Forty-year-old man Vince Carter dunked a basketball the other day during an NBA playoff game. On an intellectual level I know this was a remarkable (though mostly trivial) event. But as I watched Vince splash the ball through with his wrist that cool way he has on seemingly every dunk he’s ever done, it occurred to me that the strangest thing I could imagine Vince Carter doing in the open floor is not dunking. Because above all else Vince Carter is a dunker, and dunkers dunk.
Carter has passed on dunks before. Early in his career, when he was with the Raptors, Carter would sometimes do layups during road games, denying those punk fans the highlight they came to see. People would boo, and Carter would run back on D, looking down at the floor like he does.
The possibility of seeing one of Vince’s dunks in person was worth the gamble on Raptors tickets. For my money, Vince Carter is the best dunker of all time. And while, sure, that title ranks fairly far down on the list of career goals for the typical NBA superstar, his performative and aesthetic contributions to the game inspired just as much awe and wonderment to me and my friends as Kobe Bryant’s clutch shooting or Kevin Garnett’s competitiveness. The 2000 NBA Dunk Contest is one of the most memorable sporting events of my lifetime, and Vince Carter is 100 percent responsible for that.
There have been 17 dunk contests since then, and all of Vince’s dunks have been done and re-interpreted many times. The reverse 360 windmill, in particular. Probably nobody knows who really invented that dunk, but it doesn’t matter. Vince Carter perfected it. Nobody ever made it look that cool before or since.
Then he put his whole arm in the rim.
Some great athletes make it look easy (Tom Brady), some make it look difficult (Peyton Manning), and still others make it look cool. And those guys don’t get enough respect. It’s one thing to play the note, but not everybody can make it swing. To say nothing against his shooting stroke or raw athletic power, making it look cool is Vince’s true gift. In this regard he belongs to a large group of over-analyzed athletic stylists that includes the likes of Jason Williams (White Chocolate), Pete Maravich (Pistol Pete), and Allen Iverson (The Answer), among others.
These players have all been recognized for their overall excellence, but their artistry within the boundaries of the sport is what makes them unforgettable.
Carter, a bald-headed 6-foot-7 swingman from North Carolina, was the No. 5 pick in the NBA Draft the same year Michael Jordan retired the first time. This put him near the front of a long line of NBA draft picks for whom the defining question of their early careers was, “Is this guy the Next Michael Jordan?”
Well, no. Carter was not the Next Michael Jordan. But he did average 28-6-4 his third year in the league and 25-5-4 his last full season with the Raptors (2004-05). He was a 20-point scorer as late as 2009, and only dipped into the single digits the last three seasons, when he was 38, 39 and 40 years old. According to the similarity scores at Basketball Reference, he’s had roughly the same career as Iverson and Steve Nash, a pair of his contemporaries who have MVP awards.
There are arguments to be made about where Carter’s career stacks up against NBA history. For fans of the teams he’s played on and for basketball historians, that’s probably an interesting conversation. But none of that has anything to do with why I’m interested in Vince Carter, or why it was fun to see him throw it down again the other night.
It’s true that a dunk is only worth two points. But there’s more to it than that.