I just finished reading this article over Vince Carter, and I thought I'd share it with you guys.
In 1999, Michael Jordan, the NBA's consummate winner, showman, and market asset, retired for the second time. Jordan had been the ultimate symbol of the NBA's boom in popularity during the 1980s; while Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had started the ball rolling several years earlier, Jordan was the culmination. His departure was a critical blow to a league that had just begun to understand how to sell itself.
The hunt had already begun for the Next Jordan, a designation that could describe either on-court style (Harold Miner) or crossover appeal (Grant Hill). But on the eve of MJ's second retirement, providence arrived in the form of rookie Raptors guard Vince Carter. Like Jordan, Carter had attended the fabled University of North Carolina. Like the young MJ , Carter could leap and dunk in ways that had previously seemed unimaginable he had that same coarsely balletic quality to his play, those sweeping motions that were at once polished and violent. And with his shaved head and forced scowl, even Carter's appearance was an acceted facsimile of Jordan's.
The Greek chorus of the league loudly agreed. Raptors teammate Jerome Williams raved, "Every day I go to work, it's like, 'I saw something today that you'll never believe. You won't even understand it.' It's just one of those things where he just has a God-given talent to be very creative with a round object." T-Wolves coach Flip Saunders stated bluntly "I want to see somebody better than Vince Carter. He single-handedly beat us." And Jason Kidd gushe, "That's the next coming. Michael Jordan hasn't done that, nobody's done that. i think everybody sitting here, even myself as a teammate, enjoyed watching a player like that."
But there was one key problem: While Michael Jordan lived to play basketball, Carter always seemed to embrace his calling reluctantly.
The NBA is littered with big men who find employment simply by virture of their bigness. Seven-footers liek Erick Dampier and Elden Campell have always lacked in motivation or engagement; Adonal Foyle, a well-liked journeyman with a nose for political activity, plays professional basketball only becuase he can. Those with a Jordanesque skill set--Jumpers, leapers, game-changing scorers-- tend to overplay, asserting themselves too much and falling victim to the "selfish" label. While he may bear a superficial resemblence to Jordan, Carter fits more into that archetype of big man passivity than into the mold of the ball-hogging game changer.
To paraphrase The Wire, Carter just ain't built for shit. The irony, of course, is that every fiber of his physical beign is. He seems immune to the norms of athletic and competive culture, despite ffitting innumeralbe criteria for the role of modern superstar. Vince Carter has left a trail of destruction and disappointment in his wake, one that seems to mean nothing to him at all. One might go so far as to call him a sociopath, were it not for the fact that off the court, he's a perfectly well-adjusted, well-meaning, and convivial human being.
Carter's actual career has been a strange admixture of apathy, insecurity, and disappointment. The leagues's 1999 Rookie of the Year, he became a household name in that year's dunk contest--an event synonymous with Jordan's ascent. The dunk was, and still is, the crack cocaine of the NBA, for players and fans alike, a sharp thrill not necessarily conducive to sucess in the daily grind. Carter's performance rivaled MJ's finest moments in that Arena. It was so hair-raising in it's perfection that, in effect, it pulled the heart out of the contest, crippling it for years to come. When Carter gave a throat-slash gesture after his last go, it was more than that year's competition was over. He'd actually succeeded in supplanting the all-time king of the event.
The irony here was that this contest is, at best, an experimental lab for moves that will one day be unleashed in games, or a rep-building showcase designed to strike fear into the hearts of colleagues. Carter's performance was so crystalline, so choreographed, that it bore little resemblance to any conceivable in-game situation. His most famous in-game dunk came in the 2000 Olympics,when Carter rather conspicuoulsy grew out a mini-fro and unleashed some hidden wellsprings of aggresion. The USA cruised to the gold, but there was at least one indelibe high-light: Vince leading entirely over the head of 7'1 Frence Center Frederic Weis on the way to a ferocious dunk. Carter screamed like a gladiator, and yet he might as well have been employing a prop under the Vegas lights. (Drafted by the Knicks, Weis left Amercian basketball the next season.)
The Jordan parallels continued. Tracy McGrady arrived to play the Scottie Pippen role, and a 2000 playoff appearance signaled an end to a culture of losing, However, McGrady soon left for Orlando, leaving Carter to carry the team. The next season, Vince Carter's Raptors met Allen Iverson's Sixers in the second round of the playoffs. Iverson's white-hot motivation, diminutive stature, and put bull resolve couldn't have been further from Carter's accidental brillance. Yet for seven memorable games, the two exchanged memorable scoring figures and bouts of pure competitive fury, as Carter looked for once like a man at home in his own skin.
But then came a moment that would forever seal Carter's fate and spell the end of his time in NBA's elite. Honoring a promise he had made to his mother, Carter had been working to finish his degree at UNC. It just so happened that the graduation ceremony was the morning of a crucial game, possibly the most important of his career. Vince opted to take the short trup south to Chapel-Hill, going down the night before and returning in time for pregame preperations. Fittingly, the game came down to a single Carter shot--which clanked out, sending the Sixers ahead to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The backlash was swift: For outraged fans, the graduation jaunt was to blame for Carter's miss, having placed unnecesary fatigue on his body and possible distracted him. Others took it as proof that Carter saw there was more to life than basketball--or, even if they didn't want to say so, that their star player could be only so interested in this moment of utmost athletic tension. It was around this time that MJ washed his hands of Carter, "he's dead to me" style--as if to make a public statement that, for all the similarities, Carter had missed the point.
His career since has been a steady slide into irrelevence. Frome that fatefull game on, Carter never again glowed like a leading man. While a superstar would've taken it upon himself to lift up the team, Vince seemed to wait around for someone else to catalyze things or step up only when things happened to swing in Toronto's direction way anyway. His injuries became more and more frequent, leading many to question his toughness--or commitment.
In 2002, he missed months due to something known as "jumper's knee" during his absence from the team, he appeared onstage dancing at a Nelly concert. He dunked less and less, severing that visceral tie with the community. In 2003, he suggested the team trade the fourth pick in the best draft ever for "some veteran help" theuy ended up with versatile big man Chris Bosh, who gladly accepted the role of franchise player. It made perfect sence when, in 2004, Carter was shipped to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar. The Raptors had come to see him as a ghost, of the kind tha occasionlly chipped tiles or flooded sink, while the Nets could use him as an accessory to point guard supreme Jason Kidd. Of course, Carter's utter disinterest in staying with the Raptors game them little to no leverage, meaning he screwed them even on the way out.
With most active players, our fandom depends on seeing the character in their game. Each man plays with a unique style, one that reflects both his professional experience and something of his personality. In Carter's case, this model simply doens't apply. In fact, the opposite seems true. Compare Carter's slightly creepy presence in the league with that of his cousin Tracy McGrady. T-Mac, awash in pain and humanity, disrupts the usual speration of life and sport. But in T-Mac's case, all of his real-life travail comes rushing back into his game. Carter, on the other hand, is distracted from basketball by something either more important or simply more real. His game is a glassy-eyed harlot, a beautiful black hole that threatens everything that makes the NBA so profound. This is the kind of thing that makes fans call T-Mac "bottomlessly soulful" and Carter " without a soul", and it makes us feel that watching McGrady is more than just exercise in aesthetics and entertainment.
Vince Carter does has a soul, he's a devouted father, and he wept openly when asked to speak at the dedication of a high school that bears his name. Unfortunately, it remains hidden from us as fans, at least when we watch him perform. And that such overpowering, sublime play could be so empty is enough to cause and basketball lover a crisis of faith. You could never convince Carter that his career has been tragic, but it has visited anguish upon nearly everyone who fidns meaning in this great American game.