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Column: Vince Carter will retire an NBA legend, but his career had an inauspicious start

Vince Carter looks on during the second half of a game against the Spurs on Nov. 5.
Atlanta Hawks’ Vince Carter looks on during the second half of a game against the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 5.
(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

Almost 1,600 games ago, before Vince Carter was one of the best dunkers to play in the NBA, before he was an international star (then villain), before he became a symbol for longevity in an industry that doesn’t always value it, he was just a kid looking for a place to sleep.

Set to work out for the Toronto Raptors in the buildup to the 1998 NBA draft, Carter arrived late at night in Canada and went to check into the massive hotel connected to the Toronto Blue Jays’ stadium.

That’s when the trouble started.

The hotel didn’t have his reservation. He moved down the Toronto lakefront to another high-rise hotel that had a room. His room-service dinner didn’t show up until hours after he ordered it.

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The next morning with the Raptors’ top decision-makers, including general manager Glen Grunwald, in attendance, Carter’s workout was delayed. His gear wasn’t there. His routine was off. The workout went poorly. He was upset with himself.

“It was awful,” Carter said. “I was like, ‘This is not meant to be.’ ”

More than 21 years later, Carter, who will turn 43 in January, is exactly where he was destined to be, starting his day by running sharp cuts to the basket during the Atlanta Hawks’ shootaround. Later, he’ll be chasing players a fraction of his age, arguing foul calls on behalf of Trae Young — one of four Hawks teammates who hadn’t yet been born the day the Raptors got Carter in a draft-night trade.

“It’s really cool. It’s what makes this special,” Young said. “He’s just a dope person and he’s good to just be around.”

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That’s how the Raptors in the room that day felt too — even if Carter thought the workout was a total mess.

“He came in and he was smiling,” Grunwald remembered. “He was sincerely excited about being in Toronto.”

Then-Raptors coach Butch Carter later told Carter his workout was the best they had.

“Are you sure?” Carter said.

The start of Carter’s career is relevant this week, with Kawhi Leonard getting a conqueror’s welcome in his first game back in Toronto since leading the Raptors to their first championship last spring.

In Carter’s first game back, he was passionately booed.

He was Toronto’s first basketball superstar. The springs in the back of Carter’s signature Nike Shox couldn’t compete with the ones in the backs of his legs. Carter went as far as to ban dunking during Toronto’s practices because he didn’t want the rims to get damaged.

In his second season, he got the Raptors into the postseason, giving Canada its first taste of playoff basketball. In his third season, the Raptors won their first series before losing a heartbreaking seven-game set to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.

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But by the middle of Year 7, Carter wanted out. His effort and energy weren’t the same. Some people questioned the severity of his knee injuries. Others thought he flat-out quit on the team as he forced his way out in a deal.

Vince Carter celebrates with his younger Hawks teammate Trae Young after a shot against the Spurs during a game Nov. 5.
Vince Carter celebrates with his younger Hawks teammate Trae Young after a shot against the Spurs during a game Nov. 5.
(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

All of this, in NBA terms, is ancient history. Carter was traded in 2004 — only six players who were active that season remain in the league.

Now in his final season, Carter’s being honored for being a basketball lifer as much as for being an all-time great.

“He’s always at practice. He’s always at the games. He’s always ready to play,” Atlanta’s 20-year-old rookie Cam Reddish said. “It’s pretty unbelievable.”

While Carter is unquestionably genetically blessed, he hasn’t been immune to aging. Some days, the rim feels like it’s a few feet higher than it used to be.

“The ball will get stuck [on the basket] and people will still look at me,” Carter said. “I’m like, ‘What? Let me get a broom.’”

After games when the adrenaline leaves his system, his muscles, tendons and bones all ache. The will to keep going escapes too.

The Lakers beat the Miami Heat 113-110, giving L.A. a 13-game road winning streak, the most the franchise has had since the 1971-72 title season.

“Some mornings, I wake up, tell myself that I’m taking the fine. I’m not going in today. I’ll call in and say, ‘How much do I owe? See you tomorrow,’” he acknowledged. “And then I give myself five or 10 minutes. I walk around a little bit, get through the limps, bones crack a little bit and I’m off to work.”

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A career in television certainly is waiting. And even though he’s sure he could keep playing, going back on his word at this point would be too messy.

“It’s still hard to accept,” Carter said.

The game will miss him too. Now when he comes back to Toronto he gets cheered. The old criticisms — he smiled too much; he didn’t have the same killer gene as another 6-foot-6 guard from North Carolina, Michael Jordan — all seem unimportant.

The Carter smile that impressed the Raptors 21 years ago is a sign of hope for the young players in the league. It’s a reminder that all the games and minutes can’t extinguish a love of basketball, a love that started long before the big paychecks ever did.

It’s a smile that celebrates a career that will have taken place during four different decades by the time he’s done — a professional life that’s spanned from Jordan to Allen Iverson to Kobe Bryant to Luka Doncic.

“They said I shouldn’t smile, that I should have a scowl on my face blah, blah blah. I didn’t understand that because that was my happiness. I was thankful to be out here,” Carter said. “Every day I played the game I was happy. … I got the chance to play against some of the greatest before they walked out of the game. You’d smile too.”


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