Vince Carter’s Career Deserves To Be Honored As A Constellation Of Starring Moments

The first thing is flight. Vince Carter was not a player who ran before he jumped, or walked before he ran. He was always, right away, in orbit. Cyclonic through the paint, his every rotation adamant as weather because he needed the velocity to propel up and over the gawking faces of his contemporaries, four decades worth. Once he’d cleared it, hit that sweet spot where gravity eased its grip, time slowed and he rollicked in the release. His dunks were complicated and gorgeous, even the slams that looked simple had the sort of hang time that required the alchemy of innate talent, conditioning, and a barometric sense of the game.

To be airborne was a comfort. He did his best thinking up there. When he landed, a game could instantly change course, like he’d glimpsed another outcome from that vantage point, another place for his team to go. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say some of most haunting moments of his career were made with ceiling as a decider, namely, where he saw its limits or where he was kept too long from communing with his inherent altitude. He was, for a while, called Air Canada, until the pet name grew too painful that an entire country would prefer you not bring it up and changed it, instead, to Wince Carter.

But he became others: Vinsanity, Half Man, Half Amazing, nicknames he flowed through like the years, a career so long, and charted in so many ways, it has become the kind of story that grows loose and familiar in its retellings because everyone can hold a small part of it, shape it as their own. Man made myth. With it wrapping in a surreal of a way as it started, the legend has only grown but we can finally trace it start to finish. The defining events become the fixed points to navigate his career by, the constellation of Vince Carter.

The Trade

Perhaps it’s best to start with the worst. Something like an exorcism, confronting the part of the story with the most demons, some still up and roaming around.

In 2004, even Carter’s halcyon days with the Raptors were haunted. The missed shot of 2001’s Game 7 against Allen Iverson’s Sixers hung as prominently in the collective psyche of Toronto fans as the college diploma Carter had gone to collect the morning of game day. A footnote that would have been celebrated, it may have even been touted now in an era rife with examples of it, as an early pioneering of player autonomy to come had the shot just fallen half an inch north.

Toronto’s front office was a mess. The franchise had gone through four coaches in his six years as their star, Lenny Wilkens the most formative for Carter in his rookie year, something of a ballast, and later, Butch Carter, who believed in him, only there for a season. In an interview with John Thompson that would stick another knife in his name, Carter recalled the internal jockeying as arduous, a permanent state of suspension where the team was constantly starting over from the foundations. Forced to dig up from bedrock with every new coach, Carter said he “never felt like we all took a stand together.”

There are plenty of angles to take with Carter’s departure from Toronto, many of which are still awfully sharp. But the glint in all of them are mournful refractions from Carter himself. What he wanted, what he said he wanted, was a team that took him seriously. As its star, someone who had lifted the franchise from league obscurity as much as maestro’d the rising fever pitch that basketball grew to in Toronto, lopsided as it was with the country’s only other franchise packing up and moving to Memphis in the shadow of Toronto’s insular success. In the infamous interview with Thompson, Carter said he only wanted the same courtesies as his teammates when it came to information and top-down communication. He could take it, he promised, just tell him if he should be doing something else, something different, or if, unthinkably, his time was up.

Retrospect affords a forgiving hue but in hindsight the facts lay the situation bare as it’s ever been.

Paired with the way we look at the league now, the freedom of its players, not just its stars, to center themselves in their career choices, Carter’s decision loses a lot of its scorn and softens. Whether it was a franchise uncomfortable with having a star, period, or a star of a different caliber — none of the gruffness of Kevin Garnett, the zen inaccessibility of Tim Duncan — earnest in his desire to be a contributor, to shape the future of a team on and off the floor, or not knowing how to treat one as a leader and part of the overall picture, the Raptors screwed it up. They could have had a prototype in Carter, an early, perhaps more collaborative LeBron James.

Was Carter at fault in bending to his body when it showed its first signs of duress? He was coming off the best basketball he’d ever known himself to play when his left knee began to founder, of course he panicked. He was only 24. It could have been his first recognition of what is understood among players to be a finite career closing in, that sense of invincibility shot, a reality check for how was he prepared to spend the rest of it. Carter had gained a reputation for being fair-weather because his games played tapered to the mid 70s in his later seasons with Toronto (43 in 2002-2003 immediately following off-season surgery) but when you look at load management now, a concept that’s become a colloquial shorthand, it feels cruel he was afforded no patience while expected to pay with his body.

When he admitted to not pushing himself those last years in Toronto, not playing at his full capacity and relying, as he told Thompson, on talent, it wasn’t really a dig. Playing as a franchise leader, upwards of 40 minutes a night, is hardly phoning it in. Could he have couched the sentiment in a little more regret? Sure. But who’s to say he felt any just then. He was being booed at home, the front office had revoked his mom’s parking spot at the arena, and there was no real plan for him.

It’s not that the Nets had anything more clairvoyant waiting, GM Ed Stanfanski admitted he’d only heard rumblings of problems, that nothing he did “was special,” he only called the Raptors and offered them Alonzo Mourning, Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, and a pair of first round picks. That the return of the trade — Mourning refused to report and was bought out of his contract and of the picks, which were supposed to herald GM Rob Babcock’s rebuild, one was traded away to the Knicks with Jalen Rose and the other yielded Joey Graham, who would leave the league by 2011— was placed as blame on Carter’s receding back signals only a front office that was so desperate to offload someone that it didn’t bother to litmus test the return.

For Carter, New Jersey wanted him, and that’s all he wanted.

The Dunk Contest

History doesn’t often give hints when it’s about to happen. There can be small tells, felt like tremors in the moment, or a collective sense of something catching if you’re close enough. Carter’s performance in the 2000 Dunk Contest was history arriving, it was also history scooting down between the players who sprawled, sleepover style, on the court to get a good place to watch from.

Even in rewatching it, no matter how often, there is a stab of adrenaline when Carter takes his first walk down to the basket and does a quick, fishing hook loop up court, tossing the ball out in front of him and picking up a jog, when the idea for his first dunk hits him. Later, Carter would admit to scrapping his original dunks for what he did that night. Partially the product of forced reflection as he sat crammed in a sedan, en route to Oakland from his hotel with four other people stuck in traffic on a drizzly afternoon, plus the feeling he got when he walked out onto the floor at Oracle, that this needed to be big. He hadn’t been able to pull off the 360 windmill while practicing in the weeks leading up to the contest, but out there under the lights, his body a live wire, he reached for it anyway.

“There was this unbelievable spike of adrenaline in my body and I didn’t have to worry about not getting enough height anymore. At the end of that dunk I did an extra bounce off the floor when I landed. I felt like I could’ve gone back up and thrown down another windmill.” Carter has recalled of that extra shove his brain gave his body.

What followed was a testament to winging it, in the purest sense of the word. Each of his next four acts came to him on the fly — one even in a bright flash of memory seconds before he took off sprinting, an ad in magazine he’d seen a week before — as if placed there by the hand of some divine force that loved dunks. The comparatively quiet explosion from behind the basket, bounding out from the baseline in another windmill that had him at height with the rim and only seemed subdued because the sonic waves of excitement from his first dunk were still bumping around the arena. The bounce pass he had to talk his cousin, Tracy McGrady, into giving him, a first attempt he could’ve plucked from where it hung but tried it again because he wanted it just so. And thank goodness he did because the softness he moved the ball between his left and right hands with, a quiet convening under his legs, the sailing ease of his body, moving like it’d caught a stray thermal, all set up the resulting slam to split the arena open.

He wasn’t even finished.

Carter circles back to the net. He said he was buying time, picking his spots, but it isn’t a stretch to say there was something devout about it. The basket being the altar the Dunk Contest is communed through and Carter, then and since, its most pious practitioner. He walks calmly up to mid-court as players watching from the floor move in giddy shoals down around the net. He veers out to the right and turns, holds the ball between his hands, rubs his right bicep then is gone. Four loping strides that lengthen like he’s running downhill. Under the net he takes a quick scissor step on his toes and tilts, imperceptibly, until he’s springing up toward the basket and has brought his outside arm in, hitched it over the rim at his elbow, swings.

When he lands it’s quiet for the first time all night. There’s a lurch, what’s happened hasn’t caught up with everyone who’s watching it. Mouths hang open and twenty thousand pairs of eyes pin to the replay, Carter walks away smiling, waiting. His arm was black and blue for days after, bruises as proof that the contest he’d just brought back from the brink after its two year hiatus was still worth it.

His last dunk, a two handed vault from the free throw line, seemed polite by comparison. It pretty much was. He’d run away with the contest by then but the choice now feels symbolic because Carter took flight. He was already a star in his own right but that night, he exploded. It marked the beginning of the biggest boom time the Raptors, an outpost franchise still proving its worth to the league, had ever had. Carter jerseys showed up on the road and the team became an embodiment of promise, new energy, but still maintained an outlier’s cool.

Looking back now it seems as close to a Greek tragedy as any that in four years Carter would claim he didn’t want to dunk anymore, would balk at being labelled a league Apollo of the practice, like the archer’s pose he adopted after the dunk that had Kenny Smith crowing his and the Dunk Contest’s new catchphrase — “It’s over! It’s over!” But that night, in those five feats, Carter took magic and ran with it, turned the contest to lore and pulled his team from history’s margins. His potential, at that shining point, was anything.

The Prime Journey

Carter couldn’t know that his abysmally undervalued trade to New Jersey was setting in motion a career that would largely be marked by how many moves he made. His pastoral five seasons with the Nets would prove to be the most stable of his career, largely free from the kind of injuries and limitations — even if some were self-imposed — that had him reevaluating his time in Toronto. Carter missed 11 games in four full seasons and change with New Jersey, and while dunks were still the splashiest part of his repertoire, he rounded out as a player, recording his highest career averages per game of 23.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

Carter and Jason Kidd were the first teammates in twenty years, since Jordan and Pippen, to post triple-doubles in the same game, and the two, alongside Richard Jefferson, would carry a large but not particularly flashy roster to the playoffs three seasons in a row. It was in the 2007-2008 season, when Kidd was traded, that Carter would first step into a solo leadership role, the kind that he’d seemed to covet with the Raptors but not taken hold of, team circumstance as much as his limited experience shaking him off.

Two years into a new four-year contract, and Carter was growing. He was a vital part of the Nets backcourt, showing the sort of new range as a defensive player that irks anyone who thought they had a player like him — all show, no grit — pegged. His abrupt trade to Orlando halfway through his new contract was more about the Nets clearing their books for a potential run at that summer’s free agents than it was Carter’s role as a team leader and dominant scorer, and Carter took it in stride.

Orlando was fresh – if a little woozy – from its title fight with the Lakers, and saw in Carter a chance to round out scoring. And Carter saw his clearest shot yet at championship contention.

Under Stan Van Gundy, Carter was with the Magic through two straight sweeps to start the 2010 Playoffs. Charlotte and Atlanta were the breezy preludes to a convincingly despicable Celtics team that would chase them through three straight losses, two fight-for-their-life wins, all to prime them for the Game 6 ending blow. It was (and would be) Carter’s only appearance in a Conference Finals, but there were complaints that he’d barely lifted a finger. With a Game 4 showing of three points and two rebounds in 30 minutes on the floor, then a Game 5 rally for eight points, Carter was called an expensive spectator, his $16 million contract not adding up. There were comparisons to his time in Toronto, stretches where he did not seem to want to try or wasn’t living up to the fleeting idea of potential.

But that season in Orlando marked his 14th year in the league, he was 34. It would’ve made sense if his game was slowing down.

The thing with Carter, even then, was his timelessness. He was still capable of explosive moments even if his scoring had gradually tapered. The downfall of his enduring and easy style, the style that made him destined for the kind of longevity he had, was that it generated criticisms that players five (and eventually 10, 15) years his junior were getting. It’s not that he gave up or wasn’t pressing himself, it’s that after a decade and change of play he was starting to piece together what he needed to do in order to have another one.

The Veteran

He didn’t even have time to get a sunburn in Phoenix. With the Suns he met Steve Nash on the veteran’s last orbit but both were moving in such different directions they were like spaceships, one blipping by the other. But it’s likely he gleaned something from Nash, especially as a beloved player come back for a victory lap, because Phoenix is where Carter began to shift into what he would largely become in his next ten seasons: a role player.

His transition was gradual — not in Phoenix, because after the NBA lockout he was waived by the Suns — but in Dallas, then Memphis, a skip to Sacramento and finally with Atlanta. With the Mavs his scoring took another dip, hanging steady around 12 points per game, and would drop a point or so with every consecutive year. But starting in Dallas, as if freed up from the pressure of the paint and all those years it became Carter’s center stage, he began to hang back. Moving easily around the outside and spending more time scoping, his 3-point game took on a new thump of life.

A Carter three, like most Carter moves, is punctuated at its exactly most outwardly effortless point. It’s always been lulling, how he plays, and probably where so much of his criticism came from. As he himself said back in Toronto, there were times where he relied on talent, wore it like skates. And wouldn’t you? If it were so easy to do the thing you loved most, why make it feel more like work than it was. Because it was, of course, most of the time. You don’t have a 22-season career in one of the most competitive, shortest job expectancy leagues without taking it, and yourself, seriously. But there are times when you know, in the muscle memory talent affords, that the larger force of innate ability will carry you and you coast, if only for the sheer joy of it.

All Carter’s most memorable plays have the slip and fluency of ease. The dunks, their power like he was only stretching, extending his body to where it naturally wanted to go. His early no-look passing, near caricature with how he’d huck it and before the ball had hit waiting hands Carter would turn to walk, smirking, away. His occasional snags, like he knew how to read a guy’s footwork, their breath, to time when the ball would be ripe for picking. His uptick in threes were no different. A flinging away, two-handed with his right hand lightly leading. Legs kicking forward, initially from force but later in his career like the flourish of a signature. The punctuation comes in the ease, in this case. The skip of his arms, the fadeaway form his body hangs on to even after making 2,290 of these. And the reactions – as with everything else he does – don’t hurt.

If Dallas, alongside Dirk Nowitzki, felt like a final free-for-all, then Memphis was where Carter turned to look at the game he knew he was beginning to leave to see where he could give back. Out of his own spotlight, he was free to create a larger, albeit quieter role. His intangibles, the things he had so deeply craved early on in his career whether from front office or his own locker room leader, were stacked.

The steadiness of experience, the precision of an expert eye that can catch anything coming at it, a well of understanding that went beyond IQ into explicit sensory recall of what it all felt like, a sense of humor, patience.

To his teammates in Memphis, Sacramento and Atlanta, some of whom had been born after Carter was drafted, he was a legend just up and walking around, eating whatever postgame meal had been provided by a host arena on the road, their own idol falling asleep on the bus.

He may be an ideal; there aren’t many who will follow along in his footsteps all the way to the end, but he was relatable. On the floor he was vocal, amping players up, stepping in to deflect or deflate when things got tense. He showed today’s vets his moves when they were rookies and he showed today’s rookies the same things. He could also be fallible, he was a teammate. Off the floor he was a mentor, a glue guy, the window into life after basketball for players navigating a career going full-tilt.

Using his own career as a blueprint, he got to be everything he wanted.

The Return

There was no guarantee it wasn’t going to end badly. Up until that point — Nov. 19, 2014 — his every return to Toronto was met with a coliseum chorus of boos, the entire pitch of the place crashing several octaves. A decade worth of jeers, freshest and seething when he’d make the short trip north from New Jersey but just as lasting whenever he returned with Orlando or Dallas. Entirely new generations of fans indoctrinated into the tradition adding fresh slights, novel ways of reminding him nobody had forgiven, let alone forgotten.

Carter had been interviewed that morning and expressed trepidation at the prospect of a tribute, how it would be received. But the Raptors were honoring anyone seminal that season for the 20th anniversary of the franchise.

Maybe because Toronto was fresh from their first trip into the postseason in years and a brutal defeat there, still recovering but more wide open, the way you are when your heart gets blown apart. And the framing of 20 years, a number capable of putting everything in the past given its tidy, rounded weight, but near enough still that seeing all the way back to the beginning is possible.

The lights went down during the first timeout called in the 1st quarter. There was a murmur in the crowd, a sense already of what this might be for. A video started, its audio preemptively cranked in case the expected response started early. As far as in-game tributes go, of course it had to be brief, but near the one-minute mark Carter says something that changed the pitch of the crowd. I hate that it ended that way.

When the lights came up, when Carter stepped out to the floor with a tentative hand up, there was a smattering of boos. But then everyone, section after section, got on their feet. I remember in my row someone turned and shot a look, just a look, at a lone detractor and they got up and started clapping. Then everyone was screaming, cheering. Then Carter was crying. Then everyone was crying. It lasted and lasted, he came back out onto the floor after he’d gone to the bench and everyone hugged him, the swell of the place got louder.

It was cathartic, a complete release. Years of blunted remorse and animosity that blurred perception, instantly gone. An arena and then a city relieved of a grudge it had already outgrown but wouldn’t take its teeth from. Freed from it, Carter grew lighter in the game. He got cheers from the crowd first with possessions, then with dunks, as if people were keen to relive how good it felt to forgive the guy who’d given the city its inaugural taste of pride, its first real stake in the game.

After everything, Carter called that night a highlight of his career.

The Retirement

There is no one else, not even Jordan, who was a contemporary and role model for four decades worth of NBA players. Who, in his last few seasons, seemed to collect a new record with every minute he played but stayed incessantly humble about it. All the accolades, the records smashed and set, were the footnotes of his career catching up with him as he continued to write the story’s conclusion. For all the griping he got early on, whether or not he was living up to outside expectations set largely by generational league precedents, all of which he outlasted, Carter’s aim was to excel, not just to endure. His was always a labor of love, tinged a little by the sense of eventuality, of “where else could I possibly be?” But he was still there to work.

Following his trade to New Jersey and the explosive John Thompson interview, Charles Barkley lamented that Carter, while a competitor, wasn’t bound to go far.

“He’s a nice guy,” Barkley said on Inside the NBA, “I’ve never met a great player who was a nice guy. He doesn’t have that edge.”

Carter’s edge turned out to be a staying power no one could have predicted. A fluidity that coursed through his game as much as how he carried himself off court, an internal fountain of youth. He played for eight teams with 244 teammates, saw two league lockouts, the first delayed the start of his rookie season until January and the second had him unceremoniously dumped at 34. He never made a ruthless run for a title but he never lost his heart, the inherent joy that playing the game gave him even after he quit spending so much time airborne, aloft, exalted. At that point, he communed with the dreams of the game’s next generation instead.

In the final seconds of what would be the last game before this season came to a forced halt, a chant went up in Atlanta. We want Vince. There were 19.5 seconds left on the clock in OT, the arena was half-empty partially because of it, and partially due to information coming down through the league about the COVID-19 pandemic, but everyone there was on their feet. Carter whispers something to R.J. Barrett as they wait around the key for Julius Randle to shoot his free throw. Barrett, serious until then, cracks a smile.

Carter scoops up the ball and inbounds it to Trae Young who takes it down court, Carter trailing. There’s 14.5 seconds on the clock when Young pulls up and turns, handing Carter the ball with both his hands.

A token, an offering.

Carter doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t mark the moment as anything other than what it is right then, the end of a ball game. He takes a step, stops way out at the top of the arc, and cranks it. His feet kick forward, his arms swing back, his signature three. It’s silent.

When it hits, when the crowd erupts and all his teammates arms go up in unison, there’s the slightest hesitation from Carter. He stares out at the ball as it bounces back to him, two kinds of gravity on their way at once. He returns to the present, bear-hugs Young, side-skips down the court out of habit as the Knicks dribble it out. When the buzzer goes everyone is already crowding him, the impending fear of what is happening in the world staved off at least right then. Carter moves through embrace after embrace and from the arena speakers, someone has started to play a far-off, booming echo out of the past.

Carter courses through this final moment to the awe he’d inspired twenty years earlier, experiencing how surreal, singular and strangely destined it is before it falls away from him and becomes fixed as legend.

“It’s over! It’s over!”