It's a pretty remarkable position to have gotten oneself into, really, and at this point, Vince Carter can only laugh about it. At an NBA All-Star Game so packed with goodwill players practically hand out flowers and chocolates as they usher each other to the basket, Carter is going to be a disappointment to his peers Sunday night just for showing up.
"You just can't make everyone happy -- I've learned that the hard way," he says, and indeed of late, he seems to have specialized in the notion. Last year, he was condemned for being physically soft and mentally scrawny as his team went on its best run of the season without him. This year, the criticism has been that he's injury-prone as he has missed 33 of 48 games, and yet now that he's finally gotten over a pair of knee injuries to get back onto the court, all anyone wants him to do is get off of it.
Milwaukee's Ray Allen said he thinks Carter should have given up his starting all-star spot to Michael Jordan, despite that 1.3 million fans voted otherwise, making Carter the league's third-highest vote-getter. Former all-star Charles Barkley doesn't think he deserves to be here at all. Carter, for one, thinks they are both wrong, but realizes that might not stop him from getting booed Sunday when he takes the court at Philips Arena.
"I don't care, really, I'm here to play basketball," he says, although it was clear from his first public appearance here Friday that the Jordan issue has been on his mind. He was one of the first players to show up for the NBA's media day, and before a question was even asked, he announced "my most important thing is this Michael Jordan thing, to clear the air, I respect him."
His decision to not step aside, he said, "is just based on what I needed to do and felt was right. More than a million-plus people had confidence in me and felt I should be out there on that floor, and to turn my back on them would be a lot worse."
He also declared "a man who makes his decision has to stick to his decision." To Carter, this was an important point. In fact, it has been the important point through his entire professional career.
From the moment he left the safe environs of North Carolina, he has been strung out on a clothesline of expectations, with the fans wanting him to be their next Jordan, the league wanting him to be its next international ambassador and the clothing companies wanting him to be their prime pitchman. So much buildup for so long by so many -- there was little chance Carter could do anything but fail, and for years, his defense has been to simply be himself.
Next Jordan? No thank you, he's said time and again, and in fact the two have had a distinctly cool relationship despite sharing both an alma mater and a mean tomahawk jam. Cross the border back into the United States when offered a chance at free agency? No thanks again; he'd rather keep plying his trade in Canada, instead of heading to a major American city where the glow of the spotlight could turn into a glare.
Of course, while this philosophy might have helped him from getting eaten up by the Jordan-needs-an-heir hype machine, not all has been so wonderful in the great white north either. Carter had a nice, long honeymoon in Toronto, winning the league's rookie-of-the-year award in 1999 and electrifying fans with a knockout slam dunk performance at the 2000 all-star weekend. But by last year, the wear and tear on tendons in his left knee had begun to take their toll, and the patience his coaches had shown him for sometimes-suspect defense was also beginning to deteriorate.
By mid-March, he decided he was damaging his knee more than he was helping his team, so with the Raptors seven games under .500, he shut it down for the season, undergoing arthroscopic surgery. To Carter, it felt like the smart decision -- and a man who makes his decision has to stick to his decision. To much of the basketball world and Toronto public, though, it felt like Carter was quitting on his team, an accusation that still makes him wince.
"That's a tough pill to swallow," he says, noting "some people doubted that I even wanted to play." More stinging was that as word of discontent started to leak from Carter's own locker room, the Raptors went on a tear, winning 12 of their final 14 games to make the playoffs. Speculation swirled that the squad was better without Carter, and as the summer progressed, some of the restlessness that had been private became public.
After being traded from Toronto to Sacramento, Keon Clark said something in the Toronto franchise "smelled" and he was glad he didn't have to breathe it any longer. He also told the Sacramento Bee that Carter "wants the recognition, but he isn't willing to work for it. I remember someone asking him who was the best player in the NBA. He said, 'It could be me.' That's all you need to know. 'It could be me.' "
"All that helped me work my butt of this summer, I can promise you that," Carter recalls now. "Every time I did a drill, I would think about it."
Yet while Carter showed up a training camp in October determined and, supposedly, healthy, he re-injured his left knee just three games into the regular season. He came back nearly a month later, played seven more games and then promptly injured his right knee; by the time the fan votes for all-star starters were being counted, Carter had played in just 10 games.
So when the fans put Carter into the starting lineup anyway, a howl of resentment reverberated around the league.
"He doesn't deserve to be in the game; this is why I'm against the fans voting," said 11-time all-star Barkley, now an analyst for TNT. Furthermore, Barkley said, if the fans were going to vote this way, the least Carter could have done was offer his spot to Jordan, who instead will be stepping into his last all-star game as a reserve.
The fact that Jordan was refusing any kind of courtesy spot didn't seem to matter. Even Allen chimed in, saying, "I think at the end of Vince's career, they're going to talk about what kind of guy he was, what type of player he was, and there's going to be a lot of different things said. Outside of wins and losses, it's the relationship with each other [that counts,] and I think to be able to step up and be human. . . . I don't know if he was thinking about that or not."
Now that the players are actually in Atlanta, the criticism has abated somewhat, with other players saying that more than anything, Carter seems to be in a no-win situation, just as he's been throughout patches of his career. "In the beginning, because of the North Carolina connection and the way he played, everyone said he was going to be the next Jordan, and then once he fell off, it was like, no way can he be Jordan," says former teammate and distant cousin Tracy McGrady, who himself has volunteered to step aside for Jordan on Sunday.
"The bottom line is that until Vince gets a chance to get out onto the court and make everyone shut up, it's going to be tough."
In a way, that might be as much a part of Carter's refusal to step aside Sunday as anything. Through the last month, he has maintained he still has enormous respect for Jordan, but he is intent on following his own course, and at the moment, that means getting back into a playing rhythm and maybe even steering the 14-34 Raptors toward the postseason.
It is an ambitious goal, but considering the Raptors have won three of the four games they have played since his return from injury, Carter thinks it's at least worth considering. And while he's still not competing for toughest-player-of-the-year honors, he did recently withstand an accidental smack in the face by Sam Cassell, for which he now has a bruise of honor.
Perhaps if he can't do anything about being a disappointment to some this weekend, he can at least be sure he isn't going to be a disappointment to himself.
"You see the good side and the bad side of a lot of people at times like this, but I've learned a lot about myself," he says. "I think I'm tougher in the mind. And I like that."