Even when Toronto Raptors forward Vince Carter played at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., his uniform was always neatly pressed. And he had the sweetest moves, moves that brought fans to their feet and earned him a scholarship to one of the best college programs in the country.
Man, you should have seen Carter in that marching band.
"His junior year he was a baritone saxophone, but then his senior year he was the drum major," said his mother, Michelle Robinson. "He's tall and thin, so anything he put on looked good on him. He had on one of those tall white hats that made him look even taller, and a white uniform with gold buttons. He just looked terrific.
"You see, he's a very, very good dancer. He has some great moves."
Robinson doesn't have to tell anyone in the NBA. With the league eager for new stars last season, Carter helped fill the void by slam-dunking his way to the rookie of the year award and some prime real estate on the nightly highlight shows. With his help, the Raptors posted the best record of their four-year history (23-27 in the lockout-shortened season, after going 16-66 the season before), and Carter even got to play a little music on the side. While he never slipped back into his blue-and-gold drum major cape--his high school retired it last year, along with his basketball jersey--he did entertain his teammate/cousin/best friend Tracy McGrady with some saxophone when the Raptors were at home.
It was a nearly perfect rookie season. But although his play and his University of North Carolina pedigree prompted comparisons to another former Tar Heel, Michael Jordan, Carter was unable to lift his team into the playoffs the way Jordan did his first year in the league. This season, the Raptors want more.
General Manager Glen Grunwald spent the summer acquiring experienced players such as guards Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry and forward Antonio Davis. Coach Butch Carter (no relation to Vince) designed a rigorous offseason workout program.
And Vince Carter was told to cut down on those famous moves.
"We talked about it, and there's no more dunking with stopping and making an exhibition--he needs to do everything in concept of the team, and he has accepted that," the coach said after a recent practice. "Talented guys, every once in a while, they get so bored, they want to play with the game--you know, let me try this shot. Only a lot of the time, those shots don't score. We've tried to eliminate that.
"The problem is that this generation is more obsessed with what's going on with ESPN than about winning championships. That's why we need to get Vince in the playoffs as soon as possible, so he can have some glory and taste some defeat and decide that he doesn't like the taste."
So far, the strategy seems to be working for the Raptors (13-9), who are 1 1/2 games behind the Central Division-leading Charlotte Hornets.
It also seems to be working for Vince Carter, who has spent the past four or five months trying to round out his renown. Last season, he averaged 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3 assists and 35.2 minutes, but to many in the NBA, all that mattered each game were Carter's fabulous, gravity-defying dunks. There was the court-rattling power dunk over Miami's Alonzo Mourning, the 1999 NBA defensive player of the year; the shift-and-slam move he pulled on Indiana's Chris Mullin; and the 360-degree, hold-your-breath jam he wedged into the basket against Cleveland in the season finale.
As the time for rookie of the year voting approached, the Raptors became so concerned that Carter appeared one-dimensional that they sent out a promotional videotape detailing all of his other attributes. They needn't have worried--Carter received 113 of 118 votes for the award--but Carter picked up on the perception. Instead of spending this summer polishing his award and talking about himself in the third person, he went back to school, figuratively and literally.
Having left North Carolina a year short of his degree, Carter returned to Chapel Hill to take some classes and spend some time working with his former coaches. Reminded that Jordan complemented his more-celebrated air game by becoming an excellent medium-range shooter, Carter practiced his jump shot relentlessly, sometimes taking 1,500 shots a day and never leaving the court without taking at least 600.
"I was very surprised with all the practice he did, but that's a guy that you have to love and that you're going to love to play with," Davis said. "Even with what he's accomplished, he's not content and he's going to show you that night-in and night-out."
Between his class time and court time, Carter also sandwiched in charity work and promotional appearances to fulfill some of his many, many endorsement contracts. He plans to return to school again next summer to finish his degree in African American studies/communications, partly because it's important to him and partly because of a promise he made to his mother years ago.
A high school teacher, Robinson would not even let Carter walk out the door to enroll at North Carolina until he attend signed a contract that said if he left early for the NBA, he eventually would earn his degree. And when Carter entered the draft in 1998, she took the piece of paper out of a drawer and waved it at him.
"I made that promise, and I'm going to keep it," Carter said. "It was actually a lot of fun to be back on campus. People really treated me just like a normal student. The only really busy day was the last day of classes, because then everyone wanted an autograph."
Carter appreciates that Chapel Hill feels like a nice second home, although he smiles when he thinks of the other places he could have gone for college. Carter was not just heavily recruited as one of the nation's top 10 high school basketball prospects, he was offered a band scholarship to Bethune-Cookman and a place in the band at Florida A&M, which has one of the nation's best.
Carter has been involved in music since the sixth grade, about the same time he started following his mother around shopping malls, refusing to walk next to her so he would have room to dribble an imaginary basketball. His interest in the game had come from his uncle, who starred at Marquette University, but his interest in music came from his stepfather, Harry Robinson, a retired teacher and band director. When Carter got to high school, he received an out-of-zone transfer from the school board, not so he could play at a better basketball school but so he could play in his stepfathers's band, which was the county's best. By his senior year, he was named drum major, a role that required coordinating all the band's dancing and developing some serious steps himself.
Carter was so dedicated to the band that when Dean Smith came to recruit him for North Carolina, the legendary coach had to wait on the side of a rugged field two miles from Daytona International Speedway as Carter led the group in practicing "Eye of the Tiger."
"I hung with both the athletes and the band guys, and people gave me a hard time, always, always," said Carter, who spent part of his high school summers attending band camp. "I even get a hard time now sometimes, but I really loved it, so it didn't bother me at all.
"After basketball I could still do something with it, maybe play a little jazz with some of the guys in the league who play. I know there are a few other guys out there who have band in their history. They're afraid to let it be known, but I'll find out."
Carter still plays his saxophone when he needs a break from his rigorous schedule of practices, games, appearances and sessions to film commercials. (One of his latest photo sessions put him on the front of Kellogg's Cocoa Frosted Flakes cereal boxes; at another recent shoot, he was asked to slip into a pair of tight leather pants, which he declined.) He also occasionally plays the sax around McGrady, who discovered at a family reunion in 1997 that he and Carter are related. They are only step-cousins, twice removed, but that doesn't stop them from calling each other "Cuz" and doing just about everything together, even calling each other on their cell phones when they find themselves at opposite ends of the team bus.
Carter also is popular among his other teammates, getting a head start two summers ago when Jordan called his longtime pal, Raptors forward Charles Oakley, and asked him to look out for the incoming rookie. The fans in this hockey-obsessed city were initially a harder sell, but Carter quickly won them over with a gleaming smile, an ultra-polite attitude and sharp statistics. With his practice this summer making "a huge difference," according to his coach, Carter has racked up per-game averages of 22.9 points (eighth in the NBA entering last night's game), 6.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
Still, while Carter's game has expanded, his coach remains convinced that his young star is "operating at about 60 percent of what he should be." To reinforce the point that Vince's game still includes a little too much showboating, Butch Carter recently put together a tape of all of the moves he didn't like. He then showed them to Vince. In front of the team. The tactic worked--later that day Vince scored 39 points against the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs--and Butch saw something in Vince he wouldn't mind a little more of: anger.
"He's basically a very nice kid," Butch Carter said, "but my goal is to keep pushing him and pushing him until he takes on the full responsibility of the team, starting in warmups. Right now, if he gets knocked down, he gets up and plays, but he needs to start in warmups being mad. That would make this team better, if they knew he was ready from the start.
"Right now he's not willing to do that--I don't know for sure if he's capable because he hasn't tried, but I do think he's capable of being one mean hombre. He's got to find that part of himself--either he's got to be the [jerk] or I do."
Vince, who has heard how Jordan used to scour newspapers before games for ammunition to make him angry, said he realizes the truth in what Butch is saying, even if he hasn't quite grasped it yet on the court. He said he still occasionally gets a twinge in his stomach "when they say, 'We're going to you tonight, we expect you to lead us and put the ball in the basket'," although he is getting used to it.
He's also getting comfortable playing a more modified above-rim game--he's even considering skipping the dunk contest at this season's all-star game--although he makes a point to say he has not taken the dunk out of his repertoire entirely, noting "if it's there, I'm definitely going to take it."
He does still have his moves, after all.
"He's really worked on his defense and his shooting, but still, the fans just love it when he dunks the ball," his mother said. "I just sit there all cool because I've seen it so many times, but then every now and then--every now and then--he does something and I just say, 'He didn't do that.' I have to look up at the Jumbotron just to make sure, but then there he is, doing it, and I say, 'Wow. He looks good.' "