By Arnie Leshin
It was the stretch run of the 1995 high school basketball season in Florida, and down in Fort Lauderdale, the Dillard High kids had no interest in the spring breaks that occurred, they didn’t hang around at the beach.
What was special to the boy’s basketball program was its huge gymnasium that included bleacher seats on both sides that stretched about two dozen or so rows to the top and was always filled by game time.
Its current team was led by 6-foot-4 senior James Stone. Tough inside, strong rebounder, team leader, he paved the way to the state 6A semifinals against Wellington played at Santaluces High School.
The Dillard Panthers sported a 27-4 record and quickly ran up a 23-13 lead after one quarter, increased it to 44-20 at halftime and began celebrating when Stone, on a fast break at the start of the fourth quarter, jammed the ball into the basket.
It became a 67-38 rout and now all that was left was the state championship at Florida State. Covering for the Miami Herald, I remember my lead, “All aboard for Tallahassee.”
And waiting was Mainland High of Daytona Beach, which had the hands-down finest player in the state in 6-6 Vince Carter. He was hailed as a man playing against the boys. He was a terror underneath, scored at will both inside and outside, and his quick hands made him equally adept on defense.
Dillard had heard of him, so did everybody else around the Sunshine State. Those that hadn’t seen him play checked out his statistics, 32.7 points per game, 14.8 rebounds per game, 7 blocks per game, five assists per game, and eight steals per game.
The Buccaneer fans, who like Dillard, also came from a beach town, had packed the FSU Seminole field house, and with the Dillard crowd always traveling well, had the fire department close off the entrance for late comers.
To me, Carter appeared to have his mind only on winning Mainland’s first state basketball title in 56 years. He gave out some high-fives to the Buccaneer fans and put on a dunking show in the warm ups. After disallowing this during a game or even at halftime warm ups in the Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) high school years, it returned in the mid 85s.
Carter was as advertized, even Stone was amazed at his skills. He blocked Stone’s first four shots, and scrubbed the boards unlike the Panthers had ever seen. At the half, he had 19 points, a dozen rebounds, five assists, and seven steals.
But Dillard hung in there, at least until halftime. Stone and senior guard Richie Lang were playing their butts off, and limited the Mainland lead at halftime to only eight points.
But then the bubble bust. The Buccaneers wanted the state championship more, for Dillard had won it five times and Mainland hadn’t hoisted the state trophy since 1939. So Carter gathered his teammates after they returned from halftime and must have lit a spark.
The Bucs scored the first 15 points after intermission and Dillard called two timeouts during this surge. Carter controlled the boards, found teammates for baskets, scored 17 of his own in the third quarter, and it was all but over for the Panthers.
Mainland was about to win its 33rd game in 35 starts, and Dillard was going to finish at 28-5, with the final score at 76-55. With about five minutes left, Carter and the starters rode the bench and watched and cheered the reserves.
“Unreal,” said Stone after the game, I’ve never seen anyone dominate like Mr. Carter did. I heard he’s going to North Carolina and he will be super there, too. That was a whooping for us.”
Carter was happy that the mission was done, and in the interview room, answered all questions, had nothing negative to say about Dillard, and praised his team and its coaches and its fans.
“I waited all season for this,” he said. “I mean, we waited 56 years for this and it’s a great feeling, a super accomplishment for the school. I had a good season, but let it all hang out tonight.”
He sure did. He wound up with 44 points, 21 rebounds, seven blocks, eight assists, and added 11 steals. He was named Florida Player of the Year. He was named to the High School All-AmericaTeam, Florida Mr. Basketball, and was on the McDonald’s All-American Team, and later found out that legendary North Carolina head coach Dean Smith attended the game with two assistants and a few Tar Heel players.
And the topping on the cake came in 2005 when the Mainland basketball arena was renamed the Vince Carter Athletic Center. Then in 2007, a statue of him was unveiled at Mainland. He has done his share by donating to the school, as well as the foundation he established upon being drafted into the NBA in 1998, entitled the Embassy of Hope.
Now, at age 42, he’s still playing, signing recently with the Atlanta Hawks and vowed this would be his final season, his 22nd, a record for an NBA player. He has been hailed as the best all-time dunker, has already played for eight different teams –And In Orlando, in Sacramento, in Memphis, in Dallas, in Atlanta, in Phoenix, in New Jersey, in Toronto, he’s been a fan favorite.
He was named to eight NBA All-Star teams, was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1999, has played in 1,481 games and started in 983, was in seven All-Star games and started in five. Has a 17.2 scoring average, .437 from the field, .798 from the free throw line, 30.7 minutes per game, 4.4 rebounds a game, and 3.2 assists a game. He has played as a shooting guard and small forward.
As a freshman at North Carolina, he was a consensus second-team All American. Before declaring for the NBA draft after his junior season and played in 103 games for Dean Smith and started in 91, averaged 12.3 points per game and 4.5 rebounds.
He represented the United States in the 2000 Gold Medal Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the FIBA Americas Championships in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2003, when the red, white and blue won again. He recently told the media that he stands and sometimes even sings along with the national anthem, respects the flag and respects the office of President, and the Pledge of Aligdence.
He entertained the fans with his leaping ability and slam dunks. When he won the NBA dunking contest, he displayed an array of dunks that included the 360 degree windmill, a between the legs bounce dunk and an “elbow in the rim” dunk.
In the NBA, he earned such clever, moving nicknames such as “Vinsanity”, “Air Canada”, “Half-Man,” and “Half Amazing.”
He’s done it all and still wants more. He loves the game. He loves the fans. He no doubt loves the money he makes. He’s come a long way from Daytona Beach and has handled it well, not only as an elite athlete, but in other useful ways.
He established the Enemy of Hope Foundation, assisting children and their families in Florida, New Jersey and Toronto. He was also recognized in 2000 as Child Advocate of the Year by the Children’s Home Society, and received the Florida Governor’s Point of Light award in 2007 for his philanthropy in his home state.
I finally caught up with him when I was covering the NBA and the Nets were my beat. He arrived in 2004 after a trade with Toronto, yet he sent a congratulations to the Raptors on their 20thanniversary.
I caught him on an off day after practice. I asked him if he remembered 1995, and he smiled and said, “Sure, Mainland High won the state championship, why do you bring that up.”?
I told him that I was there, covered the Dillard game for the Miami Herald. I told him I asked some questions when he was interviewed after the game, and that he played quite a game, owned the court. And it’s great to see him now with the Nets.
He responded: “Wow, this is great to hear. You were at the state championship game, and now we meet like nine years later. Thank you, it was all enlightening to hear.”
He then gave me a hearty handshake, a high-five, and a Vince Carter smile, and always gave me some good interviews.
One more, Carter, just one more and you can shut down after a long time on the basketball court. Hope you have a fabulous finale.