On February 5th, 1999, Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” was #1 on the charts. The Matrix was two months away from Opening Weekend. The Tennessee Oilers had just completed their last season before changing their name to the Titans. And (thanks to a lockout-shortened season) Vince Carter played his first game as a professional basketball player.
Twenty years later, Vince Carter still has not played his last. Last week, he and the Atlanta Hawks agreed to a one-year $4.2 million contract, adding yet another chapter (and team) to the story of Vinsanity. We are tempted to say that this will surely be his final year, but wasn’t that true of 2018? Of 2017? Of ‘16? Yet the beat goes on. For one who was dubbed “Half Man, Half Amazing” this longevity certainly falls into the latter half.
In 1995, the high-flying former drum major from Daytona, FL came to Chapel Hill as one of Dean Smith’s most hyped prospects, alongside fellow blue-chipper Antawn Jamison. Their college careers would follow vastly different paths. Jamison was a finished product: from the moment he stepped onto the Dean Dome floor he was the best player. His freshman campaign was terrific, as were his sophomore and Naismith-winning junior years. Carter was not. As a freshman, his preposterous athleticism was apparent but the college game appeared a bit too much for him initially. He was frequently lost on both sides of the floor and didn’t carve out his expected role in the team. Some wondered if his aerial displays in high school had caused him to be overhyped.
But his sophomore year brought greater success for Vince (that Dean Smith fella might have taught him a thing or two) and his improved play helped lead the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 1997. By ‘98, VC was the most thrilling player in college basketball.
Jamison was National Player of the Year, but Carter was the box office. The two of them spearheaded the most entertaining team in Carolina history back to the Final Four. After their season ended in heartbreak against Utah, both Carter and Jamison declared for the NBA Draft a year early.
On Draft Day, Carter and Jamison’s paths were intertwined once again: The fifth pick in the draft belonged to the Golden State Warriors, who were desperate to draft Jamison. The fourth belonged to the Toronto Raptors, who wanted Vince. Unaware of this, the Warriors paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Raptors on the condition that the Raptors would select Jamison at No. 4, then trade him directly to Golden State for Carter when the Warriors took Carter at No. 5. The Raptors were happy to honor such an arrangement. The two friends traded hats and smiles on Draft Night. Vince was headed for Canada.
The 1999 season began with two things directly in the rearview mirror: A lockout and Michael Jordan. With His Airness hanging up his sneakers for the second time, a search to find the “Next Jordan” began. The late 90s and early 2000s had the unfortunate distinction of being subjected to this pointless, media-hyped quest. Every few years a new comparison emerged. Jerry Stackhouse drew some for a time, Harold Miner drew a few (for a shorter time), Kobe Bryant drew many (and probably the most accurate). Then there was Vince, a 6’6” high-flying shooting guard from North Carolina that was an obvious candidate.
For the first few years, the comparison wasn’t so ridiculous. His highlight reel dunks electrified the league. 1999 saw him win Rookie of the Year. In 2000 he was an All-Star (and slam dunk G.O.A.T.). In 2001, he averaged 27.6 ppg, was 2nd-Team All-NBA, and led the Raptors to the Eastern Semifinals, where he and Allen Iverson gave us one of the greatest individual duels in NBA History.
Before Game 7 in Philadelphia, Vince made headlines by attending his graduation at Chapel Hill before catching a flight north for tipoff. Today, in the one-and-done era of student-athlete exploitation, perhaps such respect for academic accomplishment might be applauded. Instead, it was condemned, particularly by the Toronto media. Carter, by that point double-teamed throughout the game, went 6-18 from the floor for 20 points. Yet the game was still in his hands with 2 seconds left, trailing 88-87.
By the end of 2001, Vince had a massive contract and the title of ‘Air Canada’ bestowed upon him. Then things started to go wrong. A knee injury ended his 2002 season. In 2003, the Raptors failed to make the playoffs and repeated that failure in 2004. Following the season, Raptors president Richard Peddie fired his GM and entire coaching staff. A playoff-hungry Carter was promised that the Raptors would be going after free agent Steve Nash and hiring Julius Erving as GM.
Neither of those things happened. Instead, Peddie hired Rob Babcock, who in his introductory press conference stated that his priority was to “establish a team identity” and that he was “not really worried if we make the playoffs or not this year or next.” Sam Mitchell was hired as head coach and was of a similar opinion. Shortly thereafter, Babcock leaked to the press that Carter’s agent had secretly requested a trade, immediately betraying the confidence of his star player.
The start of the 2004-05 was a nightmare for Carter and the Raptors. Carter averaged a career-low of 30 minutes a game and was frequently benched in the fourth quarter by Mitchell, who felt the star wasn’t giving enough effort and making too much of his knee issues. At one point at least, their feud dissolved into a physical altercation.
In December, Vince’s trade wish was granted. He was headed for New Jersey in exchange for Alonzo Mourning, Aaron WIlliams, Eric Williams, and draft picks. With him, he took the enmity of the Toronto fanbase and a reputation as a fragile prima donna who had quit on his team. This perception was solidified for many when Vince immediately returned to peak form for the playoff-bound Nets. In a January interview with John Thompson, Carter admitted that he could have shown a stronger work ethic at times in his career in Toronto. Thompson later insisted that Carter was expressing a desire to improve as a player, but it didn’t matter: Vince was ripped apart by the media and his former Raptor teammates. For years, he was roundly booed at the Air Canada Centre. For all the good it did:
In light of this recent NBA offseason, some might find parallels between Vince’s forced exit from Toronto and that of Kawhi Leonard, whose reputation has taken a hit. Both were accused of exaggerating their injuries. Both received criticism from their teammates. Both were accused of quitting on their team. However, unlike Carter, Leonard never had to deal with chaos and failed promises from his front office. He did not have to deal with a new coach who showed open contempt for him, and he was not languishing on a team that no longer had any interest in making a playoff run. Despite all of this, the criticism leveled at Kawhi does not come CLOSE to what Vince received. Make of that what you will.
Paired with Jason Kidd, Carter enjoyed five excellent years in New Jersey, making three more All-Star games and reaching the Eastern Semis twice, but they could never get past the top teams in the East. A short stint in Orlando brought Vince his first trip to the Conference Finals, but no further. An unmemorable year in Phoenix gave way to a another trade to the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. Unfortunately, he had arrived a year too late. The Mavericks would not advance past the first round with Vince on the roster.
However, it was in Dallas that the narrative around Vince Carter started to change. Teammates, particularly Dirk Nowitzki, talked about what a fantastic veteran leader Vince was. His head coach Rick Carlisle gushed about Vince’s professionalism. And in 2014, a small measure of redemption was gifted to VC in Game 3 of the 2014 First Round against San Antonio.
The Mavericks would lose the series to the eventual champions, but for Vince that shot had special significance. Skip to :55
Graduation Day. The Miss. The Headlines. Vince Carter forgets nothing, and has learned a great deal. His next stint would be with the Memphis Grizzlies. It was as a Grizzly that he would make a return to Toronto of a different sort:
In 2016, Carter was named the NBA’s Teammate of the Year — a distinction that would have seemed impossible a decade earlier. In 2017 he was headed for development-minded Sacramento for the express purpose of mentoring young Kings De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles, and of course Justin Jackson. At the end of the 2017-18 season, the National Basketball Players Association named Vince Carter the “Most Respected” player in the league. At 41 years of age, with legs that no longer possess the sky-walking abilities they once had, Carter’s greatest asset as a player is his character.
Which brings us to last week. As discussed, Vince will be wearing the jersey of the Atlanta Hawks this year, another team looking for mentors to help develop young talent. Also last week, UNC incoming freshman Nassir Little took an Instagram Q&A for the UNC YouTube Channel. One question he was asked was what Tar Heel alum made him want to come to Chapel Hill. His answer: “Definitely Michael Jordan. Vince Carter. Those are some G.O.A.T.s”
At the start of his career, Carter was hailed by some as “The Next Jordan.” Such a comparison was ludicrous of course. There will never be another Jordan. However, a whole generation of Tar Heels has been inspired by Vince and has mentioned his name along with Jordan’s in Carolina lore. Nassir Little is the latest in a long line to say that Vince Carter is a reason he came to Chapel Hill, just as Jordan was a reason Vince came. Maybe in that respect, the “Next Jordan” title is well-deserved. For a man dubbed “Half Man, Half Amazing,” maybe the man that Vince Carter has become is the most amazing thing of all.