On April 10th Vince Carter had a date with a past love. In Canada, he was due to say goodbye. Carter had long since left his villain narrative behind and now was a sentimental figure. The once upon a time superstar who drifted around the league for years was finally letting his career go. In Toronto, it was to be the period at the end of the sentence. Toronto was the place where it gloriously started for Vince Carter (after his draft-day trade from the Golden State Warriors). Vinsanity. Half Man, Half Amazing. Slam Dunk throat slash. 50 points in the playoff against Allen Iverson. All of the Vince Carter highs and lows were going to be appreciated through the prism of time while forgotten was the ugly divorce. It was to be the end.
Vince Carter took the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever playoff appearance in 2001. It was Toronto that personalized the Vince Carter windmill dunks, 360 reverse slams, elbow in the rim stuffs. And Toronto was also the place Vince Carter brooded about. He wanted to be traded in the fall of 2004 after a breakdown with the front office. Speculation that he quit on his team in order to get out of town ran through the fanbase, making them bitter. His first game back in 2005, Vince Carter wept. He was voraciously booed from the same fans who he tried to please night after night and to soothe his hurt feelings he dropped 39 points. Almost a decade later, with Carter visiting as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, he wept at the video tribute the Raptors put together. The fans gave him a standing ovation.
With acts one and two in the books, the Vince Carter trilogy had a date and the third installment was nearly ready. It was to be a full circle on the 10th day of April 2020. But then Covid-19 changed the goodbye Toronto trajectory. No standing “O”. No cheers. No autograph seekers. No Carter handing his shoes to a kid. No post-game presser with Carter wiping his eyes in full nostalgia, from hero to villain to revered. April 10th was a postponed NBA game.
The pandemic wasn’t done with the Vince Carter damage. Carter’s last NBA game was supposed to be April 15th against Cleveland. He was going to play as many minutes as Lloyd Pierce allowed. He was going to share the court with Trae Young who wasn’t born when Vince Carter was drafted as a lottery pick. He was going to attempt old man Vince dunks and Vince 3-pointers while the fans applauded and lapped it all up. Because Vince at 43 was something to watch even if he wasn’t who had been a decade earlier. He still had the desire to hoop and he was doing it against cats who were in kindergarten when he was in his prime.
Until Adam Silver and Rudy Gobert abruptly ended Vince Carter’s career.
In the grand scheme of things what Vince Carter was denied seems relatively small. A farewell night in Toronto and Atlanta doesn’t add up to lives lost during a pandemic. But a 22-year career is something to celebrate. In that sense, Vince was owed more than what he was given. He gave the game a lot and at the very end, when his team wasn’t in the final count of 22 NBA clubs, he was tossed aside after so many years of service.
Don’t get me wrong, the Hawks didn’t deserve to be in the final 22. For six months, they lost more games than they won. They were the worst defensive team in the league. Before games were suspended, they won 5 out of their last 13 games. They were miserable.
Vince Carter at 43 was only making 35% of his shots. He played a career-low 15 minutes a game, scoring only 5 points. He wasn’t impacting the game anymore. It was time for him to retire. But the 10-time All-Star deserved a splashy farewell in the city he put on the map, the Toronto Raptors.
The NBA will probably honor Carter at the All-Star game in 2021 but it’s not the same thing, having corporate sponsors cheer your name. Toronto may have a Vince Carter Night and retire his jersey, which, if they plan one, is a classy move. But Vince will be a retired NBA player, not an active one. He won’t have to play a game after he is cheered on by fans in order to give them one last glimpse of their first superstar. There is no farewell drop the mic on Carter’s behalf.
Ironically, for most of his career impeccable timing has been on Vince Carter’s side. He was the 5th pick in the 1998 draft, a dynamic UNC talent who blossomed in his junior year, often overshadowing the more hyped Antawn Jamison. Jamison was selected 4th in the ’98 NBA Draft and Carter was selected 5th. Jamison played 16 years and scored 20,042 points. Carter played 22 years and scored 25,278 points. Jamison was an All-Star twice while Carter had double-digit All-Star appearances. Jamison’s Win Shares was 87.8 while Carter’s was 125.3. It’s why Carter’s Hall of Fame chances are 94.5% while Jamison’s is 0.6%.
Vince Carter came into the league at the perfect time. Beginning with Kevin Garnett in 1995, Kobe Bryant in 1996, and Tracy McGrady in 1997, explosive athleticism changed the league. Carter was a mesmerizing show, a versatile wing, and one of the greatest dunkers in NBA history. He was Rookie of the Year, an Olympic gold medalist, and a Slam Dunk champion. He was also a player who triggered controversy. During the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Carter made the decision to attend his UNC graduation and then fly to game 7 against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia Sixers. Carter had the chance to be a hero. The last shot was in his hands with two seconds left but it clanked the rim and the Sixers eventually advanced to the NBA Finals.
Eleven years later, at the age of 33, Vince Carter’s game began to wander down a quiet hill. He lost some of his explosion. Gone were the 20 ppg years as he settled into a role player narrative. He did it seamlessly and with joy; he was still a star. He was still Vince Carter. He had made his name long ago. But no longer was he the number one option and it didn’t seem to faze him. He never had to battle his ego the way Iverson and Bryant had to when they reached the near end. Oddly, being just one of the guys was enough to make him happy. It was only odd because nearly every superstar before him went kicking and screaming into their ordinary life.
Carter made peace with the back nine of his career because it wasn’t about being a star. He just loved to play. That he didn’t have the opportunity to hear fans wax poetic about him in the last hours of his NBA life feels a little unfair. But ironically that’s how the Vince Carter story started. With a huge delay. It was a lockout year and Carter didn’t start his career until January 1999. The ending fit the beginning.
The night Carter played his last NBA game was hardly revelatory. 12 minutes. 40% fg. 4 fouls. 5 points. That everything ended for Vince Carter in Atlanta, his last team in a career of teams that were going nowhere, was emblematic. It was his last arena. It was his last moment on the stage. An overtime loss, fans chanted his name because they knew the season was being postponed and this was Carter’s last hurrah. His final NBA point was a 26 footer. The crowd was ecstatic but it should not have ended there. There should have been more than that one night for the last active NBA player born in the 70’s, the only NBA player to compete in four different decades.
But NBA lifers don’t always get to choose where and when. Or, why. When it’s over, it is just over.