If this were happening to someone else, Vince Carter would probably do the same thing.
He’d celebrate, he’d reminisce, he’d make a big deal about it.
But it’s not someone else about to play an NBA-record 22nd season. It’s not a fellow player about to become the first to play in four decades.
It’s Carter himself. So, with the beginning of training camp looming, he’s a little conflicted at the notion of a farewell tour, or being in the spotlight for his final season.
“I’m very appreciative of that, and I know how it works, and I get it, but I guess subconsciously I don’t want people to think I’m coming here to be at the forefront, to make it about me,” Carter, 42, said. “I don’t want that to be what this is about.”
Because Carter doesn’t want to be a distraction. And he understands his role for this upcoming season with the Hawks, a team that continues to build around its young core and enters this year having gotten even younger (Carter’s NBA career is older than teammates Kevin Huerter, 21, Trae Young, 21, Bruno Fernando, 21, and Cam Reddish, 20).
And because ultimately, that means the eight-time All-Star, who won Rookie of the Year in 1999, won the NBA’s Slam Dunk contest in 2000 and surpassed the 25,000 point mark last season, is approaching the end.
“I’m struggling with it,” Carter said. “Realizing the end is near is probably the biggest problem. It’s like, I’ve come so far, this is it. Do what you’ve got to do. But it’s like, I’ve done this for so long. So many years. So you mean, come September, I don’t have to get ready for basketball and go to my team anymore? That’s the scary feeling, after 22 years.”
At one point, Carter considered not coming back for another year. And the deal took a while to finalize, as the Hawks wanted to maintain some roster flexibility, per GM Travis Schlenk.
But he’s still healthy and his love for the game hasn’t wavered -- so when the Hawks pursued him, he went for it, signing a one-year, vet minimum deal.
“Friends and family more so were like, ‘Dang, you’ve come this far. You’ve tied the record with everybody else as far as tenure, might as well break the record,’” Carter said. “At first I was like, whatever. And then I was like, you know what? I still feel good, I still love to play. So I said I wanted to go for it and if I can land a contract, I’d do it.”
A mentorship role with the Hawks
Remember when playing a zone defense was illegal in the NBA? Carter does.
How about when Shaquille O’Neal finished his NBA career having made one 3-pointer? Carter, whose career overlapped for 13 years with Shaq, can’t go to a gym without watching a big man practice his 3-point shot these days.
The game has changed dramatically since his career began in 1998 in Toronto, but the most common question Carter gets from fellow players is pretty straightforward.
“What’s your secret?” Or it’s some variation of “How the heck are you still doing this?”
It’s one Huerter asked him just the other day while the two were stretching during workouts.
His answer: sacrifice.
“It’s your willingness to do whatever it takes,” Carter said of finding the best routine.
Carter describes himself as an “open book,” happy to share advice with his teammates. That’s what Charles Oakley did for him in Toronto, and it’s what he loves doing for fellow Hawks.
Last season, he worked with John Collins on the power forward’s footwork. He talks with Young about how to shoulder the pressure of being the face of a franchise, something Carter knows plenty about. He works with Huerter on how to take that next big leap in his career.
How to get ready for life after basketball, how to handle playing off a back-to-back, how to come into your second season able to play off expectations -- Carter’s there to help.
For DeAndre’ Bembry, who get to play on the same team as his favorite NBA player, it gets surreal.
“It’s a full dream for me right now, come true,” Bembry said. “... I got a full season with him, and we built a serious bond. And we’re really close, and I’m happy that he’s able to come back here and finish off his career.”
Coach Lloyd Pierce lets Carter address the team in practice, if there’s something he wants to say. That took some getting used to.
“I don’t want people to feel like I’m taking over practice,” Carter said. “It’s just that sometimes I see things and it’s a team thing, we’re trying to win. It’s not like I’m trying to be a coach. I don’t want to be a coach, but I want to help these guys. I want to be a mentor, I want to be a leader of the team, even though I’m not the face of the team. I’d love to still be a leader. And these guys can rely on me, good and bad.”
What to expect this year
With the additions of Jabari Parker, De’Andre Hunter and a now-healthy Reddish, Carter’s load will likely decrease from last season, when he played in 76 games, averaging 17.5 minutes played.
But that hasn’t changed Carter’s motivation level, per Pierce.
“He knows the situation’s different now that Jabari’s here, and we drafted De’Andre and Cam,” Pierce said. “He’s completely bought in. He understands this is his last go-around, but we’re in a different place than we were last year. But he has no issues with that. His approach and his respect to the game is what’s important for us.”
With all that Carter has accomplished, there’s not one particular thing left to cross off his list. Instead, it’s about being healthy and ready whenever he’s called upon. And, of course, helping the rookies and younger players whenever possible.
“Everything else, you’re going to naturally move up the ladder in minutes, games played, just because you’re playing,” Carter said. “So I can’t say that. As you score a point, you get a little closer to another goal. That’s going to organically happen. I think the most important thing to me is health. Being healthy. … For me, playing and being right there every game, that means a lot to me.”
Even with a smaller role, though, Carter will no doubt attract attention in his final season. A player making history tends to do that.
But still, he’d rather any storyline regarding him be secondary to that of the team.
So what does he do if, when the Hawks play at Toronto on Jan. 28, a “We want Vince” chant breaks out?
“I don’t know,” Carter answered. “It is what it is. Some things you can’t control. It’s just great to be wanted and appreciated at this age after playing so many years. That’s where it all started for me. A lot of great things happened. That’s where my name was made. To hear a chant like that, obviously it’s refreshing, and it brings chills to you. But I play for the Hawks.”
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