Vince Carter at 40: 'I'm still standing'

Vince Carter is in his 19th NBA season. (Getty Images)
Vince Carter is in his 19th NBA season. (Getty Images)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Vinsanity comes in vintage flashes these days, as the former hurdler of 7-foot Frenchman and author of unimaginable slam dunks descends from his half-man, half-amazing heights to his half-man, half-aging twilight. On Wednesday night, the eve of his 40th birthday, Vince Carter punched in 30 minutes on the clock for a Memphis Grizzlies win over his original team, the Toronto Raptors, but his work had only begun.

As fans exited FedEx Forum, perhaps still marveling at the 360-degree layup the old guy pulled off earlier that night, Carter was resting his back on a weightlifting bench, preparing to press 225 pounds while Grizzlies strength and conditioning coach Chattin Hill held a double-wide paddle on his chest to mark the press. For 20 minutes, Carter lifted, worked on a speed bag, did core exercises with a medicine ball and used other weight-lifting machines while the music of rapper T.I. provided the background noise.

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“You get older, you lose it,” Carter told The Vertical. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s tiring. But it’s about keeping my body strong, my mind strong.”

The Grizzlies are all too familiar with the grueling postgame routine that Carter has maintained since joining the team in the summer of 2014, so there was no shock or awe that he was putting his body through such a grind – or that the NBA’s oldest player was the only member of the squad delaying the ice and shower for a few reps. Carter didn’t become one of 17 players to reach 19 seasons in NBA history strictly because he just wanted to hang around or coaches wanted to honor his name.

This kind of longevity required a passion and love for the game that was somehow questioned during his early days as a rim-punishing, aerial gymnast. To outlast so many of his peers and rivals from that initial post-Michael Jordan era, Carter also needed to dedicate himself to do whatever it took to not only be on a roster but remain a valuable contributor on a playoff contender. That meant swallowing his pride to make the uneasy mental transition from superstar to sixth man, sacrificing a few late-night good times and committing to a game-day program that involves him arriving three hours before tip-off to put up shots, bathe in an ice tub, and undergo treatment and taping – all to chase around players, some of whom are now half his age.

“I’m still standing. I’m still competing, playing at this level, doing what I need to do to still be here. I still have a burning desire to compete and be around,” Carter told The Vertical. “I don’t expect anything. I’m going to work for it, like I’ve done my entire career. I’m going to prove that I deserve to play the minutes that I’m playing. I’m going to prove to you that I deserve to still be in this league. That’s kind of been my drive. Humbling myself and staying hungry for the opportunity to still be around. That’s what it is. I don’t come in like, ‘You know what I’ve done? I deserve to be here.’ Nah, I don’t see it that way.”

Grizzlies strength and conditioning coach Chattin Hill works with a bench-pressing Vince Carter on Wednesday night. (Michael Lee/The Vertical)
Grizzlies strength and conditioning coach Chattin Hill works with a bench-pressing Vince Carter on Wednesday night. (Michael Lee/The Vertical)

‘I can’t put me out of the NBA yet’

Carter is still standing because he doesn’t want to worry about being anything other than a ball player. He has an idea of his post-basketball career – preferably in broadcasting – but won’t spend much time thinking about it because it would be the first sign that he was already checking out. Playing 20 seasons became the goal once he blasted through his initial goal of 15 after being drafted fifth overall in 1998, but he’s not necessarily looking to stop on a number that only five other NBA players have reached. “It scares me. I cannot put myself on the other side of the fence. I can’t put me out of the NBA yet,” Carter told The Vertical. “We’re just going to go for it, until the doors close and there are no more opportunities. That’s kind of where I am. If 21 [seasons] were available, the old guy will still be around.”

Kobe Bryant, a longtime foil going back to Carter’s AAU days, stepped aside last season after becoming the first perimeter player to reach 20 seasons. Allen Iverson, with whom Carter staged his greatest one-on-one battle during a 2001 second-round series, was inducted in 2016 into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And Tracy McGrady, his cousin and former teammate with the haunting what-if of a career that was ringless, just got the call that he’ll be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. Those were three of the players with whom Carter spent the early part of his career entangled. There were numerous others, but none tested him more. And they were also the names often used by critics who questioned Carter’s drive and expected him to leave the game once his athletic gifts began to wane. Carter never forgot what was said about him when he was establishing himself as one of the game’s most popular players. He also didn’t waste his time trying to defend how he felt about basketball: His answer comes every time he slides on that uniform and dons a headband for the umpteenth time.

“The jokes on you,” Carter said of his early critics. “I’m a patient guy. I just wait my time for things like that, because, you know what, it’s all going to come to the light. And when the water rises to the top, I want you to see who is on top of that wave, and here I am today.”

‘I won’t sell my soul [for a title]’

Carter hears all the time, from peers, coaches, executives and fans, how he’ll be headed to the Hall of Fame after he hangs up his size 16 sneakers. He’s only 81 points from passing Iverson for 23rd on the all-time scoring list, four 3-pointers shy of becoming the fifth member of the exclusive 2,000-made club, and about to have the fifth-highest scoring average by any player in his age-40 season. His uncertainty over what happens once his career is over isn’t just a motivating factor for playing but for also doing all of the ancillary activities required to stay healthy enough to compete.

Carter works on his core with Hill. (Michael Lee/The Vertical)
Carter works on his core with Hill. (Michael Lee/The Vertical)

He needs no reminder that he hasn’t tasted the champagne of a championship shower, nor has he even made it to an NBA Finals. But chasing jewelry has never been his thing, and it won’t be all he takes into consideration when he becomes a free agent this summer.

“That’s what you’re here for. That was the goal, Day One. One day I’m going to get that chance. I still say that today. One day, I’m going to get that chance. I think it’s just all about opportunity. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen – whether I’m here next year, or somewhere else that’s a contender. I’m not saying, ‘OK, I need to be here for it to happen.’ Because it’s not guaranteed anywhere,” Carter told The Vertical. “Your life has already been planned out the way it’s supposed to go and we’re just putting the pieces together that have been put together. So yes, that is the ultimate goal. I would love to hold up that trophy. I would love to be in that situation. Not at the expense of … and I could fill in the blanks with a lot of things. I won’t sell my soul. Wherever that is, or with whoever it is, I will be prepared to do whatever it takes to help that team.”

Carter still enjoys the camaraderie of being around his teammates, of absorbing old-man jokes, of joking with 20-year-old Deyonta Davis that he could be his father, of having the guys over to his Central Florida home for Christmas and shootaround – yes, his house has a gym large enough to host a practice. He’s not ready to start missing all of that, even as he shows up for every season saying farewell to another familiar face.

Paul Pierce, who entered the league the same season as Carter, has already announced that he’s done after this season. Dirk Nowitzki, another member of the 1998 draft class, has also hinted that he might have to evaluate his plans at the conclusion of this season if his body continues to betray him. Carter has a unique way of viewing his circumstances. “I kind of think of an elderly person, when they go through life and all of their friends die off, and I kind of put myself there. Like, what were they thinking [at that difficult time]?” Carter told The Vertical. “Thank God I’m going on. Thank God he’s given me the ability to still be here healthy to do what I do. Thank God he’s given me the ability to go through all of this. When I see guys go, I’m like, ‘Well, it was their time.’ ”

Vinsanity: The Raptors years

Carter doesn’t reside in regret over how certain aspects of his career played out, but much of what he would’ve changed involves his stint with the Raptors. He and McGrady have had numerous conversations over the years about what would’ve happened had they decided to play together for a few more years. McGrady left for Orlando after playing just two seasons with Carter. “How many championships would we have? We don’t know. We wish that we could’ve explored that a little more,” Carter told The Vertical. “But we were young guys trying to establish ourselves in the league and that’s what he wanted at the time. … They wanted me to hate Tracy, and that’s my cousin, first of all, that’s all absurd. But they wanted me to have this rivalry and a real beef over that. He’s trying to create his opportunity to be who he always wanted to be, to fulfill the dream of being the go-to guy, the man, the Tracy McGrady that he envisioned. So why hate on that? You can’t.”

Carter became a star dunking with the Raptors. (Getty Images)
Carter became a star dunking with the Raptors. (Getty Images)

Part of Carter also wishes that he had been a tad more patient with Toronto. Carter wanted to be like Reggie Miller and go wire-to-wire with the same organization but forced his way out after six seasons, frustrated by injuries, constant blame and a stagnant franchise. After winning Rookie of the Year and making two All-NBA teams in Toronto, Carter then became somewhat of a nomad after winding up in New Jersey, bouncing around to Orlando, Phoenix, Dallas and now Memphis. The departure from Toronto in 2004 hurt Raptors fans that lustily booed Carter upon his subsequent visits – up until, Carter jokes, he was no longer a threat to thwart Toronto from winning. One of the benefits of his longevity is that Carter was able to ride the love-hate-love pendulum swing with Raptors fans, which culminated with him shedding tears during a tribute video three seasons ago as part of the franchise’s 20th anniversary celebration.

“The feeling I had,” Carter said of watching the video, “it was like being drafted, that wonderful moment. It was like holding up that dunk contest trophy. It was like winning Rookie of the Year. It was receiving that gold medal at the Olympics [in 2000]. It was like standing there at the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics. Those were some of the moments in my life. Looking at that Jumbotron, I felt like the boy in the bubble having that moment. So, somebody could’ve been talking to me and I couldn’t hear it. I was living in those moments right then. Why? Because I didn’t think it would ever happen. To see it, it made me happy.”

Carter’s influence on a generation of Canadian basketball players is immeasurable. Though he hasn’t worn a Raptors uniform in more than 13 years, his ascent to being a four-time leading All-Star vote-getter – highlighted by that unforgettable 2000 Slam Dunk Contest – continues to define much of his legacy. That success didn’t come without some thorns, but Carter pushed through those prickly moments, including his infamous decision to attend his graduation from North Carolina before Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals. Coming from a home full of educators, Carter valued attaining his degree but was panned for attending the ceremony, especially after missing a potential winning jumper to end the series. Carter said he was most upset that he approached every player on the team to ask if they were OK with him attending the graduation, and all were supportive to his face – yet a few expressed their disappointment to others.

“I was on an island by myself. But I was able to say, ‘I made a decision. I can hold my head up and I would’ve done it again,’ ” Carter told The Vertical.

One of the game’s greatest showmen and arguably the best in-game dunker to ever take flight, Carter became an international sensation with a legendary performance in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest in Oakland. Carter never defended that title, but he didn’t disappoint fans because he continued to astound with vicious windmills, reverse alley-oops and demoralizing jams over anyone silly enough to challenge him.

“I wanted that one opportunity to hold that trophy up,” Carter said of his slam dunk title. “I didn’t want to make it a career. I wanted to show what else this guy could do. … I think guys say that to me now. ‘You’re doing windmill dunks at 40!’ and I’m like, ‘I’m able to do it.’ I don’t think about it, I just do it. I just play the game. I just do what I do. It’s not to show off or impress you.”

Carter drives to the hoop for North Carolina in 1998. (AP)
Carter drives to the hoop for North Carolina in 1998. (AP)

‘I’m not Michael Jordan

Carter and many of his contemporaries were also the unfortunate victims of timing, becoming stars after Jordan retired from the Bulls and struggling to establish identities absent that overwhelming shadow. As a product of the same school, educated by the same coach, and possessing similar gravity-defying skills, Carter heard the comparisons more than most but decided that the best way to survive was to avoid meeting those grandiose expectations.

“I tried my damnedest to prove that I’m me. I’m not Michael Jordan,” Carter told The Vertical. “Kobe is probably the closest. I watched Michael Jordan. Studied him. Admired him. Super fan of him. I mean, Dr. J was my ultimate. Michael Jordan right there is a very close second. But when someone said, ‘He’s not Michael Jordan.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know, thank you.’ ”

Being himself made it easy for Carter to stand as one of the links between that low-scoring, isolation-wing-dominant era to the more free-flowing, ball-movement, point-guard-driven era. Carter is so comfortable in his current incarnation as a role player that it is easy to ignore the challenge he faced in subjugating his game for the good of the team. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was able to persuade Carter to embrace a reserve role, but it was up to Carter to persuade himself to be among the best at coming off the bench.

“I embraced my role then, just like I embrace my role now,” Carter told The Vertical. “A lot of guys you can talk to who played 14, 15 years, they could still play today, [they] just couldn’t accept their role. It’s just a willingness to do it. Of course, there are times I wish I had more touches and they’d run the plays through me. It’s still there, but now I’ve had to kind of have that same mentality, that old Vince, still be me but in the confines of my new role. I had to be willing to put the pride aside, to put the go-to-guy aside, and now you’re a role player and dominant being a role player.”

Carter isn’t done. And a seen-almost-everything career still includes some magical firsts, such as the crowd serenading him Wednesday with “Happy Birthday” during a timeout. Carter tried to stay focused as Grizzlies coach David Fizdale explained his game plan, then sheepishly acknowledged the fans by clasping his hands together, blowing a kiss to them and bowing in appreciation. After scoring seven points and recording his last highlight as a 39-year-old, Carter was in the weight room, continuing a tradition that he used to share with former Grizzlies teammates Jeff Green, Mario Chalmers and Matt Barnes, otherwise known as “The Late-Night Crew.” Carter has extended an invitation to his teammates to join him, but there is only one rule in place: The music comes from his iPad, so that means plenty of T.I., Jeezy and Jay Z, not so much Migos and Rae Sremmurd. Carter had no special plans for the big “four-oh” with the Grizzlies heading to Portland for a game on Friday. So, it’s just another day at work. Another day to enjoy a career that has extended longer than even he imagined.

“The ups, the downs, playing the games, competing, bumps and bruises, struggles in the morning to walk, this is what’s a part of me still. I can’t imagine not being in this right now,” Carter told The Vertical. “It’s going to reach a point where I don’t want to pick up a basketball anymore. I don’t want to put the work in, then I’ll walk away. My love for the game will never leave me, but when the love for my willingness to put all of this into it anymore is dying out, it’s time to move on to Phase Two, and I’m not quite there yet.”

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