Fresh Vince No one is lighting up the NBA like Vince Carter, but can he continue to soar under the rising weight of expectations and the burdens of celebrity?

February 28, 2000

The plane was ready to take off, and so, in a sense, was Vince
Carter. He was at the airport in Toronto on Feb. 10, about to
board a spacious private jet with Raptors teammate Tracy McGrady
and several team executives, bound for an NBA All-Star weekend
in Oakland that would change his life. Caterers had stocked the
flight with a feast fit for the man who two days later would be
Slam Dunk King, including shrimp cocktail, prime rib and
champagne, but Carter and McGrady had a different meal in mind.
An airport courtesy van was dispatched to McDonald's, and by the
time the jet was off the ground, Carter was munching on a
20-piece pack of Chicken McNuggets.

Gobbling fast food while flying in luxury is typical of Carter's
life these days--he's trying to stay grounded while enjoying his
soaring popularity. If the 1,911,973 votes he received from fans
for the All-Star Game, second only to Michael Jordan's 1997
tally, weren't proof enough of his appeal, his electrifying
performance in winning the dunk contest catapulted him from
emerging star to megastar Vince-tantaneously. Shoe companies
clamored for his endorsement; entertainers buzzed about his
acting potential; legends of the game such as Julius Erving and
Magic Johnson trekked to the locker room just to pay homage; and
kids across North America fantasized about replicating his 360,
windmill dunk and his between-the-legs tomahawk slam. Two of his
12 points in the next day's All-Star Game came on a
double-clutch sidewinder dunk off a lob from Allen Iverson.
"It's been fantastic, and I'm just trying to enjoy it," the
23-year-old Carter said on Sunday of his ascension to a new
level of celebrity, "but it's been tough at times, too." The
tough part included a wearying off-the-court schedule that
caused his play to suffer, at least temporarily, and the
discovery that the demands of international stardom are
sometimes at odds with the demands of being a small forward for
the Raptors.

It's no wonder, then, that Carter has seemed alternately at ease
and on edge during the last two dizzying weeks. He was effusive
and enthusiastic at a clinic for grade-schoolers in Oakland
during All-Star weekend, but two days later he barely
acknowledged fans during an autograph-signing appearance. "It's
not easy when everybody wants a piece of you," says Detroit
Pistons forward Grant Hill. "I went through it, I'm sure
Shaquille [O'Neal] and Kobe [Bryant] went through it when they
first came into the league. Eventually he'll learn how to handle
it, but it can seem overwhelming."

On the whole, though, Carter welcomes the trappings of his new
celebrity. He moves easily between the worlds of sports and
entertainment, counting actors such as Jamie Foxx and Bill
Bellamy among his friends. Inquire if he's interested in acting,
and he casually says, "Brandy was asking me that just the other
day." For now, however, playing the role of the NBA's ace
drawing card is enough of a challenge. Although he politely
tries to steer clear of Jordan comparisons, the parallels are
unavoidable--from the ties to North Carolina to the shaved heads
to the gravity-defying acrobatics. At times it seems as if His
Airness has passed through a Xerox machine. "Am I tired of
Jordan questions? Yeah," Carter says. "It's a great compliment,
but everybody in the league has flashes of playing like Mike
sometime. I'm more interested in establishing my own identity."

There are those who think Carter has already matched Jordan in
at least one key area. "Vince Carter is a great player and one
of the most exciting talents in this league, but he's getting
all the calls that Michael used to get," said Pistons coach
Alvin Gentry, after an overtime victory over the Raptors in
early February. "If Vince Carter is shooting 15 free throws,
Grant Hill should be shooting at least 20."

But aside from the occasional complaint of coddling by the
officials, Carter hasn't encountered any of the professional
jealousy that other young NBA stars faced when they became media
darlings. He wasn't frozen out by the veterans in his first
All-Star Game, the way Jordan was as a rookie, in 1985, or
triple-teamed whenever he touched the ball, as O'Neal was nine
years later. He also didn't do anything to incur the wrath of
older All-Stars, as Bryant did two years ago when he waved off a
screen set by Karl Malone.

In fact Carter has been embraced by his fellow stars, old and
young alike. O'Neal calls him his favorite player. Iverson ran
off the court after the dunk contest shouting, "Vin-sanity,
baby, I love it!" The idea of Carter replacing Jordan as the
face of the NBA in just his second season has yet to meet with
resistance. On the contrary, with its attendance and ratings
sagging and its revenues stagnating, the NBA desperately needs
someone with Jordanesque appeal. "The league should turn to
him," says Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway. "He's not
wearing braids, he doesn't have any tattoos. He's just a regular
guy who comes out and works hard every night."

Actually, Carter does more than that--he entertains. The dunk
contest may have been a turning point in his career, but the
slams he comes up with in games are often more thrilling because
they happen so suddenly. Where lesser leapers would settle for
short jumpers, Carter continues floating to the basket for
stuffs that didn't seem possible when he left the floor. Though
these glides to the basket begin gracefully, they end viciously
when he jams the ball with a snap of his arm like the crack of a
whip.

But Carter wants to be known as more than just a rim rattler, in
much the same way that Ken Griffey Jr. is uncomfortable being
pigeonholed as a home run hitter. "Dunkers come and go," Carter
says. "You can go down to the playground and find a bunch of
guys who can do fancy dunks. The great players excel at all
aspects of the game. That's what I want to be." He spent much of
the off-season working on his jump shot, and the effort has paid
off, especially beyond the three-point arc, where he has
improved his accuracy from 28.8% last season to 36.3% at week's
end. His scoring average (24.7 points, sixth in the league),
rebounds (6.0), assists (3.8), steals (1.4) and shooting
percentages (45.5 from the field, 79.7 from the line) were up as
well. "I remember the first time I played against him, I said,
'If this kid gets a jump shot, he's going to be awesome,'" says
Heat swingman Dan Majerle. "He developed a jump shot pretty
quick. So if he continues to work on his game and not be
satisfied, the sky's the limit."

Carter's turnaround jumper, especially his fadeaway from the
baseline, is almost as reminiscent of Jordan's as his stuffs
are, but overall his midrange game remains the weakest part of
his repertoire. "I think he needs to handle the ball better, but
he certainly has the ability to do that," says Denver Nuggets
coach Dan Issel. Others cite this flaw in the 6'7" forward who
spends so much time above the rim: "He could be a better
rebounder," says Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damon
Stoudamire, "but that's nitpicking."

Defensively, Carter is no ball hawk. He's like an outfielder who
can outrun his mistakes, tending to rely more on his athleticism
than on positioning to contain an opponent. In a 91-70 win over
the New York Knicks on Feb. 15, Carter lost track of Latrell
Sprewell, who slipped open for a baseline jumper, but recovered
in time to get over and block Sprewell's shot. "He's about 60
percent of what he could be as a player," says Raptors coach
Butch Carter (no relation). "Eventually, he's going to come out
and play at a level every night that will amaze you. Do I think
that's going to happen in his second year in the league?
Absolutely not."

Despite his desire to be known as a complete player, Carter is
sometimes as dunk-conscious as his fans are. He doesn't keep a
written list of the players he has thrown down on, as he did at
North Carolina, because he now commits his list to memory.
Mention a player, and Carter can tell you if he has victimized
him. "'Zo? Yeah, I got him," he said of Miami center Alonzo
Mourning, a few days before the All-Star Game. "[Dikembe]
Mutombo? Got him twice. Got the big dude in Indiana, [Rik]
Smits. Got Dale Davis, too. Haven't gotten [Patrick] Ewing yet."
Then he paused and smiled. "We play them on Tuesday." He added
Ewing to his list just eight minutes into that game, and then,
as if he had suddenly remembered his desire to display his
diverse skills, moved outside to stroke three-pointers and
baseline jumpers for 15 first-quarter points, en route to 29.

That's the sort of talent and devilish self-confidence that
makes Carter attractive to advertisers. He already has
endorsement deals with Gatorade, Kellogg's, Skybox trading cards
and Spalding, and his agent Tank Black's cell phone was ringing
constantly in Oakland with calls from other companies wanting to
deal. Black estimates that Carter will earn $20 million in
off-court income by the end of the year. Some of that will no
doubt be from a sneaker company. Carter signed a five-year
contract with Puma before his rookie season but moved to end
that relationship earlier this year. Neither Carter nor Black
will discuss the matter because it is in arbitration, but Carter
has complained to friends that the Puma shoes hurt his feet.
Meanwhile, other footwear companies are pursuing him; he
returned to his hotel room one afternoon during All-Star weekend
to find four Adidas boxes, unrequested, waiting for him. The
sneaker endorsement issue is no insignificant matter. "All he
needs is the kind of publicity machine that Nike's been for
Jordan," says NBC broadcaster and CBA pooh-bah Isiah Thomas. "If
he gets that, in terms of his status as a major star, it's going
to be Michael all over again."

With Butch Carter around, the business of being a star isn't
likely to distract Vince from his primary occupation for long.
That became evident the night after the defeat of the Knicks,
when Carter looked tired in a 109-101 loss to the Indiana
Pacers. Although he finished with 21 points, he was overwhelmed
in his first-half matchup with Jalen Rose, who outscored him
23-4 before intermission as the Pacers built a 20-point halftime
lead. The Raptors coach moved swiftly to make it clear that he
would not let such a low-energy performance pass, even if it was
the inevitable result of his fatigued star's whirlwind week. He
warned that Vince's time on stage would be reduced if he didn't
see a better effort, mentioning the possibility of replacing
Carter in the starting lineup with McGrady, the Raptors' sixth
man, on the second night of back-to-back games. "I want [Vince]
playing more minutes, but I don't want him pacing himself,"
Butch said. "I'll play him shorter minutes to start the game if
I have to, to give him a wake-up call."

Vince seemed surprised by Butch's comments but didn't consider
them either a threat or a punishment. Indeed, the Raptors' meal
ticket doesn't see himself as too big to take criticism from his
coach. "I'll just play as many minutes as he wants me to and go
from there," he said of the prospect of reduced minutes. "What's
important is that I'm productive when I'm on the floor. That's
how I see it." Carter wouldn't be the first player whose
willingness to listen to criticism decreased as his fame
increased, but he does have a watchful coach and veteran
teammates, such as 6'9", 245-pound forward Charles Oakley, to
keep his ego in check. "If we have any problem, I'll have to
take him into the ring," Oakley says. "It would be like a
heavyweight and a flyweight, wouldn't it?"

With a coach who won't coddle him and teammates who will keep
him grounded, Toronto seems to be the best place for Carter to
develop as a player. At week's end the Raptors record of 27-24
ranked sixth in the Eastern Conference, and they seemed well on
their way to qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in
the franchise's five-year history. But whether it is the best
place for him to develop the star power that can draw casual
viewers back to the NBA is another issue. Even though his
All-Star vote total is proof of his popularity in the U.S.,
playing half his games in Canada limits his exposure south of
the border. When the Raptors face the Phoenix Suns in Toronto on
NBC this Sunday, it will mark Carter's regular-season debut on
the network; the NBA even moved the time of the 76ers-Knicks
matchup, which was also scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m., to
make the Raptors the national game and bring Philadelphia and
New York to the broadcast. But showing his games won't give NBC,
TNT or TBS as big a ratings boost as it would if he played in a
U.S. market, because the Toronto audience isn't measured by
Nielsen.

The notion that Carter can do for the popularity of basketball
in Canada what Wayne Gretzky did for hockey in the U.S. is a
stretch as well. Although he has brought more Canadian viewers
to the NBA, the only way Carter can attain high-level star power
in Canada is if he trades in his jump shot for a slap shot. The
night he won the slam dunk contest, TSN's Sports Desk, the
Canadian equivalent of ESPN's SportsCenter, opened with nine
minutes of NHL highlights before getting to the news of his
victory. The next morning the Toronto Sun sports section had a
photo from the Maple Leafs-Vancouver Canucks game on the front
page instead of one of Carter. (There were encouraging signs,
however: Despite tepid interest in Toronto, the All-Star Game
set a Canadian record for an NBA telecast, drawing some 806,000
viewers.)

The Raptors hope that Carter will appreciate not having every
member of the Toronto media tracking his every move, and that he
won't be lured by a U.S. market when his contract runs out. His
four-year deal expires after 2001-02, with the Raptors retaining
the option to keep him for a fifth season. Carter is offering
them encouraging signs, but he is careful to remain
noncommittal. "I just play," he says. "It's never mattered to me
where I was playing as long as I'm comfortable with the
organization and the city."

It's too early for either side to spend much time worrying about
that, anyway. There is much that can change during the next two
years because, hard as it is to believe after watching him soar
through the air, Vince Carter is still rising.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. COVER POSTER BOY WHY VINCE CARTER HAS THE RIGHT STUFF
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS RARE RAPTOR The ability to glide in gracefully for a sudden, violent throw-down has already made Carter, at 23, a legend of the slam. COLOR PHOTO: BILL BAPTIST/NBA PHOTOS MULTITASKING Not content to be known as a mere dunk artist, Carter has become a more productive shooter and passer in his second season, developing a turnaround J reminiscent of You Know Whose. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE/NBA PHOTOS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Stuff of dreams Carter's aerial show in the slam dunk contest--this is his 360 windmill--had NBA Hall of Famers and fans all over the world buzzing.

Like Mike

The leading vote-getter for the 2000 All-Star Game, Vince Carter
is this year's successor to Michael Jordan as the league's MPP:
Most Popular Player. Carter and MJ already have distinct
similarities, not the least of which is their ability to
posterize opponents. Here are some of them. --David Sabino

VINCENT LAMAR CARTER CATEGORY MICHAEL JEFFREY JORDAN

6'7", 225 pounds Size 6'6", 215 pounds

Seventh grade First dunk Ninth grade

North Carolina College North Carolina
(left after junior year) (left after junior year)

African-American Studies Major Geography
(needs nine credits (earned degree
in summer) in summer)

No. 5 in 1998 Drafted No. 3 in 1984

Michael Olowokandi Dubious earlier pick Sam Bowie

Cocoa Frosted Flakes Cereal box appeared on Wheaties

Joe Dumars Acknowledged toughest defender Joe Dumars

16-66 (.195) Team's record in season 23-27 (.460)
before arrival

27-55 (.329) Team's record in 38-44 (.463)
Rookie of Year season

Air Canada Nickname Air

"Am I tired of the Jordan questions? Yeah," Carter says. "I'm
interested in establishing my own identity."

"He's about 60 percent of what he could be as a player," Butch
Carter says. "Eventually, he's going to play at a level that
will amaze you."

"All he needs is the kind of publicity machine that Nike's been
for Jordan," Thomas says. "If he gets that, it'll be Michael all
over again."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)