From Mercenary To Maverick: The Remarkable Revival Of Vince Carter

He was once one of NBA's biggest stars - but with his career on the slide, the slam-dunk specialist knew he had to make some changes...
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He was once one of NBA's biggest stars - but with his career on the slide, the slam-dunk specialist knew he had to make some changes...

From Mercenary To Maverick: The Remarkable Revival Of Vince Carter

America loved Vince Carter. In the 2000 Dunk Contest, Vince, like a preacher in a pentecostal church finishing a rousing sermon, sent the gathered crowd staggering around, eyes bugged, speaking in tongues. Seeing Vince gear up before a dunk was like watching Louis Armstrong take a deep breath before unleashing a solo.

Yes, Vince Carter was amazing, well, unless you wanted to win a Championship. He was labelled as a player that put bums on seats, but not banners in the rafters. He lacked the killer instinct of a Jordan, and instead, coasted off his natural God-given talents. Toronto fans grew frustrated as they relied on Vince to lead the team, not just the Top 10 on Sportscenter.

Perhaps the defining early Vince Carter moment was when he flew to UNC for his graduation ceremony during the day before a Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers that night. Throughout the series, Carter and Allen Iverson had been locked in a battle of mythic proportion, putting on absurdly spectacular performances night after night.

After a hard fought 47 minutes and 58 seconds, the Raptors were down a bucket. Vince caught the inbound pass, threw a pump fake, and released a fadeaway jumper that, as fate would have it, clanked off the back rim. Even though Vince had a near triple double in the game with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists, his performance and his day trip was blasted by fans and the media.

The series had put him in direct comparison with Iverson - and Vince had come out second best. In contrast to Vince’s effortless and graceful style, Iverson played like a man who had just bet his last hundred dollars on himself to win. Iverson’s 21 points and career high 16 assists was heralded as a virtuoso superstar performance by involving his teammates while still getting his.

No one remembers that in the final minute, Vince stole the ball from Iverson and assisted Dell Curry’s three pointer that even allowed the Raptors to be in a position to win. No one remembers Iverson passing up the opportunity to seal the game to the legendary ERIC SNOW. All anyone remembers is that Vince was selfish, and Iverson personified a winner. In reality, it was an impressive series by both men, and a shame that one of them had to lose.

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After that series, the already weak Raptors went into rebuilding mode, with Carter as their lame-duck superstar. He was traded to the Brooklyn Nets and joined Jason Kidd for a couple of memorable runs through the Eastern Conference, until the the Shaqobe Lakers manhandled them in the Finals. Carter would produce some of the best numbers of his career, but his explosiveness faded fast. The prime of one of the most electrifying players in NBA history had come to a close.

For a while, Vince was destined to be grouped with the exciting, score-first, Championship-less shooting guards of the early 2000s: Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse, Baron Davis and, yes, Iverson. A group of players possessing insane talent, but the wrong mentality. They were the favorite subjects of middle-aged, paunchy, white men making arguments about the NBA going down the tubes.

But when Francis, Marbury, McGrady, Stackhouse, Davis, and Iverson either got injured or talked their way out of the league, Vince grew a beard and kept right on chugging.

During his last years with the Nets, Carter captained the team, mentoring players like Devin Harris and Brook Lopez. When the Magic and Suns traded for him, he embraced being the number two option to Dwight and Nash, respectively. The superstar once blasted for being selfish was now fitting into systems that weren’t designed around him. Corner threes replaced explosive drives. Off the ball movement replaced isolations. Craftiness replaced explosiveness.

For the past three seasons, Vince has thrived in his role as a veteran 6th man on the Dallas Mavericks. After failing to land a superstar in free agency, the Mavericks hoarded ageing veterans with mid-level contracts, who other owners were reluctant to snag. With the genius of Rick Carlisle, and the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Dirk Nowitzki, Vince has thrived without the pressure of having to be the man every night. Now, he picks his moments, showing glimpses of his former self in impressive crossovers or the occasional jam.

So in Game 3, when the Mavs needed a bucket at the buzzer, Rick Carlisle did not draw up a play for Dirk or Monta, who the Spurs had draped like Aunt Edna’s living room furniture. He called Vince’s name.

In an eerily similar situation to the Game 7 in Philadelphia from a decade ago, Vince caught the ball, threw a pump fake, and launched a fadeaway.

But, when Vince released the ball, he already knew it was going in. Vince knew because he had practiced that shot a million times on the path to reinventing his career. He knew, because he’d been there before. He knew, because the Vince Carter who missed the shot in the Philadelphia series was the disappointing superstar.

This Vince Carter is the living legend who kept producing after everyone decided he was finished.

But Vince ain’t done just yet.

Follow  John on Twitter at @FlynnDecent