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Vince Carter: ‘I’m not at the stage where I can sit there and be OK with it’

The NBA’s oldest player joined the rebuilding Kings because he wants to contribute on and off the court

SACRAMENTO, California — The NBA’s oldest player is an eight-time All-Star, a slam dunk champion and an Olympic gold medalist and is entering his 20th season in the league. He was the toast of the NBA early in his career, when fans worldwide fell in love with “Vinsanity” because of his high-flying game. The only thing missing from the 40-year-old’s professional basketball resume is an NBA championship.

So why did Vince Carter sign with the rebuilding Sacramento Kings? For Carter, he is more worried about playing a big role in the twilight of his career than chasing a championship ring.

“I can’t do that. That’s not who I am. I want to be a part of something,” Carter said. “I want to play. It’s easy to play for a good team and sit there. It would be great to have the ring to accomplish it. Yes, I earned it because I am there every day making those guys better. I get all that. But I want to contribute.

“I’m not at the stage where I can sit there and be OK with it when I know I have something to give to this game still. That’s why. When things are different and I probably can’t play but 10 minutes a game or whatever, I can probably sit there and accept it. I can’t accept it now.”

Carter recently spoke with The Undefeated about being twice as old as some of his young Kings teammates, the importance of being mentored and mentoring rookie sensation De’Aaron Fox, the future of the Slam Dunk Contest, retirement and more.

What is it like being the dad in the locker room now?

(Carter laughs.) Subconsciously, that’s how it feels. But at the same time, I’m in the teammate, big brother or uncle kind of mode as far as I want to just get these guys right and as acclimated as possible and feeling comfortable. I have taken the onus of doing so, and they’ve allowed me to do it. Those guys listen. These guys want to be good, so it makes the transition and opportunity a lot easier.

Who mentored you when you first came into the NBA in 1998 with the Toronto Raptors?

It is hard to pick one. Day one, it was [Charles] Oakley. And then I had Antonio Davis and then I had Doug Christie and then I had Dee Brown and Kevin Willis. We had five vets that all played with superstars. Kevin Willis played with Dominique [Wilkins], Oak played with M.J. [Michael Jordan], Doug played with Magic [Johnson], Dee Brown played with [Larry] Bird and Antonio played with Reggie Miller. I got the essence from them on how to be a pro, how to approach it, and the mentality on the pressures of being the face of the franchise and still having to deliver.

Did you embrace the mentoring from those veterans?

I did. At first I was like, I want to accomplish my goals. I want to show the world who I am. But I don’t know at that capacity. I want to just stay behind the radar. That is how I’ve always been. But at the same time, they made it easy. I listened, and they prepared me and drilled me, so to speak. They wanted to make sure from day one when I stepped out there for the regular season, and it was a shortened season anyway because it was ’98, the lockout year, and they wanted to make sure I was ready to go.

And I will tell you, when I stepped on the court I felt comfortable playing against guys I had never played against before, like the Grant Hills of the world. I’ve seen Grant. It’s different seeing him on film and watching him from home and obviously having to stay in front of him [defensively]. Guys like that, I felt comfortable.

So you didn’t face any jealousy from the vets because of your early stardom?

No. They know I wanted to learn and I wanted to get better. There was no entitlement or ‘I am bigger than the franchise.’ There was so much just going on that I was trying to just grasp the moment. I was like, ‘Hey, I understand what you guys have done. You’ve been around. I’m listening.’ It paid dividends for me.

How at that age did you handle ‘Vinsanity’? (After winning the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest in Oakland, California, Carter became perhaps the NBA’s first internet sensation, as his overnight popularity worldwide was called ‘Vinsanity.’)

It’s tough to say. I was just going through it. At the same time, I was still having fun. It was cool. It’s here. It’s real. It’s live. I see it. But I’m having fun playing, and T-Mac [Tracy McGrady] was right there with me learning. We’re up there in Canada. There was no pressure. But at the same time, there was a hidden phenomenon that was growing.

After the dunk contest, I could tell the difference. Before February [2000], it was like, ‘All right, he is going to be good.’ But after the dunk contest it was like, ‘Ah, media everywhere. What is going on?’ I just couldn’t understand. So, the expectation went from [average] to [high]. It took a little getting used to. But I always had these [veteran teammates] in my ear to bring me back to reality, so that is what made it easy and me to be able to embrace it. I was with guys who were like, ‘Look here, man, act like you’ve been there before.’

It’s hard to do, especially if you haven’t been in that situation. It’s one thing being in college and being the guy on a very good team when you’re going to Final Fours. But when you are on the highest level being recognized like that, it could get to you in a good and bad way. And these guys didn’t let it happen.

Vince Carter of the Sacramento Kings shoots the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during a preseason game Oct. 8 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

What is the best piece of advice you received as a young player?

There are so many hidden gems being a young guy at that time. It’s so simple and maybe cliché, but, ‘Sit back and enjoy the moment, because for some people it doesn’t last long.’ You have a year. You have two years. Some fortunately have an entire career. But I was able to recognize the reality of a lot of things, and one of them was like, ‘This is not promised.’ There is so much going on … I just wanted more. I just wanted to play, and I always asked questions.

I never felt that I was too big for the game. In my mind, I still don’t know it all. There is still more to accomplish. I don’t have a championship. They might deem me as one of the best players, but I’m not the best player. So there is still more work to do, and that’s how I approached it and continued to do that. Everyone is very appreciative and asks, ‘Man, how do you do it?’ It’s the same mentality.

I still learn. I still have a lot to learn. I still respect the game. I will not disrespect this game, because it has been good to me. I just love to play, love to learn and love to ask questions.

You had five guys who took you under their wing in Toronto, but you have about five guys to take under your wing in Sacramento. Can you talk about that challenge?

I enjoy it. You personalize each individual. Everybody is going through different things. You think of De’Aaron and the pressures being put on him. You kind of personalize it a little different than with the other guys. It helps to have some veterans. But I kind of feel them out, see what’s what and see what makes them tick and kind of go from there. You can give some guys the whole shebang. You have to give some pieces to other guys because they’re going to go through different things.

The one thing that I like is these guys want to learn, are willing to listen and ask questions. You didn’t see that open. This isn’t college. Nah, brah, this is a man’s game … they allow me to talk to them. I’ve been through a lot.

What has one of them said to you to make you feel old?

The reality makes you feel old. [Fox] is just 19 years old. I’m going into my 20th year. That says enough right there. [Justin] Jackson is 21. We broke out the [roster]. Harry Giles was 2 months old when I was drafted. It’s crazy. Crazy. But I enjoy competing at this level.

How blessed are you to say that at 40 years old?

I’m very thankful to be able to compete with guys more than half my age. If you put [Fox and Giles] together, they are still not old enough. You see what I’m saying? It’s just crazy. For me, it’s good for me because I still love playing. It makes me work harder because the energy they have, I still have to work harder just to keep up. And I’m OK with that.

Why Sacramento?

Opportunity. They have given me the opportunity to still play and teach and mentor. I wasn’t ready to sit on anybody’s bench and play limited minutes when I feel like I still have something to give. When I don’t have much to give, I can accept the reality. I’m not ready for that.

Maybe teams and people see that. ‘A limited role. Maybe we want him to mentor.’ Maybe they see that. But I wanted to see if all teams felt that way. When all teams feel that way, then the mentality, the approach and what you look for is different. It helped being with [Kings coach Dave] Joerger and the stay before [with the Memphis Grizzlies]. It’s like walking back into the Memphis locker room again with him. It was just a great situation.

The money is always cool, but it wasn’t about that, to be honest with you. But when you get to this age and get that kind of money is there for you, you’re like, ‘Thank you.’ They understood, and being around the coaching staff with Dave before, they know my approach. They know what I can bring to a team. It didn’t matter if I am a high draft pick or not. My approach to the game is still the same. It will never change.

It sounds to me like this won’t be your last season. Will it?

I go year to year. I’ll wait until after the season to see how I feel. And I swear that every year when the season’s over, I feel good and say, ‘I can do it again.’ It gets harder and harder throughout the summer to just prepare and get myself where I need to be. But at the same time, the challenge and motivation is still there to do so to fight through that.

I don’t know how many more years that will happen. But doing that while trying to establish my second career is kind of the clash. I want to make sure I am prepared for phase two of my life. I want to do some broadcasting. I like that. It’s something I enjoy. I work hard at that as well. So I’ve learned how to balance the two out, which has made it tougher to get prepared. But I know if I want to play this game, I have to do that as well.

What do you think of De’Aaron Fox?

First of all, he is lightning fast. But he is just like every other young guy coming into this league: He has a bunch of talent but is still learning. That young man asks questions. He wants to be good, and he is willing to do whatever. I just want to get him in a routine and make it become natural. All these guys have natural ability, but when you play in the NBA, sometimes you want to be seen.

I still think he has a lot to learn, like I am sure the same goes for a lot of rookies in this league with abilities and talent. But he has that, and he is going to be a good player because of the work he is putting in and the guys he has around him. We have enough veterans in the positions of the guys we have. Harry Giles has Z-Bo [Zach Randolph]. Of course, I’m around too. De’Aaron has myself, George [Hill] and Garrett [Temple]. The wing guys have me and Garrett. We all do it collectively.

Obviously, I’ve been around the longest, but we all have the same mentality and the same understanding of what we are trying to accomplish. We know our time is limited. This is the future. I remember being in that position.

What do you think of the state of the dunk contest, and would you go back in it?

No. I definitely wouldn’t do it. There is some talent out there, so it makes it entertaining. It has been very entertaining the last couple of years. It’s not dead. Some people might think so, but there is some talent out there. Of course, you want to see the best guys, the best ability, the tricks.

There are a lot of guys who can dunk the ball. There are a lot of guys who can entertain. There is a difference. There are some guys out there that can do some stuff. There is still hope. I wouldn’t say get rid of it. A lot of people say, ‘What do you think? You think they should they get rid of it?’ No. It’s still entertaining. They are still doing something different. Because of the bar where they put the dunk contest, [greatness] is what they want to see.

So when young guys step onto that stage, they have to understand that this is an honor. Then they walk about there like, ‘What did I just walk into?’ In the past, guys understood what they were walking into and what Saturday means. Saturday, Friday and Sunday all mean something different. To me, Saturday is the main stage. If you’re going to be in the dunk contest, you’re going to be there to represent and do well. And I think sometimes guys take it for granted. When I stepped into the arena that night, I was going to work.

It’s ‘All-Star Saturday,’ yes. But I looked at it like the big stage. Obviously, Sunday is a featured day. I look at Sunday, and Saturday is right there. Yes, there is time to have fun. But with the dunk contest, the mentality is different. They see how serious it is when they walk out there. I was already prepared for that. I approached it a little different. That is what I would tell any guy considering it or who wants to be in that dunk contest. Take it serious. Obviously, in their mind they are going to win. But you have to approach it that way as well.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.