'll know. Your body either will tell you or you just feel it."
And it was still at the start of the season. I was till unsure if I was making the right decision. Regardless of if I was so adamant about it, which I wanted to be when I made a decision, I wasn't sure. I really wasn't. So as I went on to season, didn't really mention the word retirement until I got to speak to my good friend Kobe. And just talking about how he enjoyed retirement. And he's like, "You're going to love it. Trust me. We'll talk about it some more. I'll tell you how I handle it. I took the steps into being the happiest I've ever been." And after that conversation, I was really able to say retirement with confidence because of the conversation I briefly had with him on court.
Mannix: I'm sure at some point in recent years, the opportunity would have come up for you to just kind of ring chase towards the end. You never seemed to pursue that. I'm just wondering why.
Carter: It just wasn't my thing. It's just something that I wasn't interested in doing. I mean to be a part of a team where I feel like I can help out, and play some minutes, is what I wanted to do. I just wanted to play. You know? Yes I could lend my wisdom, and be an unbelievable mentor for guy. But sometimes showing is better than telling. You know? What you're talking about in game situations, or positioning. Whatever the case may be. So it was just kind of one of those things that I just didn't want to do, and I don't think I could handle. I would be miserable as a player. Just because I love competing. I mean, anybody who watches me play, I can't just sit down and just watch the game.
I'm walking the sidelines like I'm a freaking coach sometimes. It's just because I love it. I love helping these guys. But being a part of it as well as far as performing. So it was just something I wasn't interested in, and maybe I missed on an opportunity to even be in the NBA Finals or whatever the case may be. Because I had some teams that were offering the opportunities. Just, like they were saying, "We can't guarantee." And I don't expect anyone to guarantee me minutes. But to say "We don't think there's any minutes, but you would help our team as far as just wisdom." You know? And that's just something I didn't want to do at that point.