In my house there sits a picture of my dad and me – at three weeks old – watching the 1997 NCAA National Semifinal game between North Carolina and Arizona. My dad was a huge Carolina fan and indoctrinated me into the tradition early. Playing in the game was, among other future NBA stars, Vince Carter – then a sophomore at UNC and just over a year away from making his NBA debut. Given my eventual career path and how often I now watch Carter play 23 years later, the fact that he participated in the first basketball game I ever watched feels at least faintly significant.
“That’s pretty cool,” Carter said when I relayed this information to him after the Hawks practiced on Tuesday. “And I’m still playing.”
Career longevity is perhaps the most elusive thing for an NBA player to find. Most lack the sheer talent to last a decade in the league – let alone two – and those that reach star peaks often lose the ability or ambition to endure the grind of an 82-game season once they age out of their primes. Carter’s career has spanned 22 years, eight teams, 1509 games, and 25,577 points. When the Hawks visit the Celtics on Friday, he’ll have played in four different decades and moved within 12 games of tying Dirk Nowitzki for the third-most appearances in NBA history.
Sports Illustrated caught up with the future Hall-of-Famer on Tuesday to discuss the Hawks’ recent win in Orlando, the progress of Atlanta’s rookies, his career, and much more.
Sports Illustrated: How did it feel to break out of the funk you guys were in [with the win in Orlando]? Was there a different spirit in the locker room afterward?
Vince Carter: Of course. It’s just a long time coming. A 10-game losing streak, which I didn’t realize, after a while you stop looking at the streak. It wasn’t about the streak, it’s about figuring out a way to get wins. For us, Trae [Young] goes down, so it’s important for everybody to do their job but not feel like they have to do more than what’s asked of them. Defense, I felt, was the key. Everybody had to do their part defensively. Offensively we let the ball move and find the open guy, and everybody probably expected John [Collins] to be our go-to guy. We just felt like the ball needed to move and we’d feature him when he needed to be featured. He didn’t score a lot of points, but his presence offensively and defensively was outstanding because some of his pick-and-rolls to the basket allowed Brandon Goodwin to have a special night. So that’s what it’s all about, just making sure the ball finds the open guy in the right situation.
SI: Obviously you guys won without Trae. Did that help you figure anything out about how to play when he’s on the bench once he returns?
VC: I mean, I think the second unit’s had some success all year. For us it’s our starts. We wanted to start better because we’ve put ourselves in a hole whether Trae was there or not. It didn’t matter, we put ourselves in a hole. And I think that was the most important thing, as well as having leads and fighting back – something we haven’t been good at as well. So it’s a lot of areas that we hadn’t had a lot of success in and we needed to overcome. Holding a lead, which we did, fighting back and giving ourselves a chance to win. And once we got a lead we were able to sustain it late in the game. But for us it’s just making sure the ball moves. It can’t stick. Trae has the ability to score one-on-one. We have guys that can do it, but not at his special level. So for us it’s just sacrificing that for the good of ball movement and open shots, and it worked.
SI: You and DeAndre’ Bembry in particular are good at that – coming off the bench, not necessarily racking up a ton of assists, but just moving the ball and keeping the offense going.
VC: It’s funny, that’s something we talk about a little bit. We have a lot of guys that can score, but on every team you need ball-movers – guys that can use their voices and kind of sacrifice offense for the good of the team. And regardless of our losing streak, we wanted to continue to do so and not force it, because if everybody’s forcing it we’re in trouble. So we’ve done that, and we’ll continue to do that. It’s just great to kind of see everybody fall into that role and helping the team win. Like, we didn’t want John to feel like he had to do it himself to make up for [Young’s absence], and he was able to just play within himself and he still had a good night. But by him kind of sacrificing taking a lot of shots, we have a lot of guys that can have a very good night, which we needed.
SI: This team has dealt with a lot of injuries and a 25-game suspension, which has caused your role to fluctuate throughout the year. Has that been difficult to manage, or are you pretty much ready for anything at this point?
VC: It’s whatever. For me it’s just getting on the floor and just doing what I have to do. Winning is everything for me more than anything else. I don’t look at stat sheets, I don’t look at plus-minus. I play off of feel, and when I step in the game I just want to impact the game. If we’re down, help close the gap. If we’re up, hopefully extend leads. That’s kind of how I play and I play off of feel. So that means ball-moving, communicating, whatever it has to be. Hopefully I knock down a few shots when I can, but that’s kind of been my thing. My role changes from game to game, sometimes week to week, but for me I just want to be on the floor and I can figure it out from there.
SI: It seems like you’ve been an important voice for the rookies on this team, particularly Cam [Reddish]. What kind of strides have you seen him take since the start of the season?
VC: For me, I just think the game is slowing down for him. More so than anything else. Playing under control, ball-handling, rhythm shooting, footwork – all of that stuff comes, but I think all of that stuff he can work on every day tends to make sense when the game slows down, because you can think more things instead of just having to react all the time and you’re just going off of impulse – whatever just comes to mind you do. And that’s kind of what was happening at the beginning, and I think the game is slowing down. So now he can read and react instead of just react. So all of the things that he’s worked on or the coaching staff has worked on with him, he can now utilize or think through the game as opposed to the first month, where there’s just so many thing happening. The work and the skills that he’s been working on are there, you just can’t really use it because everything happens so fast and he didn’t know how to react to it. Now he’s reading and reacting. And it’s going to take time. He still has a long way to go, but the strides are what you want to see month to month, and he’s definitely doing that.
SI: Is it tough having to help a Duke guy out so much?
VC: Not anymore, because I played with Grant [Hill], so I got over it a while ago. Now that we’re in this funk and you see a guy kind of go through it, you put that aside. But I try to give him hell a lot, and that’s a good thing, because I’ve seen teams where the veterans don’t talk to the rookies at all. That means they don’t care about you. And we care about [Reddish]. He has a lot of talent, it’s just been up and down for him, and he’s finding his way and he’s trying to figure out how to utilize the talent that he has and translate it on the court to be the player we all feel like he can be.
SI: This is obviously your last season. Have you gotten tired of being asked about your age and playing in your final year?
VC: Yes. More so the last season, my age is all good. And the reason I say that is just because I try to forget it. I just gotta go out here and play. This will be an emotional roller-coaster year because of that. Just because it’s the last time in the Garden, last time in Indiana, last time in Chicago or whatnot. Some of them are very, very fond memories, and some of them are just kinda cool memories. And still they’re all special, because once the game is over and you sit on the bus and you’re riding away, and you walk out of that arena and the bus takes off and you look back at that arena, it’s like, “Well, I won’t see this again as a player.” So that’s kind of where it’s like, “Yeah, don’t remind me.” But I’m well aware of it and I’m okay with it at the same time.