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“Everyone has a vet.” That statement from Kevin Garnett has stuck with me. Sam Mitchell was his. He was Rajon Rondo’s. It’s the circle of NBA life. You would be hard-pressed to find a player whose career was not set on its course by a veteran in his first locker room. Those who become vets themselves pass those lessons along. These are their stories.
Vince Carter has played 21 NBA seasons for eight different teams, and he wants to return for a 22nd. “Hopefully in the coming days we’ll have something figured out,” the 42-year-old said on a conference call last week. He is an eight-time All-Star, the 1999 Rookie of the Year and arguably the greatest slam dunk champion in the sport’s history. Carter took the time to talk to Yahoo Sports while prepping for his call of the Jr. NBA Global Championship for FOX Sports this week in Orlando, Fla.
Who is your vet, and how did that relationship develop?
Carter: My situation was probably more unique than any player in the last five or six years, because I probably had four or five veterans. I had Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis, Dee Brown, Doug Christie and Antonio Davis. Two years later, I had Dell Curry, Mark Jackson and Muggsy Bogues, so my first couple years I had nothing but seasoned veterans around me. Haywoode Workman is another one, so you could go on and on and on. I’d say Oakley was probably the first person. On Day 2 of my NBA career at training camp, he comes up to me and he’s like, “I’m gonna make you an NBA player and teach you this game.”
From there, I was just always asking questions. I wanted to be prepared and wanted to be as good as possible. I loved to play, and I just wanted to learn. If you think about these players who I just named, Charles Oakley played with Michael Jordan, Dee Brown played with Larry Bird, Doug Christie played with Magic Johnson, Antonio Davis played with Reggie Miller, and Kevin Willis played with Dominique Wilkins. I would be a fool if I didn’t listen to how those stars of stars — those unique superstars — prepared and handled their superstardom.
It made it so much easier for me, because, for one, I was willing to ask questions. Obviously, you have all the rookie duties and all that stuff. I know that’s a part of it, but I learned lessons about preparation. I watched Grant Hill play prior to being in the NBA as a fan. It’s another thing guarding Grant Hill when he plays for the Detroit Pistons. I felt like I played against him before, just from asking these questions and the personal tools that were taught to me by Oak and those guys on how to prepare for a player and what to look for. When I stood in front of Grant for the first time, I felt prepared. Obviously, he was a different beast. It’s one thing to be prepared. It’s another thing seeing it live. Let me say that as well, but I didn’t feel like a fish out of water, even though I might’ve been because I was a rookie.
So, I always tell these young guys, “Man, don’t feel like you’ve got this game figured out. Yes, we all love it, and it’s just like playing at home, but at the same time, when you play pickup at home, you’re not playing against a guy who’s making $30 million a year and is a five-, six-, 10-time All-Star. You guys have to ask questions.” I think it makes the game easier, and it slows the game down for them.
What on- and off-court lessons did you learn from them?
Carter: Off the court, learning how to prepare, like learning how to watch film. It’s one thing to watch film, but now it’s another thing to watch film knowing what you’re looking at. When you watch a player play, what are you looking for? You need to figure out tendencies, things like that.
And how to play the game the right way and at the right pace, where you’re using space, and at that time guys were averaging 40-plus minutes a game. That’s not the way of the game now because of the high-tempo way that it’s played, but you had to learn how to play the game at a high level and still not drown out in the last six minutes of the game, when it’s most important.
You learn those lessons, and you learn how to survive on the court when you’re getting a lot of touches and sometimes guarding the best player. It always helps to have an elite defender where sometimes you don’t have to guard [the best player], but still you have to guard a player out there, and you’ve just got to learn how to do it. There’s nothing better than going through it. That’s the best teacher. ...
Staying out of trouble, spending your money, everybody had a different approach. You can talk to the cheapest guy on the team, and he’s going to tell you one way, and you can speak to the most lavish spender, and he can tell you another way, so you just kind of figure out your lane. You kind of learn by watching as well. I learned a lot from the mistakes and successes players made. I knew as a young guy I couldn’t spend or do the things that these guys who had already been established for six, eight, 10 years can do, because they have the dollar bills. Theirs stretched a little farther than mine, so I had to be careful about how I handled my business.
What’s your best Charles Oakley story?
Carter: Oh, man. I’ve seen a lot of Charles Oakley moments. The Tyrone Hill story, I was front and center for all of that when that situation happened.
[The Tyrone Hill story, according to reports: Hill lost more than $50,000 to Oakley in a game of craps during the summer of 2000. After pledging to pay his debt in two installments, Hill went back on his word, so Oakley slapped him prior to a preseason game. Hill paid him $10,000, but nothing more, so Oakley jumped in his face during every Raptors-Sixers game and threw a ball at Hill’s head during a shootaround.]
The one thing I’ll say about Oak is that Tracy [McGrady] and I never had to worry about anything. You get in a little altercation, shoving match, talking, you didn’t have to ask Oakley to be there. He would be there. He taught us how to play the game, how to be tough, respect the game and don’t take no junk from nobody.
What were your rookie duties?
Carter: It’s a little different now. It was easier to get us to do all of the rookie things as opposed to now. Everybody still has to go get the doughnuts. At this time it sounds extinct, but bringing in the newspaper. Guys wanted the newspaper. It’s so many things. After shootaround, they’re kicking the ball into the second level, and we had to go get them. You do that to a guy now, and they’ll just stare at you.
It’s the way it worked. It’s different now. I had to clean up the locker room a couple times. That’s terrible — shoes everywhere, people giving you stuff, and you’ve got to put it back where it’s supposed to go. I feel like my rookie year there were two of us, so in the morning on the road I had to put the practice gear on the [hotel room] doors. I had to wake up before everyone else, get the gear, put it on the doors.
What was your ‘Welcome to the NBA’ moment?
Carter: Obviously, playing against guys who I tried to model my game after or tried to take pieces of their game, like [Scottie] Pippen, Grant [Hill], Penny [Hardaway], some from [Michael Jordan]. I played against MJ, so it doesn’t get bigger than that.
But I’ll tell you what: One of the things that floored me in terms of being awestruck, after winning the dunk contest and going through the trophy ceremony, as soon as I walked through the back, Dr. J was the first person right there. He shook my hand and was like, “Congratulations, young man.” I’ll never forget it.
Dr. J was one of my heroes. He’s who I looked up to as a role model. He was my No. 1. We took a picture together with the trophy. I saw that picture in storage at my house, and to this day I can’t believe it. Of all people, he was the first person. When you think of dunking, you think of Dr. J, so you couldn’t write a better story. I was floored. It was like, “Oh, man, you’ve gotta be kidding me. It doesn’t get any better than this.” He congratulated me, talked with me and took a picture with me and two of my buddies who were there. That’s the one thing that really stuck out to me.
What was your ‘I’m here to stay’ moment?
Carter: It’s two and a half moments. Obviously, winning the Rookie of the Year [in 1999], I felt like I belong here. I think Paul [Pierce] and Jason Williams were playing at a high level as well, so for me to beat out those guys — I think I played very well in the second part of my season, which kind of gave me a chance.
[Carter received 113 of 118 first-place votes. Williams finished second, Pierce third.]
Winning the dunk contest gave me a world of confidence, but alongside that dunk contest, being the leading vote-getter for a few years in a row. ... The first time winning [the vote], I’m like, “Man, I’m over Kobe Bryant, over Kevin Garnett, over T-Mac.” We’re talking about a lot of players who could be the leading vote-getter and were staples in the All-Star game, and I was able to win three years in a row.
In Michael Jordan’s last year, I was the leading vote-getter, and I was just like, Wow. We always knew he was going to start. I didn’t have a shadow of a doubt. I gave up my position. That was crazy for me. My friends and I talk about that. They’re like, “Do you understand that you had more votes than Michael Jordan in his last year?” And it’s kind of hard to believe. That’s one of the ones where I’m like, You know what? I must be OK.
It seems like you have prioritized mentorship over ring-chasing in the latter stage of your career. Is that accurate, and why?
Carter: I still think I can play the game at a high level, and I want to do so. If the opportunity presents itself, I definitely want to do so, and I definitely want to play and compete still. I’m all for mentoring young guys. That’s not a problem. I feel like sometimes you need to lead by example. You go out there and you show them better than you can talk, and it kind of makes sense then. That’s what it is for me.
Obviously, we can have a conversation, and it makes sense, but I still like to see it in action. I think now more than ever young guys need to see it in action for it to make sense. They need to see the level of professionalism that is required before it makes sense, because sometimes you might think, Yeah, I’m professional, but until you see it the right way, you can’t gauge whether you’re on the right path or not.
Are there guys who you have formed a bond with and now you’re their vet?
Carter: This makes me sound old: A lot of my rookies who I still communicate with are now veterans of their teams. I still keep in contact with them, try to keep them in line and help them handle their new position the right way. Like a Jae Crowder. I just talked to Jae Crowder. Like Ryan Anderson. I still talk to Ryan Anderson all the time. Brook Lopez. These are guys you might consider old in the game who are my rookies.
It’s just a cool situation to see them grow and know you were a part of that and still hear from them. Even Jae Crowder, when I feel like he’s going off the reservation a little bit, getting a little too Hollywood, I’ll give him a call. He calls me “O.G.” He’s like, “You got it, O.G. You’re right.” That’s just something I enjoy doing.
Anything I can do to help these guys to play as long as possible and make as much money as possible, I’m all for it. I don’t get anything out of it but the joy of helping somebody fulfill their dreams, just like those guys did for me. They’re the reason I’m still here, outside of my play — teaching me how to be a good guy in the locker room, good guy off the court, handle my business, do what I need to do. All of the things I learned from those veterans I named I’ve taken a piece of.
Believe it or not, in Atlanta last year, I still talked to Kevin Willis about being a veteran and how to handle it. Antonio, I still see and talk with him. Dominique [Wilkins] is someone who I talk to a lot. I’m still learning. Outside of being the oldest guy, I still have questions and want to make sure I’m still doing the best I can.
Is this something that also translates to your work with the Jr. NBA Global Championship?
Carter: The cool thing for me is the prep work I get to do with the coaches and some of the players. I’ll ask them questions, and I approach it as a job. After games and walking around, you see some of the kids and get to chat with them briefly, but we don’t really get that one-on-time like that. But the Jr. NBA Global Championship is really giving me an opportunity to gain more experience and see the young talent that’s out there. I think it’s a great chance for these young men and women from all over to play on the national stage while everybody’s watching.
[Carter will be a FOX Sports analyst alongside Sarah Kustok and Donny Marshall for the Jr. NBA Global Championship, which airs Tuesday through Sunday and features many of the best 13- and 14-year-old boys and girls from around the world.]
When I was 13 or 14, we didn’t get that chance. It just wasn’t there, so this is great to see. I’m getting the opportunity to see some unreal talent. The way these kids are built at 13 and 14 is just different. That’s all I can say to that.
Is there something you’ve learned in the changing times over the course of your career that you would now recommend to that next generation?
Carter: There are a lot of things. For instance, social media wasn’t a thing when I started, so now it’s kind of making these kids aware. Let’s take Trae Young, for example. It’s hard to tell a kid about social media and being careful when he was a phenomenon his junior year of high school. He comes in seasoned in the social media world and handling the media. That’s what social media is now and has done for young kids, and it can make or break you at a younger age now. I think a lot of these kids have been seasoned and have a better feel with handling the media and handling themselves on and off the court because of what social media is now.
That’s really the biggest thing, and I think the awareness that, yes, you were a phenomenon in high school and a one-and-done phenomenon in college, but when you’re on the NBA stage, you’re at the highest stage with all of that social media pressure and the world is watching tenfold. That’s really the thing I try to shed light on. They can handle it the way they want to handle it, but I feel like I haven’t done my job if I don’t make them aware of it.
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