On With The Show

April 18, 2010

He's finally on a team with a real chance of winning an NBA title, but that doesn't mean Orlando's Vince Carter is going to stop trying to entertain fans whenever he can

Vince Carter scooped up the ball at half-court, 47 unobstructed feet in front of him, a blank canvas awaiting his impression. He took a dribble, considered all available forms of aerial gymnastics, then decided to do the prudent thing. He would simply lay the ball in, run back downcourt with his head bowed and assume his defensive stance. He would act his age (33) and his position (veteran presence on a championship contender). He would be, for perhaps the first time in his high-flying life, pedestrian.

Then he took another dribble and heard the siren song that still accompanies every one of his breakaways, the expectant gasp formed by thousands sucking in their breath at once. He thought about the Easter Sunday crowd at Orlando's Amway Arena inching forward in their seats, folks at home creeping off their couches, his mother flashing him the sideways look from the fourth row that says, Come on, give me somethin'! He feared that if he went through with his all-business finger roll, even his mom might boo. "I still feel an obligation," Carter says, "to do what you've never seen before."

For 12 years he has filled airwaves with windmills and tomahawks, honey dips and reverse 360s—like the one he finally chose to punctuate his Easter breakaway with against the Grizzlies. He does not levitate the way he once did, but he complements his occasional jams with age-inappropriate half-court jumpers, kick-out fadeaways and lefthanded three-pointers he throws up after the whistle. More remarkable are the stunts he saves for scrimmages and layup lines, passed down like folklore. At 6'6" he has swiped change off the tops of backboards, hung from rims by his elbows and finished alley-oops that he threw to himself off gym walls. In practice he once dunked over nine players, including his four teammates. In a shootaround he walked into the stands and made 7 of 10 from the lower bowl. "He does things with a ball," says former Nets coach Lawrence Frank, "that astronauts do in space."

After one workout this season he plopped next to center Dwight Howard in the key and fired a fastball from a sitting position at the basket on the other side of the court, 86 feet away. Even that went down. Orlando general manager Otis Smith has tried to figure out Carter's fascination with trick shots and has come up with only one explanation. "He's so talented, he gets bored," Smith says. "He tries to increase the degree of difficulty." In that way his career has been an endless extension of the 2000 slam dunk contest, for which he spent weeks choreographing an intricate routine, scrapped it at the last moment, improvised every move and still put on the most mind-bending display in the history of the event.

Carter dreamed of dunk contests before championships, but he was a kid then, and the dream has changed. "Now I need a championship," he says. Of course, that goes for every thirtysomething ringless athlete looking to round out a résumé. Carter has something extra at stake. He is one of the NBA's great showmen, but in this era the entertainers take a backseat to the assassins. Even though Carter is an eight-time All-Star and a probable Hall of Famer, a title would prove once and for all that he is more than a mix tape.

When Carter first heard about the trade that made him relevant again, he was in the middle of his summer basketball camp at the Orlando Sports Center last June 24, and he sprinted out the door screaming. He made such a scene that he had to tell the campers about the deal, even though the Magic did not announce it for another day. For someone who grew up an hour north of Orlando in Daytona Beach, played pickup games with Magic regulars Nick Anderson and Bo Outlaw in high school and begged the team to draft him out of North Carolina, it felt like another 80-foot prayer answered. On the day in August that he dedicated the Vince Carter Sanctuary, a gleaming drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility he helped establish outside Daytona, he choked up when he saw the crowd that formed to greet him. Patients at the Sanctuary now watch Magic games on the flat screen in the dining room, next to a photo of Carter.

For the first time he has a dominant big man in the post, a deadeye shooter on the wing and a picture of the Larry O'Brien Trophy in his locker. For the first time he won more than 50 games in the regular season. "In the next couple of months," says Magic forward Matt Barnes, "people will find out who he really is." Carter has long been defined by extraordinary plays made under modest pressure. But the postseason is defined by routine plays made under suffocating pressure. Carter does not have to amaze anymore. He just has to execute: dump down to Howard, kick out to forward Rashard Lewis, bury the open jumper. Then he might do something else that no one has ever seen before.

"Vince has never had the personality of an assassin," says Nets president Rod Thorn. "Guys like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan want to put you in the dirt every day. Vince does not have a killer's edge." So does that mean he cannot lift Orlando to its first title? "No," Thorn says. "I think he can do anything."

During the NBA postseason, reputations can be sullied or remade in a series or even a game. But Carter has not been to the playoffs in three years and has never been past the second round, so he is still most commonly associated with a shot he took for the Raptors nearly a decade ago in the Eastern Conference semifinals. "Oh, man, I should have made that shot," he mutters, shaking his head. "I should have made it."

On the morning of May 20, 2001, Carter attended his graduation ceremony at Chapel Hill. (Carter, who left school in 1998 after his junior season, got his degree in African-American studies.) He ducked out before the commencement address and was back in Philadelphia for the Raptors' 12:30 p.m. meeting. He ate with the team. He took his afternoon nap. But that night, down a point in Game 7 to the 76ers, he missed a shot with two seconds left. It was no gimme—an off-balance 18-footer—but it left him open to a line of criticism that has followed him ever since. "It made you wonder," says one former teammate, "how much he wanted it."

Until then, Carter and Bryant had been the most popular candidates to assume Michael Jordan's mantle. Bryant would go on to win three straight championships, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would enter the conversation, and Carter would fall out of it completely. "The truth is he was never interested in that," says Cavaliers forward Antawn Jamison, one of Carter's closest friends. "You'd tell him he was the next Jordan, and he'd say, 'Nah, bro, not even close.'"

Vince Carter always wanted to be the next Julius Erving. He had Dr. J jerseys and an autographed Dr. J ball. He would write his book reports in school on Dr. J biographies. "I like that he took pride in winning," Carter says, "and also entertaining." In the spring of 2004 the Raptors were looking for a general manager, and Erving, then senior vice president of the Magic, called Carter to express his interest. Carter called the Toronto brass to recommend him.

"I was like, If we can get Dr. J in here, coaches will want to come here, players will want to play here, we'll be on our way!" Carter says. "They were like, O.K., we'll look into it, and that was it. After that, my communication with the organization was different. I didn't get calls returned. It felt like they didn't want me anymore."

The divorce between Carter and the Raptors was one of the messiest in modern sports. Coach Sam Mitchell would sit him on the bench for long stretches of the fourth quarter—"He was never a distraction," Mitchell says, "but you could tell he didn't have the passion for it"—and Carter would in turn tell new general manager Rob Babcock, "Move me if you don't want me." Fans came to games dressed as babies. Teammates questioned Carter's injuries. Even former Raptor Charles Oakley, a keeper of NBA cred, told a Toronto newspaper, "My heart beats different."

Nets officials watched the ordeal unfold and saw a player who had gone from overrated to underrated in record time. "He became a victim of his own ability," says former Toronto coach Kevin O'Neill. "He'd make a three-pointer falling away from the basket with two guys on him, and then if he missed an open 14-footer, it was like he wasn't trying hard."

When Carter was traded to New Jersey in December 2004, his game expanded, though he insists his effort level stayed the same. He became a better passer, a better leader and better under pressure, shooting 50.0% last year in clutch situations, according to 82games.com. After he left, the Nets flirted with the worst record in NBA history, a backhanded tribute. "He's one of the more maligned superstars we've had in the past 10 to 15 years," Frank says. "But the perception doesn't meet the reality."

The Magic declined to sign Carter as a free agent two years ago because Smith thought he floated through parts of games. In fact, Smith still thinks Carter floats through parts of games, relying on his jumper despite his ability to drive. Carter makes fewer than half as many shots at the rim as he did four years ago, according to hoopdata.com, a common side effect of aging, and he rarely gets to the line. "You don't know if he just loves his jumper," says one opposing coach, "or doesn't want the contact."

Orlando was poised to re-sign free-agent forward Hedo Turkoglu after reaching the Finals last season, but when Turkoglu rejected the team's initial informal offer, Smith revisited Carter's numbers. The Magic opted to trade for Carter (giving up guard Courtney Lee in a five-player deal) and let Turkoglu walk, and at the beginning, management looked like fools. Carter vacillated between shooting all the time and passing all the time. He had the worst month of his career in January, scoring 8.7 points on 28.4% shooting, and he was booed lightly at home. But at week's end he was averaging 17.8 points on 48.7% shooting since Feb. 1. Meanwhile, Turkoglu has replaced Carter as a target in Toronto, where he signed for five years and $53 million and was scoring 11.5 points per game through Sunday, amid familiar questions about commitment.

Several contenders made splashy moves last summer and did not get any better—the Lakers with Ron Artest, the Celtics with Rasheed Wallace, the Spurs with Richard Jefferson. The Magic is the exception. Point guard Jameer Nelson is back at full strength, Barnes is thriving as a bouncer for Howard, and Carter says he's eager to show off "all the parts of my game they didn't know I had." While the Cavs and the Lakers will try to win with their headliners, Orlando will do it as a group.

There will come a time, though, when the clock is ticking and the Magic needs someone to sink the kind of shot that Carter missed nine years ago. He is raising his hand again. "You know why I missed it?" he says. "Because I wanted so bad for it to go in. I live for that moment." And if the ball rims out again, he fails to win a title and all he leaves behind are highlights, the judge he cares about most will appreciate him still.

"You can't measure everything in championships," says Erving, who happened to be 33 when he won his first NBA title. "There is a special category of player who can do things on the court that no one has ever seen before—things that inspire people, make them believe in themselves, give them something to hold on to and remember for the rest of their lives. That's a significant contribution, too."

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Erving says that Carter "can do things on the court that no one has ever seen before—things that inspire people, make them believe in themselves."

PHOTOPhotograph by FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESMAGIC SHOW A no-look shot? No big deal for Carter (with Howard, left), who's always willing to raise the degree of difficulty. PHOTOJESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTONEIL LEIFER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESWHAT'S UP, DOC? Never interested in being the next Jordan, Carter has instead tried to replicate his hero, Erving (below). PHOTOFERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]

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)