He was a bully. He was an ass. He was an arrogant American set
loose upon the world, doing that arrogant American thing.
Strutting. Finger-pointing. Talking trash. During the gold medal
game he shouted at a French opponent, "Why don't you go back
home?" He followed one fourth-quarter dunk by blowing a kiss to
the crowd, then doubled his pleasure with two kisses after the
next. He was great. He was insufferable. Soon he would have that
Olympic gold medal. Soon he would be a symbol for everything at
the 2000 Sydney Games that felt ugly and wrong.
His friends stared. His mother squirmed. His high school coach,
his college teammates, his teammates on the Toronto Raptors, his
ever-growing legion of fans--all were taken by surprise.
Throughout the preliminary games and the entire Olympic
tournament he carried himself like a different man: smile gone,
anger boiling over. Twice he engaged in shoving matches; in a
tune-up against Australia he nearly came to blows with Aussie
national hero Andrew Gaze; once he tried to pick a fight with
three Russian opponents as the first half ended. He literally
leaped over a 7'2" Frenchman named Frederic Weis for one of the
most mind-bending dunks in basketball history, then stood and
yelled and gestured to the crowd--"as if to say," one scribe
wrote, "Drink in the wonder of me."
No one had ever seen him act this way. For two years he had been
the NBA's great nice hope, its antidote to the thug-lifes who had
stripped the game of its lofty TV ratings and its buzz. He always
talked about team. He called Mom after every game. But now, in
Sydney, he had replaced his cute shaved scalp with a lopsided
mini-Afro. After Team USA scraped by Lithuania, he walked off the
court holding up his finger in a ridiculous No. 1 gesture. The
Aussie fans jeered. They chanted his name and called him a
Later, he could explain none of it. Looking back, he, too,
wondered what had gotten into him. His career had seemed so
perfect, his image so pristine, that few could imagine any reason
for him to change so jarringly. But few knew that the furies of
modern sports celebrity had, in the previous months, set upon him
en masse. Family, agent, endorsements, game: Each spoke in the
wheel of his life had snapped, one right after the other, and he
found himself besieged no matter which way he turned. He felt
betrayed. He felt like a sucker. "Vince didn't want to be Vince
Carter," his mother, Michelle, says. "He wanted to be somebody,
January 29, 2001
The Olympics granted that wish, allowing him to get away, far
from the brother who couldn't stop messing up, far from the
cousin who'd let him down. No, the world didn't like what he
became in Australia, but in the rush to rip Carter no one seemed
to notice that something strange had occurred. He wasn't only a
different person there. He was a different player. At first an
afterthought, named to the squad because of an injury to another
player, he led the U.S. in scoring and emerged as its dominant
force. Freed for the first time from the bonds of decorum, Carter
played better than ever.
Now, though, it was ending. Now, in the seconds after the U.S.
won the gold medal, a feeling rushed through him like a fresh
wind. All the pride and months of frustration and fear came
bubbling out, and he began to weep. As he hugged his mother in
the stands and the tears streamed down his face, that need to
punish anyone who stood in his way left him too. He could feel
himself coming back to himself.
Soon, the people around him and the instincts he had developed
long ago would impel Carter to cut his hair. Soon he would be
nice again, insist he was the old Vince again, and everyone would
agree this was all for the best.
He posed the question only twice. Once to his dad, once to his
mom, a seven-year-old trying to understand why his parents must
split up. Vince Sr. and Michelle hemmed and hawed, reciting
vague words that revealed nothing, and he never asked again.
Learn to live with it, Michelle would say when a problem arose,
so he did. He learned to live without his dad, learned to live
with Michelle's new husband, her fellow teacher Harry Robinson.
"I don't know how I handled it," Carter says. "I just let it
go." He did his best to keep everything calm. He called the new
man Dad. Vince Jr. was the sweetest boy, everyone said. If there
was any sign of conflict, he always slid out of the line of fire.
"Vince goes all out to avoid confrontation," Robinson says.
"Sometimes we would say, 'Vince, you've got to stand your
ground,' but he'd just say, 'Oh, whatever.' Vince rolls with the
punches, and he hopes things will smooth out on their own."
He and his father had been close once. The day the newborn Vince
came home from the hospital, Vince Sr. and his brother Oliver
Lee, who would soon embark on a solid collegiate basketball
career at Marquette, stood over the boy's crib and passed a ball
back and forth, as if conjuring the magic to come. Oliver gave
little Vince his first ball, took the two-year-old outside to
shoot it. When Marquette assistant Hank Raymonds showed up to
recruit Oliver, the coach sat Vince Jr. on his lap until the boy
squirmed away to dribble around.
After the divorce, relations between Michelle and Vince Sr.
became bitter. They had had another son, Chris, two years
younger than Vince Jr., and sometimes there was conflict over
delayed child-support payments. Harry believes that Vince Sr.
cared for his sons but would too often find reasons for not
spending time with them. (Vince Sr. denies this.) Michelle says
that Harry "more than filled the void. Harry interacted with the
boys more than Vince Sr. ever had. He was the one taking little
Vince to Disney World, going fishing, being a dad." It wasn't,
Michelle says, until Vince's senior year at Mainland High in
Daytona Beach that Vince Sr. began showing up at his son's
games. "By that time all the accolades were coming," she says.
"The next year Vince went off to North Carolina, and then [Vince
Sr.] disappeared again."
Vince Jr. heard plenty of that from his mother. No one is closer
to Vince than Michelle, now 46 and retired from teaching. She is
her son's counselor and best friend, his business partner and the
head of his charity foundation. By all accounts Michelle fiercely
protects her son and springs at the chance to keep him honest.
When Vince's grades fell at North Carolina, Michelle didn't
hesitate to take away his car. She monitors his on- and off-court
behavior like a chaperone.
"I don't treat him like a superstar," Michelle says. "I see so
many of these [NBA] moms, dads too, who are like puppets to their
children--all because of the money. Sure, we have a lot more money
now, but I can live for a lot less and be fine. I'm not going to
trade being a parent for money. And he knows that."
In high school, despite Michelle's open hostility toward Vince
Sr., Vince Jr. couldn't help feeling happy when he'd see his
father on the other side of the gym, far from his mom, far from
his stepdad, who led the high school band. He insists that his
father came to see him play often, from his sophomore year on,
and even traveled to Chapel Hill a few times to see him compete
in college. Michelle would tell her son that Vince Sr. only
wanted to latch on to the gravy train that was coming. "But I
didn't care," Carter says. "I was just thinking, Daddy's coming
to see me play. I enjoyed having all of them there."
He never told his friends how hard it could be finding a line to
walk among the feuding people in his life, being friendly to all,
telling those on each side of any discussion that they had "a
valid point." He could lose himself playing saxophone in the
school band during the off-season, could revel in becoming the
school's drum major as a senior--but then, Harry Robinson oversaw
the band, didn't he? There was only one place Carter could go
where neither fans nor recruiters nor relatives nor problems
could follow. "Old Faithful," he calls it.
"I go to basketball," he says. "I've had a lot of friends ask how
I go on without talking about things. I don't forget them. I put
them in my pocket and try to close that pocket and save them for
later. When things are going badly, I go to the gym and shoot--and
shoot and shoot. All the frustrations, I let them go. Even when I
miss, they're going away. That's helped my jump shot. Working out
those frustrations: just shooting, shooting, shooting, and after
two or three hours I feel fine. Then I go home."
This past year he found himself doing far too much shooting. Last
February his agent, William (Tank) Black, a man he called Uncle
Tank, was charged with swindling clients and laundering drug
money (SI, May 29, 2000). Carter and his mother held on longer
than any of Black's other clients, but in March, when Michelle
saw an ESPN report on Black that kept flashing pictures of her
son, the camel's back snapped. The Carters fired Black a couple
of days later, saying he had bilked Vince out of $300,000. Vince
will never forget telling the media in February that he supported
Black "100 percent"--only to find out, he says, that the agent was
"shooting us in the back the whole time." Black is in a federal
prison in Milan, Mich., awaiting sentencing for money laundering,
to which he pleaded guilty on Jan. 17. He still faces charges in
Florida that he defrauded his clients of $15 million, to which he
has pleaded not guilty. Carter hasn't spoken to Black since
After Tank came the deluge. In March, Michael Jordan, the man
with whom Carter had been compared since he went to Carolina as a
dunk artist, ignored Tar Heel solidarity and stated that Kobe
Bryant was a better all-around player than Carter because of his
commitment to defense. In June, following the Raptors'
first-round playoff sweep by the New York Knicks, Vince's coach,
Butch Carter (no relation), the man who'd given him
confidence--"He let me blossom, and I don't think I would've
gotten that opportunity elsewhere," Vince says--was fired. In
July, Vince's attempt to wiggle out of his endorsement deal with
Puma backfired when an arbitrator ruled that he owed the company
$13.5 million, and not until September did Carter learn that Nike
would pay him more than twice that amount: $30 million over five
In August, Tracy McGrady, Carter's distant cousin and closest
teammate, bolted Toronto and signed a free-agent contract with
the Orlando Magic, saying he needed to carve out his own space.
Worse, McGrady's mother said her son had grown tired of hearing
about Carter day in and day out.
Carter was stunned. The day he heard of McGrady's feelings toward
him, someone asked him what would happen the first time the two
played against each other. "Pick a number between 30 and 50,"
Carter snarled. No one, he says, had reveled more than he in the
cousins' rise as a Dynamic Duo. "I needed Tracy," Carter says. "I
enjoyed seeing on TV: Tracy and Vince, the Vince and Tracy Show.
I loved having two family members on the same team. It didn't
matter who had the most points."
McGrady's comments "bothered me for a long time," Carter
continues. "It was wild. My head was spinning so fast. I read
[his mother's quotes]; then people said he was saying the same
things on TV. I said, 'Fine. If that's how he feels, so be it.'
I couldn't find enough guts to call him and say, 'What's going
It was the classic Carter reaction: Slide away. Learn to live
with it. McGrady, who insists he never had any problem being in
Carter's shadow in Toronto, says he called Carter repeatedly to
try to clear the air, but Carter refused to call back. "I was
shocked," McGrady says. "I was trying to find out what I had
said for him to act like that. Finally I said, 'This is
Carter had other family fires to contend with too. A week before
he left for the Olympics, Michelle told him that she and Harry
were divorcing. "I thought she was joking," he says. Then, on
Sept. 22, while he was in Australia, his 22-year-old brother,
Chris, was arrested in Florida and charged with felony possession
of cocaine. It was Chris's eighth arrest in two years, and if
Vince didn't feel responsible, exactly, he knew he hadn't made
his brother's life easy.
The two boys had grown up in basketball, pummeling each other on
the hot asphalt courts of Daytona Beach, often ending their
games fighting. Chris was consumed by basketball but lacked his
older brother's gift. He played jayvee ball as a freshman at
Mainland High while Vince embellished his legend as a senior,
and every day Chris heard from opponents, friends and fans that
he wasn't as good as Vince. Worse, Vince's manner was so winning
that it was no easier for Chris off the court. Michelle did
everything she could to build Chris's confidence. She even gave
him presents on Vince's birthday. "But people wouldn't let Chris
be Chris," she says. "If he dunked, he wouldn't dunk as hard as
Vince; if he scored 24 against Orange Park, Vince had scored 26.
Chris even had a teacher in his language-arts class, and of all
the students' poems she brings out to use as a model, she brings
out one of Vince's.
"So I'm Chris," Michelle says, "and in my mind I've got to live
up to my brother, who always says the right thing and does the
right thing. Everybody adores Vince. Is it the second coming? I
mean, they said Jesus Christ is coming back. Is this it?"
From Vince's standpoint there was almost nothing he could do that
wouldn't make the situation worse. Of all the things that piled
on him last summer, Chris's struggles weighed the most. "I think
about Chris all the time," Vince says. "We talk on the phone, but
it's hard to get him to understand. I let him know it's all in
the past. I don't hold [the arrests] over his head. I wish he'd
look toward the future and try to better himself. He'd say,
'O.K., I'm going to get better,' but he never did.
"He didn't think I cared about him. He said, 'You're an NBA
superstar now; you don't think about me.' That's far from the
truth. One of my greatest joys was when my brother came here last
year for our game against the Lakers. There's that fine line of
not wanting to put it in his face, but I wanted him to be here.
He got the chance to see it up close and personal--what I do, what
it's like, what he sees on TV and what really goes on, word for
word, step by step, body to body. He was right there, third seat
from the end behind the bench. I talked to him out there while I
played. He loved it."
In November, Chris pleaded no contest to the cocaine charges and
received two years of probation. In early December, on the
Raptors' team bus in Utah, Charles Oakley, talking to McGrady on
his cell phone, handed the phone to Carter and said, "Someone
wants to talk to you." The two talked for 30 minutes. "I said,
'Of course people will tell you what I said, but you can't buy
that,'" McGrady says. "'You've got to come to me to see what's
going on. Our relationship is too tight to split over something
like this.'" Carter agreed, and the two now speak regularly, but
Carter feels it will take time before the relationship gets back
on its old footing.
They were scheduled to meet when the Raptors traveled to Orlando
to play the Magic on Jan. 23. Vince Carter Sr. planned to be at
that game too, sitting up in the stands holding a ticket he'd
bought himself. He lives in Orlando, and he said this month that
he had talked to his son only twice in the past three years. He
said he doesn't understand why he no longer has a place in
Vince's life. Neither does his son. "I don't know," says Vince
Jr. "Things fizzled out on both sides. It just sort of happened."
Vince Sr. says it's no coincidence that contact with his son
began to fizzle as Vince's career at North Carolina began to take
off. "Because she wanted to be in control and didn't want me in
control," he says. "I have no problem with that, but the attempt
to sabotage my character? Why was that?"
Since her son's college years Michelle has so emphatically told
reporters that Vince Sr. was never a part of Vince's life that
many people thought Carter's biological father was dead. Vince
Sr. hears this and winces. Recovering, he jokes, "Do I look like
I'm dead?" He says he doesn't want any money from his son, though
he volunteers he'd be glad to advise him for 1% of his earnings.
"The one thing I'd like to know from Vincent?" his father says.
"What is it like to be where you are?" But Vince Sr. worries that
the wall built around Vince by Michelle and by Vince's own
personality has become too thick to penetrate.
"I've approached Vincent many times in the past and said, 'What
have I done?'" Vince Sr. says. "He said, 'No, there's nothing.' I
don't understand. I've never been incarcerated; I'm a hardworking
man, and I don't need anything from him except that relationship.
He's my son. He's been in the city and not called. It's almost
like he's forbidden. Chris rocks the boat if he has to, but
Vincent wants to see everybody happy. He doesn't want anybody to
"When you talk to my son," Vince Sr. says, "tell him I said hi."
Tracy McGrady wants to make this clear: He loves Vince Carter.
"I miss playing with him," McGrady says. "Getting him those nice
passes and seeing him do his thing, fancy dunks and all. We were
bonding as the years went by; he was always there for me, and I
was there for him. Who knows? We might end up playing together
again. I'd like to reunite."
But ask McGrady whom he'd rather play with, Carter or the man
with whom he is constantly compared--Kobe Bryant--and McGrady
goes silent for 30 seconds. Finally he says, "I'm not answering
It is a shimmering December Sunday. The champion L.A. Lakers
have blown into Toronto for their annual appearance, the NBA
marketers' dream matchup: Vince against Kobe. Here's a showdown
between two of the league's leading scorers and most dazzling
young talents, the one game that, for a day at least, might shut
up cranky oldsters like Karl Malone and Oakley, who surveys the
NBA and says, "It's over with. The best part of the league left
when Michael left, Magic, Isiah, Bird....The league is garbage."
As if to hammer home the point, the Raptors come out looking a
mess. Early on Carter produces an extraordinary behind-the-head,
alley-oop dunk, but he and his teammates shoot 30% from the
field. After missing a layup in the third quarter, Carter blows
past the scorer's table and hisses to himself, "You suck!"
Heading into the fourth, Toronto is behind by 12 points, and
Bryant has outshot, outscored and outplayed Carter, at times
cutting around him like a shopper rushing through a revolving
It's tempting, at such moments, to view Carter's 2 1/2-year
career--the breakout performance in last year's dunk contest at
the All-Star Game, the hyped-up quotes ("Half man, half
amazing," said Shaquille O'Neal), his disappointing performance
in last spring's playoffs--as a compressed version of Jordan's
first six years in the league. Back then Jordan was often
denigrated as an overhyped Nike product with no idea of how to
win in the NBA, Chicago's answer to the spectacular but clueless
Dominique Wilkins. There's a similar knock on Carter.
Then, in the fourth quarter of the Raptors-Lakers game, something
happens. Kobe nails a jumper, forces Carter to jack up a horrific
air ball and then sinks a clean 22-footer--a sequence accomplished
with such ease that it verges on the embarrassing. Carter knows
it. His expression shifts, and the game suddenly tightens. With
less than five minutes to play and the Lakers up by 15, all the
energy on the floor changes ends. Carter sets up two baskets with
sweet passes, nails a three-pointer from the top of the key and
double-pumps his arms.
This is why people rave about Carter. Besides his 28.5 points,
5.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game through Sunday, he can,
when aroused, impose a presence that no number can measure. Like
Jordan, he gets his points within the team flow; you often look
up at halftime stunned to see that he's scored 20. He has lifted
his game this season. His three-point shooting, 11th in the NBA
at a 41% clip, is the best it has ever been. Despite his weakened
supporting cast, Carter has amassed his share of late-game
heroics, hitting winners in the final seconds and even--are you
watching, Michael?--making the key defensive play. Against the
Knicks on Dec. 14, Carter stripped the ball from Allan Houston
with 30 seconds to go, made two free throws to take the lead and
then ferociously blanketed Houston on a three-pointer that
would've won it.
Now, against L.A., Carter is at it again. Here's what everyone
wanted: Kobe and Vince pushing each other, making the league
matter and, for one afternoon, turning this Canadian metropolis
into a basketball town. A woman holds up a sign reading
NEWFOUNDLAND IS CONVINCED. "He's Mr. Toronto," says the mayor,
Kind of. Like Wayne Gretzky playing hockey in Los Angeles,
Carter inhabits a unique netherworld where he is both celebrity
and afterthought. A recent NBA poll ranked him as the favorite
athlete for English-speaking Canadian youngsters and second only
to Gretzky among those aged nine to 54. Yet NBA television
ratings in Canada are abysmal. Last May 19 a playoff
doubleheader got pounded by a repeat of the Westminster Dog
Show. Raptors broadcasts nationwide attract nearly a million
fewer viewers than local broadcasts of the Maple Leafs, but
what's worse is that after five years, Raptors broadcasts still
stand no chance when they go head-to-head with championship
One reason is cultural, but another is that few Canadians
believe Carter will stay. They look at his Florida upbringing,
his Yankee showmanship and McGrady's acrimonious departure, and
they have little doubt that once Carter's contract expires at
the end of next season, he will head south for more money and
adoring crowds. "He's out of there," McGrady says. Carter won't
say that. The Toronto organization, the big-city resources and
small-town feel, the new arena--all combine to make him rave
about Canada. "I love it here," he insists.
Much depends on whether that remains true. The Grizzlies struggle
daily to gain purchase in Vancouver amid constant talk about the
franchise's moving somewhere south. Though Toronto averages
19,121 fans a game, no one is under any illusion about the impact
of a Carter departure. "As far as I'm concerned," Lastman says,
"there's no team without Vince Carter."
Not today, certainly. Only 4.6 seconds remain. The Raptors have
outscored the Lakers 15-2, and Carter is going to the free throw
line with Toronto down 91-89 and a chance to tie. People stand
and scream, the music pounds. He shoots without hesitating, hits
both shots, clenches a fist and pumps it hard. And he's not
The Lakers break from their timeout, set up for the final play.
Bryant grabs the ball beyond the top of the key and goes skyward
to shoot. Carter peels off his man in the lane and in two steps
leaps to slap away the ball at the buzzer. Overtime. Payback.
Carter nods to the crowd as the building vibrates.
He has produced an astonishing run that showcases exactly the
quality that makes him rare--yet he remains suspect. Because he
needed Bryant to provoke him. Because Carter got angry, says
Raptors forward Antonio Davis, and it changed everything, and
there are too many days when Carter doesn't get angry enough.
"Vince needs to find something that's going to motivate him to be
as aggressive as he is when he's mad," says Davis. "Because when
he's not, he's a totally different player."
This is the common complaint about Carter. Oakley is driven to
distraction whenever he sees Carter grinning and slapping hands
with opponents before games, and if the folks in Chapel Hill had
seen this Tar Heel before a recent game, hugging Ur-Dukie
Christian Laettner, they might have burned that Carter jersey
they just retired. "Kobe ain't dealing with other teams' guys,"
Oakley says. Even Carter's IMG agent, a former player named Merle
Scott, calls his client "too nice."
Translated, it all means that Carter too often sees the pro game
as a game, instead of the cutthroat scramble for respect, money
and championships that everyone else knows it is. But Vince
inside the arena is Vince outside. He possesses plenty of bile,
but his first impulse is to squelch it. Vince wants to see
Champions, of course, don't care if anybody's happy. Champions
aren't nice. Champions invent reasons to destroy their opponents,
and an 82-game season demands a gift for creating conflict where
none exists. "I don't think he's ever yelled at anybody in his
life," Davis says, and it makes Davis nervous. Over and over he's
heard Carter take a teammate aside and politely say, "You need to
help me...." No! Davis wants to yell. Curse him out! Get your
point across! The Carter behavior so reviled in Australia? Davis
was one of the Raptors hoping Vince would bring it home.
"I tell him time and time again: He's the guy," Davis says. "He
has to do it. We're going to listen to anything he says, no
matter if we disapprove. But it'll come. He'll blow up one time
this season, and it's going to be a great day. He'll say, 'Oh,
this ain't bad. They're listening to me.' Look at all the greats.
All of them in some ways were a-------: Muhammad Ali, Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar. It's that edge you need."
And Carter? "His edge is the excitement," continues Davis. "His
edge is the highlights, dunking, the oohs and aahs. But it's hard
for that to be the motivation. Your motivation should be that you
want to win."
Until Carter learns to spark his own fire and, most important,
coldly calculate when to make it rage, he'll remain unfinished.
He idolized both Jordan and Wilkins growing up, and there's no
way to predict which one he'll end up resembling. He often gets
motivated enough to make things interesting but not consistently
enough to lift his team to victory. In overtime against the
Lakers he grabs four rebounds but can't score. Bryant makes two
key free throws and easily blocks Carter's driving layup with 13
seconds to play. L.A. wins by three. Bryant finishes with 40
points on 29 shots, Carter with 31 points on 32 shots.
In a few hours every player around the league knows what happened
"You know who got the best of it," McGrady says. "Who won that
game? Who had the most points? Who had fewer shots and more
points? Kobe's got Shaq, and he can play more freely. Vince is by
himself and has to do a lot more work. But Kobe plays both ends.
To be great, you have to master both ends of the court. Don't
just be a scorer."
In the weeks to come, Carter will speak of how his defense will
improve. He'll speak of how the people who say he's too nice have
"a valid point" and how he "can take that kind of criticism."
He'll say his proudest moment of the season came when he picked
the Knicks' Houston clean, then threw off Houston's final shot.
"It wasn't close," Carter says proudly. However, there was
another moment down the stretch of that game when Carter turned
to the crowd and waved his arms and screamed to the fans at the
Air Canada Centre, "Get the f--- up!" A TV camera caught his face
and the words, and he suddenly looked like the Vince Carter of
Sydney, ready to punish anyone who got in his way. When he called
his mother just before midnight, she didn't even say hello. "What
did you say in the fourth quarter?" she thundered. "You don't
talk like that! What got into you?"
Her son said he was sorry once, twice, three times and more. He
didn't want his mother mad, so he kept apologizing and promised
never to do that again. She finally stopped talking about it, and
they moved on to nicer topics. They both knew he'd keep his
promise. He might not like it much, but he could learn to live
with that too.
Carter had been the NBA's great nice hope, its antidote to the
He never told his friends how hard it could be with all the
feuding people in his life.
Ask McGrady whom he'd rather play with, Carter or Bryant, and he
He wasn't only a different person at the Olympics. He was a
Vince wants to see everybody happy. Champions don't care if