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After Drop, He Posts a Net Gain

Fan favorite Carter, who reached superstar status before stumbling with Toronto, resurrects his career and reputation with New Jersey.

March 30, 2005|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Vince Carter flies again.

It really is the one they called Half Man, Half Amazing before he turned into Half of What He Had Been.

Regarded as the next great player when he took over the All-Star dunk show in 2000, Carter's scoring average dropped from a high of 27 to 15.9 this season before the Toronto Raptors gave up and traded him.

The New Jersey Nets, hoping he hadn't been giving his all but would for them, hit the jackpot. Carter is averaging 26 points as a Net and ignoring all unkind suggestions.

"Life is good," he says. "I'm playing with the best point guard in the league [Jason Kidd]. It's a new start. It's just been fun. I can't stop smiling and talking about it, just because of the opportunity to get a new start."

There never was a star like Carter and not only because he was the most spectacular of the spectacular. There never was one who could turn so ordinary and be so blase about it too.

There was never one who had so little idea of what was expected of him for that $12.6-million salary but was such a stand-up guy at the same time. When people suggested the Raptors' fall was his fault, he disagreed, but he always talked and never got upset.

He always faced the music; he just couldn't hear it. Among Toronto writers, the scouting report on Carter was, "He's a better guy than player."

Carter never stopped being special to the fans, who made him the leading All-Star vote-getter, no matter what he did. In the 2002-03 season, when he played 43 of the 82 games, he was voted on ahead of the retiring Michael Jordan.

That was the Atlanta game in which everyone wanted to know:

* Whether Carter would give Jordan his starting spot;

* What Carter was doing there in the first place.

On media day, Carter was the first All-Star in the interview room. He didn't have a good answer for any of the questions, but he replied patiently to all of them.

This season he was averaging a modest 19 points when voting closed Jan. 23. His four-year run of topping all vote-getters ended, but he still led all Eastern forwards, leaving him once more gratified and mystified.

"I'm thrilled and honored through all that, in good times and bad times, and I can't figure it out and I don't try to," he says. "I can't explain it -- 'How is it that you always get voted on?'

"I don't know, and I'm afraid to really go do the research to try to figure it out because I figure I'll mess it up. You know what I'm saying?"

He doesn't know. He thinks he's just spectacular. He doesn't know how spectacular he really is.

Another One Bites the Dust

Jordan was considered the greatest player the game had ever seen, but as soon as he retired in 1998, the search began for his successor, as if there had to be one out there.

Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant had all tried on the glass slipper when Carter blew everyone away, reviving the long-dormant dunk contest on All-Star weekend in Oakland.

"You don't see the kind of things he did except in a video game," said John Starks, the former New York Knick guard.

Shaquille O'Neal was caught by TNT cameras going bug-eyed at Carter's feats. Named co-most valuable player of the next day's game, O'Neal said the high point of his weekend had been "Vince, of course."

That fast, Carter became the one. Narrating highlights of a subsequent game-winning three-pointer Carter had made at Boston, ESPN's Linda Cohn noted, "He says he hates the comparison to Michael Jordan, but let's face it, how can you avoid it?"

Carter could avoid it, all right.

"Just from in the middle of February [and All-Star weekend] to the end of February, it was just totally different," he says. "From one part of the season to the other, it was approached different, it looked different.

"At the games, before practices, after practices, everything was just totally different. And I was just fortunate to have some of the guys who had been there with superstars, like Charles Oakley. He'd seen that type of atmosphere and knew how to handle it."

Oakley played with Jordan early in Michael's career, but there was no comparison. Jordan hungered to surpass the greats of his day. Carter was determined not to get carried away with expectations, but pretty soon, he wasn't even Vince Carter anymore.

He had an 18-person support staff, with personal marketing and public relations people. Carter's parents had gone through a bitter divorce and his mother, Michelle, was in constant attendance. The Raptors had to clear all interview requests for Vince through her.

His career peaked. In 2000, Carter led the U.S. Olympic team in scoring en route to its gold medal at Sydney. In the 2000-01 season, he led the Raptors to Game 7 of their second-round series against the 76ers.

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