Tonight, the Brooklyn Nets will host a team with Vince Carter on it for what may be the last time.
It’s a sad time to be an NBA fan for anyone over the age of 25. Our heroes — the ones that are left, that is — are getting old, and it’s hard to know how many more moments they’ve still got in them. Vince Carter is 40 and that, to me, is just insane. I don’t know what the NBA looks like without Carter and I really don’t want to.
We all know that Carter played for the New Jersey Nets from 2004 to 2009. His best years were probably not spent in their uniform but, regardless, nothing made me happier to root for a team that he played for. Like many of us, I freaking loved Vince Carter.
I cite two players as those who made me love the NBA. The first one was Jason Kidd. In fact, Kidd is the reason I’m a Nets fan. I’ve written some pretty up and down things about him over the years at The Brooklyn Game — a column somewhere in the archives praising his achievements and contributions to my life as a basketball fan and then, after the disastrous second exit from the Nets’ organization, a column swearing off my adoration for him. Time will likely shift his legacy in my heart closer to the former rather than the latter. Eventually. Probably. Hopefully.
Obviously, the second person on my list is Vince Carter. To give credit where credit is due, my brother, Kevin, is the real Vince guy in my family. He’s a massive Toronto Raptors fan (yes, because of Vince), but because of that, as well as growing up about three hours south of the city, the Raptors were on at our house all the time. My brother and I shared a bedroom for much of our childhood and we had this plastic Nerf hoop on the inside of our door. For hours, we would reenact Vince’s in-game or contest dunks (17 years ago yesterday!). Our feet would thunder so hard on the floor that my parents, watching TV in the living room directly below us, thought we’d come through the ceiling. Eventually, my dad put a six-foot rim in our garage during the winter. We’d dunk ferociously, accidently shattering light bulbs and breaking the tools that hung from the walls.
We wanted to be just like Vince.
Another story: a few weeks ago, my brother and I took a weekend trip to Charlotte to visit some family. My 14-year-old cousin plays basketball for his Church league. He’s a big kid; the center. Charlotte, of course, is the home of Stephen Curry and his influence on the way these kids play is so evident. They jack up three-pointer after three-pointer, never looking to pass to the paint or drive to the basket. I get why this is happening: the three-point shot is cool and Curry is undeniably cooler. But I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing for the youth game because three-point shots taken by 14-year-olds rarely find the net.
This is where growing up under the spell of guys like Vince Carter has a new level of importance in terms of his legacy. Wanting to dunk encouraged kids my age to drive to the post. It taught toughness and using your body through contact. It led to better, harder-nosed defense. You see it in the game today — how obvious the influence Vince Carter has had on players like Andrew Wiggins or Aaron Gordon.
This, more than anything, is going to be Vince’s legacy. There’s a great quote by producer Brian Eno about The Velvet Underground where he said that only 30,000 people bought the band’s first record (The Velvet Underground & Nico, often regarded as one of the greatest records of all time), but “everyone who [did] started a band.”
Vince Carter is the Velvet Underground of basketball players: he may not have won a ring or an MVP, but few were more influential or inspiring to a generation.
He was the last of a dying breed.
When Vince finally got traded from Toronto to New Jersey, it broke my brother’s 11-year-old heart. He was so sad and I had to wrestle with some strange emotions. On one hand, I was really psyched that I got to root for Carter all the time. Remember, the Nets had just lost in back-to-back Finals, and I really thought (for, unfortunately, not the last time), that the trade was going to give us that third-straight trip and first win. I mean, come on: the Nets gave up absolutely nothing for him and they had the best point guard on the planet. The alley-oop potential was amazing (and lived up to the hype, at least in that first year or two).
But the other part of me felt really guilty, as if it was my fault that Kevin’s favorite player got traded. To his credit, Kev handled the move better than probably any other Raptors fan ever. For years, the Toronto home crowd would boo Vince every time he touched the ball during a game. Kev never understood it, not once. He stayed true to his guy because no player ever mattered more.
A few years after the trade, my family took a vacation to Daytona, Florida. Most people know Daytona as the location of that massive NASCAR race or just as a city with an excellent beach. My family knows Daytona as Vince Carter’s hometown and, if you look hard enough, Vince’s legacy is all over that city. We visited his old high school, where they have a massive statue of him and some of his old jerseys and sneakers in a glass case in the foyer. We even met one of his old teachers, who was walking the halls, getting some work done before the school year started. We went to a baseball card shop and the owner shared stories of him coming by and donating stuff. We had dinner at his restaurant. We saw a playground that his foundation, Embassy of Hope, helped build. Everyone in Daytona loves Vince Carter, despite the things his one-time fans in Toronto said about him over the years.
That trip was the closest we’d ever come to Vince the Person, not Vince the God.
In his present form, Vince is much more of a person than he is a god. He can’t really dunk anymore and he doesn’t play heavy minutes. But has any player so flawlessly transitioned from a superstar to a role player? Allen Iverson didn’t. Tracy McGrady couldn’t either. He’s no longer making the All-Star Game on pure name recognition alone like he once did — but when we see the flashes, like we did a few weeks ago or last year, it’s like watching your favorite band put out one more classic song. It’s not the same and it never will be, but we can relive that nostalgia about what made those moments so spectacular. Vince’s (maybe) last season in the NBA isn’t like Kobe Bryant’s or Tim Duncan’s because what made him great is gone for good. That doesn’t change the fact that I owe a heck of a lot to Vince Carter.
To me, and especially to my brother Kev, he was way more than just a basketball player.