Vince Carter stopped chasing the ring, stopped leaping for the clouds, stopped stressing about the fact his aerial acrobatics grabbed all the attention, when what he really wants is to be appreciated as a pure basketball savant.
But that’s the beauty of aging. Perceived slights become less painful by the year.
Carter, who is 41 and plans to play another season, whether with the Kings or elsewhere, continues to improvise, sketching out his legacy on the fly, if not necessarily in the air.
In the closing weeks of his 20th season, he is committed to passing along his most valuable lessons to his young teammates, not the least of which is cautioning De’Aaron Fox and Frank Mason III against unnecessarily “reckless” drives to the basket that threaten to shorten their careers.
The veteran swingman’s own extensive, decades-old portfolio of Hall of Fame-worthy accomplishments include these: Elevated the Toronto Raptors from infancy to NBA relevance; captured an Olympic gold medal; named Rookie of the Year and to eight All-Star teams; won the slam dunk contest and earned the nicknames of "Air Canada," "Half-Man, Half-Amazing," "Vinsanity," to name just a few, and not necessarily to his delight.
“For a long time I just had to remain patient,” Carter said. “I remember being asked, ‘Does that bother you? To be known mostly as a dunker?’ At first it really did. That’s all I heard. But I continued working on my game, and as I got older, you didn’t see so much dunking. It was more like, ‘Man, you shoot the ball well, you pass well.’ Make the ball move, make the right play, no matter who I am playing for.”
For someone of his stature, Carter has played for a surprising number of teams (seven) and has not always arrived at an ideal time. He only one conference finals appearance – with the Orlando Magic in 2010 – and joined the New Jersey Nets and Dallas Mavericks the season after they appeared in the NBA Finals.
Yet each season has been an encore, an experiment and a curiosity, and at an age when most of his peers are long retired, the obvious question hovers: What makes Vince run?
That $8 million salary ranks right up there, undoubtedly. But so does his unwavering passion for the game, the familiar comforts and challenges of the locker room, and the simple reality that he has plans, perhaps as an NBA owner, yet none that he is fully prepared to pursue.
“I’m not going to sit here and deny that I want to play more,” said Carter, who is averaging 17.7 minutes. “Things changed. We aren’t winning and the younger guys need to get better. I get that, but at the same time, I try to make the best of it. That way if it doesn’t work out here, I can still play on another team, maybe a contending team, in a lesser role.”
What Carter and the veterans refuse to do is contribute a negative vibe to a surprisingly upbeat, positive locker room. This is not the NBA norm, folks. Usually when teams are destined for the NBA draft lottery, players point fingers, fixate on their individual stats, and withdraw into a self-sustaining cocoon.
But these Kings are an unusual bunch. The veterans celebrate the rare victories as if they were, well, kids. A common locker room sight consists of Kosta Koufos chatting with Willie Cauley-Stein, Temple discussing technique with Fox, Randolph praising his young teammates, and Carter huddling with Bogdan Bogdanovic, often into the late hours.
Carter clearly cherishes these moments and never seems in a hurry to leave. He lingered for almost an hour after Wednesday’s victory over Miami, discussing his team and his young teammates, sounding very much like a professorial older brother.
Take Bogdanovic. During one sequence late in the game, the rookie guard was standing out of bounds, waiting for the referee to hand him the ball. “And he’s trying to get everybody organized,” Carter explains. “The referee is about to hand him the ball, and I’m yelling at him, ‘No, step inbounds first.’ The ref can’t give him the ball while he is inbounds. Once the ref gives you the ball, he starts counting. Bogi heard me and stepped onto the court. The ref pulled back. We were able to enter the ball ahead, Buddy (Hield) gets fouled, and hits two free throws. Little things like that.”
With Hield, the Kings’ best shooter, Carter preaches patience and urges him to avoid dribbling into crowds. “Buddy can get frustrated,” said Carter, “and I tell him that when you are in the playoffs, and they take that (perimeter shot) away, how do you make your team better? How can you still be effective on the court when you can’t get a shot off? Now you see him getting in the paint, and getting easier shots when the ball moves.”
Carter became particularly animated when talking about Fox and Mason, the two rookie point guards who attack the basket without regard for life, limb or longevity – and, accordingly, have experienced their share of bumps and bruises.
“Learning how to fall is just as important as strengthening your body,” he said. “Understanding when you go off one foot, what could happen against particular guys. When you go off two feet, you are protecting yourself. I say this now, but when I was younger, I was reckless, too. I didn’t care. That’s why all those injuries were happening to me, because I kept going to the rim, hitting the floor hard. Over the course of 82 games, it wears on you. You’re not as fast. These guys have to understand that with more minutes, the more punishment you have to learn to absorb. But they are both getting better."
With a slight shake of his head, Carter recalled how the assortment of knee and ankle injuries in his first few seasons earned him the reputation of being injury-prone, and he suspects it influenced his trade to New Jersey in 2004.
“I got more selective as I got older,” he said.
Even on nights when Carter's legs appear sluggish, when he can’t convert a shot, his skills and feel for the game are unmistakeable. He moves the ball, directs his teammates, slips in for a defensive rebound, swipes a pass. Tomorrow? Who knows?
Meantime, there are the Kings and very likely his final weeks in Sacramento. And no regrets.
“When they reached out to me, it was all about influencing the franchise, getting back to the early 2000s,” he said, “and I was like, ‘whew,’ because I was on the other side. You are trying to develop something where your organization is a hot commodity again. But that groundwork has to be laid. I also believe that while you are growing and developing, you’re also trying to win. We veterans, we’re not going away from that. That win against Miami reinforces what we are trying to do. You can see the kids growing, getting more confident by the day. You can just see it, and that is really rewarding.”