On the morning of December 18, Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith had to make one last phone call.
His team had been scuffling along, watching the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls race ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings. With Dwight Howard up for free agency in 2012, the clock was ticking.
His great gamble, letting Hedo Turkoglu walk in free agency and pinning the hopes of a city on Vince Carter, had not worked.
hen he got the call, Vince Carter was no doubt getting ready for Game #27 of 82, a home game that night against the Philadelphia 76ers.
After getting it, after being shipped off one of the top 5 teams in the NBA to a Phoenix team with little hope of contending for anything, after knowing that this was it, that it was all over, that it was never going to happen for him, one thought must have gone through his head: Had it really been ten years since that night in Oakland?
It was a cold February night in Oakland, and “The Arena in Oakland” was buzzing. Home to some of the best fans in the NBA, they had consistently sold out Golden State Warriors games for years, despite an epic run of mismanagement that persists to this day.
It was the first All-Star weekend since the 1999 event was cancelled in the wake of a lock-out, and the first since MJ had retired for (what seemed at the time) the last time. Some of the best players of all time — Shaq, Duncan, KG, Kobe, Iverson — were in the building.
But the night belonged to one of the youngest players in the league — a 6’6 220 guard out of North Carolina. The 1999 Rookie of the Year.
As soon as Vince Carter burst onto the scene playing with Antawn Jamison in Chapel Hill, NBA fans wondered what he would do in a dunk contest. Could the torch be passed that night? Could the long search for “the next Mike” be over before it had already even begun?
“There was a lot of anticipation for that night,” said TNT announcer Marv Albert years later in a retrospective, “because the field was one of the best we’d seen in a long time.”
Nine years later, Vince Carter was working at his annual summer basketball camp near his home in Central Florida. He came back from Oakland one of the biggest stars in the NBA. But his Raptors team never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, losing in a memorable seven game shoot-out with Allen Iverson’s 76ers in 2001.
Without Tracy McGrady, who had left for greener pastures and $93 million dollars in Orlando, the team never went anywhere. He started getting hurt and the fans began to turn on him. To this day, Raptors fans have not forgiven him for how he left Toronto. In New Jersey, he combined with Jason Kidd to form one of the most exciting back-courts in recent memory.
But just like in Toronto, Vince never had a quality big man in New Jersey. By 2009, he had been in 8 All-Star Games and scored over 18,000 points. He had never quite reached the heights of his magical night in Oakland, but he had had a Hall of Fame career. He was content.
Then he got the phone call.
Carter found out about the trade at his basketball camp, adding he thought it was a joke at first. “Every player hopes for an opportunity like this, to just once compete for an NBA championship,” Carter said. “This a dream come true for me. Now I have a chance to win a championship.”His home-town team, the Orlando Magic, had come up short in the NBA Finals the year before. They had the best center in the NBA, but Dwight Howard needed an All-Star scorer on the perimeter to create shots off the dribble, the Kobe to his Shaq, the Ginobili to his Duncan.
They were calling up the aging gun-fighter for one last shoot-out. This was his chance. This was it. This was what he had waited 11 NBA seasons for. Just for the chance.
To make it back to the NBA Finals, the Orlando Magic would have to get by the Boston Celtics. After rampaging through the first two rounds of the playoffs and demolishing a 53-win Atlanta Hawks squad in a sweep, they were finally matched up against a comparable team. With Kendrick Perkins, “Superman’s” Kryptonite, lined up at center, Orlando would have to find some offense on the perimeter.
The series would come down to two match-ups: promising young point guards Rajon Rondo and Jameer Nelson, and two Hall of Famers drafted in the same year — Vince and Paul Pierce.
Pierce was Vince’s main competition for Rookie of the Year in 1999, and for a while, it seemed like they would be inextricably linked together, like Deron Williams and Chris Paul. Both were perimeter scorers from the wing position; both were products of elite blue-chip programs, Pierce from Kansas and Vince from UNC.
But while Vince thrilled NBA fans with never before seen aerial exhibitions, Pierce’s game was rooted to the ground: dribble, dribble, pump-fake, create space, mid-range jumper. Repeat 10,000 times. He was never the flashiest player; his game was all fundamentals.
And just like Vince, Pierce spent the first part of his career in a Northeastern city without a big man. He put up big numbers, but not big win totals. They both watched Kobe play off of Shaq and get comparisons to Jordan, no doubt thinking that could have been them. Pierce stayed in Boston, suffering through truly abysmal seasons, but his loyalty was rewarded in the summer of 2008, when the Celtics picked up Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in a series of trades. KG was the defensive anchor up-front Pierce always needed, Allen the second perimeter scorer to alleviate some of the offensive pressure. Together they formed Voltron.
But once the ECF started, the showdown between the two class of ’99 products, the one 11 years in the making, was over before it really began. Vince’s game was much more dependent on athleticism than Pierce’s, and by his early 30′s, his wondrous athletic gifts had begun to disappear.
The Boston series were the biggest basketball games of his career; he reached down deep, as deep as he ever had before, to conjure up one last miracle. He reached for his gun, for one last blazing fast quick-draw, and … nothing. He was a half-second too slow, a half-step too late. Boston swept the first two games in Orlando, and the series, though it ended up going six games, was over.
Vince averaged 13.7 points on 36.7% shooting, while Pierce averaged 24.3 points on 51.2% shooting.
Years later, TNT, who broadcast the 2000 Dunk Contest, went back and interviewed many of the people there that night:
“He did something that is the quintessential act that makes you turn to the person next to you and say … did he really just do that?” – David Stern
“I was there. I damn near broke my eye sockets after Vince did what he did … I’m not even really sure what he did.” – Shaq
“I’m in the ninth grade; I’m watching it. Me any my friends are going crazy.” – LeBronDunk #1: A reverse 360 windmill.
** 90% of the NBA would have a difficult time doing any one of those things. Maybe 2 or 3 other guys in the world could do them at the same time. Vince made it look as routine as a pre-game lay-up.
Dunk #2: Jumping from behind the backboard, he does a 180 while wind-milling the ball behind his head and slamming it through the rim.
** These are almost impossible to do on NBA 2K11.
Dunk #3: T-Mac, his Raptors teammate, bounces the ball off the ground. Vince, without breaking stride, grabs the ball at its highest point in mid-air and takes it between his legs before dunking it.
There was a break before the final round, before Vince faced off against … well no one really remembers. It didn’t really matter. The Dunk Contest was the Vince Carter Show. Could he give it the proper ending?
“I wanted the arena to be silent; [I wanted] to do something I had never seen before …
… As I landed, if you notice, I had my head down. It was silent; it was perfect; it’s what I wanted.” – Vince Carter to TNT.
His final dunk was anti-climactic. But it didn’t matter. In that brief moment of silence, when an 18,000-seat arena filled to the brim with drunk and boisterous fans sat and stared in awe, anything was possible.
I first wanted to call this article “The Tragedy of Vince Carter.” But his career wasn’t a tragedy. Tragedy is what happened to his younger brother.
The real tragedy of adulthood, of growing old, is how possibilities turn into limits. By the 2010 ECF, Vince, the greatest dunker of all-time, could barely get off the ground.
Some may choose to remember him for his limits — he couldn’t defeat Paul Pierce, couldn’t bring a team to the NBA Finals, couldn’t unleash every bit of potential he showed in that cold winter night in Oakland.
I’d rather remember his possibilities — for that one night, for those few seconds as he fell to the ground when there were no limits. “I was in the building in Oakland. I really thought the top of the building was going to come off.” – Kenny Smith to TNTSome moments can last a lifetime. And in that moment, the only limit was the sky.