By Arnie Leshin
Well, I saw Vince Carter play his final high school game and I watched on television as he ended last season playing for the Atlanta Hawks.
And that was it, I missed his finale playing for North Carolina, but viewed on TV his high first-round college draft pick by the Toronto Raptors Sorry I couldn’t catch all that many of his other hoop games in the pros, but there were just too many, as in 22 years of them before announcing his retirement Thursday morning.
That’s right, it’s finally over, the New Jersey Nets, the Orlando Magic, the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Sacramento Kings, and the last two years with Atlanta. Nine teams in a record-setting NBA career. His 22 seasons are a record and his 1,541 total games are only behind Robert Parish’s 1,611 and Karem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1,560, but he would have probably landed on top here, too, if not for his initial season shortened to 50 games because of a league labor strife.
Great guy, class act from the time I first came across him at the 1995 Florida state high school basketball championship played at Florida State University in Tallahassee. It was the big-school game against Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High.
I was covering the season for the Miami Herald, and after Dillard had routed Wellington, 67-38, in the state semifinals played at Santaluces High School, the subject turned to top-ranked Mainland and Vince Carter, its 6-foot-6 superstar, All-America a-top the schoolboy list.
In the Sunshine State he was hailed as hands-down the finest player. He was recognized as a man playing against the boys. He was a terror underneath, scored at will inside and outside, and his quick hands made him equally adept on defense, and as a shot-blocker. Yup, Dillard had heard of him. The Panthers hadn’t seen him play, but his statistics were overwhelming … 32.7 points per game, 14.8 rebounds per game, five assists per game, seven blocks per game, and eight steals per game.
I even got a few words from him before the teams came out for pre-game practice. I first checked with his head coach, who quickly spoke with Carter, who nodded “yes”, and with the state final on the line, he was just super polite with a good sense of humor.
“Well,” he said, it’s important to write down the school has waited until now to win its first state basketball championship in 57 years. Tonight, we want to accomplish this, now in my senior year, and I’m eager to get out there and bring it. Now see this big crowd of Buccaneer fans, well we get this every game, home and away.”
Like Dillard, Mainland came from a beach town, Daytona Beach, and with the Dillard crowd always traveling well, the fire department had to close off the entrance for late comers.
With his coaches waving to him, Carter gave me a high-five, a pat on the shoulder and then put on a dunking show in the warm ups. After the opening tap that he owned over Dillard’s quality 6-4 senior James Stone, Carter was as advertised. Even Stone was amazed. His first four shots were blocked by Carter, and at the half Carter already had 19 points, a dozen rebounds, eight blocks, five assist and seven steals.
The Mainland lead was only eight points at the half, but then the bubble burst. Dillard had already won state five times and the Buccaneers hadn’t hoisted the state title since 1939. But as the second half progressed, it was obvious that Carter and company was finally going to win it again. Mainland finished on top 76-55 and wound up at 33-2 while the Panthers concluded at 28-5.
“Unreal,” said Stone. “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 sure a whooping for us.”
Carter had plenty to say after celebrating with the trophy and running it past the Mainland fans in the stands.
“I waited all season for this,” he said. “Wow, we waited 56 years for this and it’s a great feeling, a super accomplishment for the school, and tonight we let it all hang out.”
He finished with 44 points, 21 rebounds, 10 blocks, nine assist, and added 11 steals. He was named Florida Player of the Year, named High School All-America, and later leaned that legendary North Carolina head coach Dean Smith attended the title game with two assistants and a few Tar Heel players.
Now after his long span in the NBA, after adding the Slam Dunk Contest to his book of achievements, the topping on the cake came back in 2005 when the Mainland basketball arena was renamed the Vince Carter Athletic Center. Then in 2007, a statue of him was unveiled outside Mainland High. 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.
Also, in 2000, he was recognized as Child Advocate of the Year by the Children’s Home Society, and received the Florida Governor’s Points of Light Award in 2007 for his philanthropy in his home state.
And as I was winding down with this well deserved sent off for the NBA’s all-time leading dunker and fan favorite everywhere he’s played, the phone rang. I had left a message on Thursday for Carter to try to return my call, and just like him, he once again came through.
“Yo,” he said, “have you been to Jersey lately, did you know I’ve actually retired from hoops, did you get my thank you mail last year, and also I wouldn’t have been going to Disney World anyway because the Hawks didn’t make the field. But I did get back to you, and that always brings back memories from the night we won state.”
He went on, and obviously he was in a great mood.
“Remember,” he said, “that I vowed to make last season my last, well that’s the way it worked out because of the virus pandemic. Now I can take my family to Disney World when this virus threat shuts down, but not before.”
We spoke of first meeting at the state final, then when we ran into each other when Toronto played New Jersey, and then after he was traded to the Nets and were now old friends.
And now at retirement age 42, he said he was still keeping many basketballs around the house, but not shooting them as much, although he was still going to take in some NBA games and watch some on TV. For me, he said, he was texting me his new email address, and if I’m ever in Florida, contact him.
He was named to eight NBA All-Star teams, was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1999, started in 983 games, was in seven All-Star games and started in five. Averaged 17.2 points, .437 from the field, .798 from the foul line, 30.7 minutes a game, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists playing as a shooting guard and small forward.
As a freshman at North Carolina, he was a consensus second-team All-America. Before declaring for the NBA after his junior year and playing in 103 games and starting in 91, he averaged 12.3 points and 4.5 boards.
In the NBA, he earned such clever moving nicknames as “Vinsanity”, “Air Canada”, “Half-Man”, and “Half Amazing.” 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.
He confirmed these in our Friday talk. He said he’s done it all and would probably want to do more, but age has crept up and it’s time to spent more time with my friends and family. He added that he loved the game, loved the fans, loved the money he made. Yes, 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.
Daytona Beach has always been known as a busy, busy ocean town where cars drive on the beach, spring breaks fill the motels, and Vince Carter, and only he has brought a state championship there.
He wants it to be known how patriotic he is. He represented the United States in the 2000 Gold Medal Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the FIBA Americans Championship in San Juan, Puerto RIco, in 2003 when the red, white and blue won again. He recently informed the media that he stands and sometimes even sings with the national anthem, respects the flag and respects the office of President and the Pledge of Aligdence.
“Yes,” write it my friend,” he said, “and God Bless America.”
Of course I will, and I toss in how great it’s been knowing you all these years. And thanks for the call.