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Hey, Mr. Carter...Where Have You Been?

He may no longer leap seven-footers in a single bound, but by substituting wisdom for athleticism, Vince Carter has become an even better baller.

By Lang Whitaker, SLAM Magazine

Vince Carter is dribbling the ball at the top of the key. The Nets are playing an early-January game at home against the lowly Sacramento Kings, and they're down one with just over five minutes left to play.

Suddenly, VC comes off a pick from Josh Boone and finds a path to the rim. As he taps turbo and heads for the bucket, Kings forward Francisco Garcia leaves his man, Jarvis Hayes, alone in the corner and comes over to help out on Vince. Just as Vince reaches Garcia, he pauses and tosses a no-look pass to Hayes, who swishes a three to put the Nets ahead.

Less than one minute later, with Jersey sitting on an 84-82 lead, the Nets run the exact same play. Vince comes off the pick from Josh Boone and heads toward the rim. This time, however, Garcia sticks with Hayes in the corner. Vince launches himself for a dunk over Kenny Thomas. And one. The Nets go on to win, 96-90.

A decade ago, Vince's rookie year in the NBA, one of these two plays probably wouldn't have happened. He likely would have dunked on the first possession and been hacked the next time down, or the other way around. Vince Carter used to equal Vinsanity. These days, Vince Carter is more concerned with trying to equal wins.

"His rookie year was '98, that was my senior year of high school," says Hayes. "When he first came into the League he kinda survived on his athleticism. He was just...sick! He can still get up like that, but he conserves his energy now. Dunking is probably the most overrated two points in sports. He passes the ball well, his court vision is amazing, and some of those things he picked up as he got older."

About an hour after the game, after doing a post-game on-court interview, showering, dressing and then doing a press conference in the Nets' media room, Vince is back in the Nets locker room, grabbing his personal effects before heading off into the frigid Jersey night.

"The defense had to give up something," Vince explains when asked about the se¬quence described above. "They're not going to let Jarvis shoot the three, and they're not going to let Yi shoot from the other side, so the defense is kind of caught in between. And that gives me an opportunity."

"I've always had the ability to do a lot of things. I guess everybody wanted to see everything else, see the highlights. But the League has changed, and teams aren't going to let me just go right down the lane—I have to earn it. Tonight it wasn't easy, I nearly broke my back trying to get that dunk." He smiles the thin grin of a man who knows he'll be in pain the next morning. "But being able to do just a little bit of everything, it sets up that highlight play." In SLAM's 10th Anniversary issue back in 2004, we highlighted players who had been slotted into various roles during the SLAM era, from The Streets (Rafer Alston) to The Enigma (Kobe) to The Legend (Jordan).

Up until that point, Vince had played the part of The Dunker and played it perfectly, perhaps better than anyone had ever played it before. He was Canada's main man until, all of a sudden, the torrent of jaw-dropping dunks slowed to a trickle. Things up in Toronto soured and Vince was traded to Jersey. And really, that's where this story begins. Because an odd event occurred along Vince Carter's rocket ship to superstardom: He found the game. Vince Carter found the game and the game saved him. He could have lived on (and off) his legs, made more money than Bernie Madoff lost and been a perennial All-Star. His star would've burned bright, but chances are a decade after he came into the League, he wouldn't still be averaging 22 a game, been the captain of a Playoff contending team.

It's not that Vince was miscast. He was a dunker; this was his specialty and his trade, and something at which he excelled. But as often as he soared, he was almost equally floored, by roughneck power forwards and dudes whose job was to keep from being posterized. To the chagrin of many, almost certainly including people who are charged with highlight packages, Vince wised up. Fewer forays to the rim, more skip passes and waiting for double teams. Remember how he used to seemingly stay injured? Coming into this season, VC had missed a total of nine games in his first three seasons in Jersey. Sorry kids, but the Ferrari is in the garage up on blocks. It's time to roll with the Smart Carter for a while.

"I had to change the way I approach things," Vince says, "from being worn down and tak¬ing a beating. Sometimes you do it and you don't show it until you get back here [in the locker room]. And then you're like, Why did I do that? After a while, the wear and tear of it kind of breaks you down."

His athleticism is still remarkable, but it's not as in-your-face as it was. On January 2 against the Atlanta Hawks, Vince won the game with a jump shot. Down one point with about four seconds left, VC corralled the ball around halfcourt, dribbled once with his left hand, once with his right, then pulled up and stuck a 35-footer directly over Josh Smith's outstretched arm. He didn't leap over anyone, out a spin move or a trick dribble. But he had the patience to wait until the best possible moment to shoot, and, more importantly, he had the legs to get a shot off over possibly the best current high-riser in the NBA. That play made SportsCenter's Top 10, but did it inspire a sneaker commercial or a mix tape? Nope. And that's just fine with Vince.

"I'm saving my body, to be honest with you," VC notes. "Even five years ago, I still didn't care. I'd go in there and lay it on the line. If you take me out, whatever, you're going to have to beat me to the rim. But if not, you're going to get dunked on.

"Look at, like, Michael Jordan," Vince continues. He's on a roll now, taking a seat in front of his locker in the empty room. "Toward the end of his career, Michael Jordan didn't jump over people like he used to, but he had everything else. He could get fouled, get free throws. You make the game easier if you can get to the line because you're not killing yourself. Obviously, you take the punishment and the aggression just getting to the hole. That saves your body."

"Now I know I've got to save it. With this team, I need to play minutes, and I'm out there chasing around point guards. So you have to give a little, get a little. I'd rather be able to perform in the last three minutes of the game where it means something rather than jump over seven-footers all day."

Even though the New Jersey Nets play just a couple of miles from New York City, the Nets' home in East Rutherford couldn't seem any farther from the neon lights of Broadway. Though called the Meadowlands, the area where the Nets reside seems better suited for a corporate office park. The Nets play in the Izod Center, which is dwarfed by the massive bones of a retail and entertainment complex next door called Xanadu, which was scheduled to open in 2007 and be the largest mall in the United States. Instead, it remains under construction and has mostly been more of a Xanadon't. (Similarly, a few years back, the Nets announced they would be moving to Brooklyn in the summer of 2009. But as of January 2009, construction has yet to begin in the BK.)

The Nets have been in something of a perpetual building mode themselves the last few years. After making back-to-back NBA Finals in '02 and '03, the Nets traded power forward Kenyon Martin and set about starting anew. Vince came to Jersey to be one-third of a perimeter trinity. But when Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson were traded for fresher (and cheaper) legs in Devin Harris and Yi Jianlian, VC was thrust into the same leadership role he never seemed fully able to grasp while with Toronto. This time, he got it. Late last summer, Carter began by getting on the phone and rallying the troops, gathering every player on the Nets roster for two weeks of unofficial workouts and pick-up games.

"I felt it was needed," Vince says. "We had a lot of new guys. If you look around this locker room, from training camp last year, there's only two guys still here: myself and ]osh Boone. Everybody else was new, added last year throughout the year and in training camp this year. So instead of playing catch-up on the first day of training camp, and learning things like, This is where Keyon [Dooling] likes the ball, you can do that in the summer."

Carter credits those sessions with transforming the Nets from just a group of players into
a team, Despite the crazy roster turnover (including adding three new starters: Yi, Bobby Simmons and Brook Lopez), the Nets have played .500 ball through the first three months of the season and, at press time, were clinging to an Eastern Conference Playoff spot. And VC says these Nets will fight to the finish.

"Sometimes if we're not playing well and the fans boo us, if you could hear us in the huddle, we still stick together. We're like. Fuck it, let's just go play. And that's the attitude and the mentality. If we didn't do that in the summer, that wouldn’t happen. We’d lose all these games where we’re down at halftime—we’d get blown out, I think—because we’d still be learning each other.

Just because Vince Carter is now a more complete basketball player than he was
when he came into the NBA doesn't make him any younger. There are still mornings
when he can't get out of bed. ("I actually have to just move my legs around to get everything loose, warmed up," he says with a rueful chuckle.) VC has gone from starring as Dr. Funk to fighting the rebuilding funk. He used to be criticized for lacking in fundamentals, now he's criticized for being too fundamental.

Still suffering from Vinsanity? Go to YouTube and search for Vince Carter, then sort by date added. You'll find clips of Vince hitting jumpers, making skip passes, blocking shots, swinging the ball to open teammates. You can hate the player, that's fine. But if you love basketball, if you love fundamentals, playing the right way, then when Vince Carter's on the floor these days, there's no way you can hate the game.