NBA at 75: Lessons from OG Vince Carter

Atlanta Hawks, NBA at 75

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Why Vince Carter’s final season as an Atlanta Hawk, and his years as a veteran mentor, mean just as much as prime Vinsanity did.

He stepped onto the court for the first time in the 2019–20 season, donning a white Atlanta Hawks uni with bright red and neon green lettering — a loud contrast against his grizzled, old guy look.

“The great Vince Carter,” an announcer blares. The crowd in Detroit lets him know just how much they’ve appreciated his time in the League with a standing ovation. This is the moment VC15 officially appeared in his NBA-record, 22nd consecutive season.

It still seems strange to me — as a ’90s kid who grew up watching Vince rise up into stardom, literally and metaphorically — to watch him as a veteran surrounded by youthful potential in Atlanta, an aged man coming off the bench for a bottom-feeding roster that had constantly failed to make the playoffs at that time.

I remember watching Vince hoop on a nationally-competitive North Carolina squad before getting drafted as a lottery pick then immediately being traded to Toronto, where he became Rookie of the Year and took Canada by storm with his in-game flight abilities. Air Canada, they called the kid from Dayton Beach, Florida. As a boy, I was there for his take-off, like many of us hoop heads who were shaped in our youth by the rhythmic bounce of NBA leather on TNT weeknights.

Carter was young back then, too. But he went on to establish an impressive resume throughout his seemingly immortal career. Following his ascension in Toronto, he signed up to bolster any playoff-bound team around the League that was fighting for a championship — the Jason Kidd-charged New Jersey Nets, the Dwight Howard-primed Orlando Magic, the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks, and the grindhouse-era Memphis Grizzlies, among others — becoming a regular face in the regular and postseasons for decades because of his ability to get to the rack, hit 3-pointers, make smart decisions, and reliably assist his teammates to reach a higher level of competitiveness on and off the court.

To put it bluntly, the OG has been playing professional basketball all over the country with players who’ve come and gone since I was barely entering middle school as a goofy, NBA-addicted adolescent virgin. Now I’m a married man, a university professor, with three college degrees under my belt, a few books to my name, and have lived in a few cities and countries. And through it all, he hooped. While I was changing addresses and schools and career paths every five years, learning about the world and working to establish myself in new situations, Vince was there, consistently doing what he loved at the highest athletic level for various NBA fan bases. Whenever I needed to revisit the comfort of something certain in my life — like a one-handed yam beneath the rack — I just had to sit back and watch homeboy go to work.

9 Mar 2001: Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors makes a slam dunk during the game against the Seattle SuperSonics at the Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. The Raptors defeated the SuperSonics 110-99. Credit: Otto Greule Jr /Allsport

The world changed around him and Vince Carter was still out there hooping

Here’s another way to think about his unthinkable longevity: he was a Tar Heel when Tupac and Biggie were both still alive; he starred through the rise and fall of Master P’s No Limit Records; he hooped in the NBA when Jay-Z’s early and middle albums were still dropping and when Kayne West released his first joint; then, he later balled himself across America while newer guys like 50 Cent and Lil’ Wayne were establishing themselves and taking over the clubs; he later sharpened his skills at the same time Drake and Future emerged from the bottom; and recently, with Playboi Carti, Lil’ Uzi Vert, and Tyler, the Creator among the latest names, well, Vince was still there, without having missed much of a step or album release since 1995 — when he was recruited to North Carolina.

It’s crazy to think that Vince Carter has worn his game-time jersey in the NCAA and NBA for longer and more often than any other legend you can think of who has ever touched the rock. Literally. No one has done it more often than Vin. Not Bill Russell. Not Magic. Not Jordan. Not Kobe. Not LeBron (yet?).

Alas, his unprecedented run has invariably ended. After this tumultuous season affected by COVID, political uprisings, and the virtual collapse of the globe’s infrastructure, VC15 finally did the inevitable by announcing his retirement from basketball in 2020. Most fans immediately began to think back and celebrate his prime years in Toronto, when he would disrespect the laws of gravity and push himself into the stratosphere while challenging human physics — by leaving his elbow dangling inside the rim after a simple yet devastating dunk as proof of his mighty hoopology.

In those years, Vinsanity could leap over a 7-foot-2-inch-tall human being. Could just straight bunny hop over the entirety of a monstrous man standing in his path on the way to a jam. In those days, Vince could roam the baseline like a predator on the hunt, waiting for that instinctive moment to leap, then he would — you know, he’d just take off on someone — and one of his teammates would lob him a beautifully arc’d and impossibly high pass that he would catch above an unsuspecting, backpedaling defender’s outstretched fingertips before throwing down another clip for the fans in the arena to go wild about.

Make no mistake. Vince Carter — who quickly became known as “Half Man Half Amazing” — was the most athletically gifted, vertically unchallenged, electrically explosive and creative slam dunk artist in NBA history. And the dude did it for so damn long: 22 uninterrupted seasons. I mean, say what you want about Dr. J, ‘Nique, J Rich, and all those other Jedi dunk Masters who were absolute badasses in their best years. But who did it so velvety, for so long, on so many different teams, in so many different situations — until they were 43-years-old? No one, besides Vincent Lamar Carter.

Vince Carter

ATLANTA, GA – FEBRUARY 3: Vince Carter #15 of the Atlanta Hawks goes up for a basket in front of Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics during the third quarter at State Farm Arena on February 3, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

As a society, we tend to idolize the ideal perfection of youth; when everything is new and infused with potential, when the hunger is still palpable, when good-looks and our style seem effortless; when we’re still smooth-skinned and all-smiles. Youth — particularly among NBA stars— represents what many of us view as the pinnacle of success and triumph and glory in our society. Younger Vince embodied this, of course. There’s no denying that. He was a f***ing idol.

But I don’t want this to be a story that simply applauds what the man did in his healthiest years while fueled by his young exuberance. I want this to be a story that honors the man — an aging athlete — who appeared too old to be playing a young person’s game, but did it until his final days with grace, with power, with determination, and — most impressively — with a high level of athleticism and skill that earned him his status in NBA mythology as one of the greatest players to ever hoop, even at his unorthodox age.

This is for the Vince Carter who might’ve looked like a grandpa, but who still could jump higher and dunk harder than your strongest nephew. This is for the Vince Carter who would wrap his hairless dome with an iconic headband to keep the sweat from dribbling into his eyes while he cut across the court and between defenders to reach the corner and hit an open trey on his high-mileage knees. This is for the Vince Carter who could, at the end of his career, would go up for a layup in Madison Square Garden with his back turned to the basket and contort his upper torso at a ridiculous angle to bank the shot off the backboard for a bucket — with two defenders lurking in his shadow.

This is for the Vince Carter who swished a running fadeaway jumper over Anthony Davis and the champion Los Angeles Lakers. This is for the Vince Carter would who smile that dad-smile after knocking down a super deep splash from outer space, and would just shrug, as if to say, “I actually didn’t think that one was going in either, but it did.” This is for the Vince Carter who became the oldest brother in his family of twelve boys in Peachtree, and who would look after, playfully bully, tease, support, teach, and model excellence for tomorrow’s stars of the game — even starting his own podcast, Winging It, with role-playing teammate Kent Bazemore, simply for fun. This is for the Vince Carter who never allowed his pride or his sense of ego to get in his way, as he developed new techniques to dribble around himself and became his own biggest source of motivation, fueling him to be the best player he could at the closing stages of his life as a professional.

It’s more than basketball when I think about this. What’s the longest you’ve ever done anything tremendously difficult? Something that required the most out of you on a physical, psychological, interpersonal, professional, and perhaps spiritual level every night of the week? How often would you wake up and toss on your uniform to do that — in front of millions of people, who potentially hated or criticized you simply because you weren’t wearing their colors — but still managed to excel, and to levitate despite that? Let’s not forget that this is the NBA. It seems fun to us — and I’m sure Vince Carter loved the hell out of that game, obviously, he did. But let’s not pretend that it isn’t a job — and a demanding one, too — where less than 1 percent of the planet’s population is even able to break into the field, let alone maintain their place there for 22 years, simply because of how elite you have to be in every aspect of yourself to be considered among this crop of ultra-humans.

I think a lot of us on this side of the screen imagine that if you can simply run fast and jump high you’ll be in the NBA. I surely thought that as a young kid — while watching players like Vince leap above defenders. Maybe if I drank enough Gatorade and trained hard enough, as I grew into my lanky 6-foot frame, I could play, too. But as I’ve grown — and as I’ve watched players from Vince Carter’s generation grow and evolve as well, adapting their game and their image to fit the modern sport — I’ve realized just how much work a career is, just how talented and disciplined you have to be if you want to be the best at what you do, and how goddam impressive it is when you encounter a rare someone like Vince, who continues to do it in his craft while maintaining the soulful energy and tenderness of a grandpa, yet spreading the contagious enthusiasm of a kid fresh out of college.

Old man Vince Carter is proof that you don’t have to be young to be great, and he’s proof that you don’t have to always be great to be loved. That if you hustle deep enough and put enough care and ethic into what you do, you can lift yourself above others — and when you fall back to earth, the people and team you’ve built around you will be there to hold you up, for as long as you need. I’ll take watching a 42-year-young Vince Carter come off the bench and move half-speed beneath the rim any day over watching a young, cocky, superstar try to pad his stats on a losing or contending team. It’s the poetry of how Vince carries himself as an experienced adult in his waning years that I find inspiring, not the result.

This is for all those versions of Vince Carter who played throughout our lifetimes, but especially for the one I idolize in the twilight of his career, just as much as I did in his prime. This is for the aging legs and the tireless hearts in all of us; let’s enjoy our best years, without running away from the gravity of change that awaits.

Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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