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DIANE PUCIN

Selfish Carter Still Has a Few Things to Learn

May 22, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

PHILADELPHIA — The graduation is over. The game is over. The season is over.

And still the talk goes on. Did Vince Carter do the right and wonderful thing by taking a break from his team to attend his college graduation? Or the wrong and selfish thing by abandoning his teammates and his employer and distracting himself from the biggest game of his life?

That we are still talking about this shows, even if it shouldn't, how much it matters what famous athletes do.

That we are still talking about this also shows how hard so many try to find role models. It is a fine thing Carter has done, getting his degree from North Carolina even after he has made enough money to last his lifetime and several more. His mother should be proud, of her son and of herself, that Carter stuck to it, lived up to a promise and completed his course work.

So it will seem mean-spirited to say, but what Carter did this weekend was not worthy of a role model.

In attaining the degree, in reading the books, writing the papers, passing the tests, Carter upheld his responsibility. In leaving his team Saturday, in flying to Chapel Hill, in taking even the slightest chance that bad weather or a bad airplane part could have kept him from arriving in Philadelphia in time for Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, he was irresponsible.

According to reports, Carter spent no more than 20 minutes at the North Carolina graduation ceremony. He walked into the football stadium. He high-fived Brendan Haywood, another Tar Heel basketball player. He received an ovation. He left and went to Philadelphia on a private plane belonging to the Toronto Raptors' owner.

Carter didn't march down the aisle with friends he'd spent four years with. He didn't stay long enough for the symbolic moving of the tassel from one side of his mortarboard to the other. His diploma will arrive in the mail later this summer.

After Toronto had lost, 88-87, to the 76ers and after Carter had missed the last shot, he admitted that early in the game he felt "winded." Carter also said he didn't care what anybody else thought about his leaving the team for a day. Carter said going to Chapel Hill "was what I wanted to do, what my family wanted me to do and that's all that matters."

Carter could have gone to North Carolina's summer ceremony and not missed a game while still speaking eloquently of his pride in receiving a degree. He could also have told kids that he waited until the summer because he had an important engagement May 21.

Great athletes have to be selfish. That's what allows them to be great. The selfishness allows them to focus on themselves and what they need to do every day to nurture talents that so many of us don't have.

Sometimes the selfishness causes the athlete to lose sight of how to get along--with teammates, with bosses, with the rules of life most of us must live by. Sometimes we too easily let the athletes behave selfishly.

Many people in many graduating classes who put themselves through school with part-time jobs, or who had to accept full-time jobs even before the last exam was taken, can't attend their graduation. They have to work. The working doesn't diminish what they have accomplished by getting a degree. The acceptance of responsibility is proof the education was worthwhile.

When Shaquille O'Neal left the Lakers for a game in the middle of the season to attend his graduation, it was a celebration. And it was different from what Carter did.

O'Neal participated in a whole weekend of affairs. He didn't pass through the ceremony. He missed a game, yes, and that's not great and it wouldn't have been terrible for Shaq to pass up the graduation. But what Shaq missed was one regular-season game, meaningless in the grand scheme.

What Carter did was distract himself and his team on the eve of the most important game of a young franchise's history.

It has been argued that Carter missed nothing more important than a team breakfast and a film session and that, as a young guy, the quick trip to Chapel Hill was not a strain.

But imagine what would happen if, say, the Raptors announced tomorrow that as a cost-saving measure, they would no longer travel to road games a day in advance, that they would fly in the morning of the game, fly home after.

The players would scream. And they would be right. The players would say that in this physically demanding game, the stress of travel on the day of a game would only diminish their abilities.

What if seven or eight of the Raptors had wanted to attend a graduation, a birthday, an anniversary, any of the many personal occasions that might be considered important to a man?

In the real world, the one in which most of us live, when we are paid to do a job, we follow the rules. Sometimes we miss important days and events in our lives and in the lives of our families. We do it and no one notices.

On the weekend when his team could have become a national treasure, when all Canada had gotten wrapped up in the NBA, Carter chose to do what he wanted first. Whether he missed that last shot, whether his defense was sluggish because his weekend was too long or whether he had scored 50 points and the Raptors had won is not the point.

The point is that Carter is no hero for showing up in Chapel Hill on Sunday. Honor Carter for his degree. But also dishonor Carter for being a bad employee. Make sure you get both lessons.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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