Vince Carter clears up dunk contest confusion

NEW YORK CITY— Let’s start with the bad news: Despite recent rumors to the contrary, Vince Carter will not be participating in the 2017 NBA Slam Dunk contest.

It was always a notion that seemed more like a dream than an actuality, anyway, when you consider that the Grizzlies forward is 39 years old and beginning his 19th season in the NBA. With Andre Miller not on an NBA roster to start the 2016-17 season, Vince Carter is now the oldest player in the NBA. After spending his early years in Toronto producing a seemingly endless highlight reel of dunks and going by the nickname “Half-Man, Half-Amazing,” in recent years Carter has transitioned to a style of play that is a little less amazing, a little more man.

Still, Carter’s recent exchange of anti-gravity for gravitas doesn’t erase the way he played above the rim way back then, baptizing shotblockers like a barnstorming preacher, posting a nearly perfect performance in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest, even leaping clear over a seven-footer during the 2000 Olympics.

We all have no choice but to accept and acknowledge the passage of time. But what if, even if only for one night, Vince Carter could somehow recapture that magic and break out one more dominating dunk contest performance?

It’s a terrifically tantalizing thought. And considering that we only ever saw Vince in one NBA Slam Dunk contest, it was perhaps understandable when fans got excited a couple of weeks back, after a video began circulating in which Carter seemed to say if he appeared in the dunk contest in February, it would be “interesting, to say the least.” The video was posted to YouTube on October 17. Within 48 hours, the internet was flooded with news stories and think pieces excited about the possibility of Carter returning to the dunk contest.

“I heard about that video way after the fact,” Carter says, sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden recently. “All of a sudden people were like, ‘You’re in the dunk contest?’ I was like, ‘Where is this coming from?’ Whatever clown that reported it, it’s like, just call the source first. Just ask me! Come to any training camp and ask me.”

“In the video, I never said I was going to be in the 2017 Dunk Contest. That interview was from last year, and the guy had asked me about P3 Training Camp, where they had the vertical leap photo of me and [Andrew] Wiggins.”

“Also, look at that video: I had on a sweater in the summer? Everybody analyzes everything about a video, picture, whatever. Why don’t they do the same with this? I had a sweater on at training camp?”

Can Vince even still perform any of the dunks he threw down in the 2000 Dunk Contest?

“I could probably do one, and I’d probably need a day before I’d do another. I could do some stuff, but not enough to win a dunk contest. With what these guys are doing now? Yeah, right.”

The thing is, this whole thing makes a certain sense: Fans were willing to believe Vince may be back because, after all, this is still Vince Carter that we’re talking about. Following that incredible 2000 Dunk Contest, Vince walked away from dunk contests leaving the crowd wanting more, a thirst that apparently remains unquenched.

“I get all of that,” Carter allows. “I’m just like, this is frustrating. I’ve never even talked about it. I didn’t even say that I would win it. I didn’t even say that I would compete in it. And why would I want to mess with the memory of that magical night back in 2000?”

So that’s that.

But while Carter may be done with dunk contests, it doesn’t mean he’s done with the NBA.

He may not score the way he did early on, back when he averaged at least 20 points in 10 of his first 11 seasons, yet Carter continues to make an impact for the Grizzlies in a reserve role. During Memphis’s season opener against Minnesota, Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins entered the fourth quarter having scored 23 points, with Minnesota down one point. Newly installed Memphis coach David Fizdale tasked Carter with slowing down Wiggins. Despite being almost twice the age of the 21 year old Wiggins, Carter did exactly that, holding Wiggins to two points in the final period as Memphis won, 102-98.

“I’m going to use Vince in every possible way that I can,” Fizdale says. “I trust him. He’s seen every situation you can possibly see. He’s guarded the best in this league. He understands tendencies. I’m not going to sit here and make Vince Carter out to be some stopper—let’s be realistic. But he’s smart, he’s tough, he’s long, and the other night it was working. For whatever reason, it changed the game up for Wiggins a little bit. And it helped us.”

(Oh and by the way, Coach, please throw us a lifeline: Could Vince win the 2017 Dunk Contest? “No,” Fizdale says flatly.)

Carter took the mission of defending Wiggins as an opportunity to lead by example. “It was just a challenge for me to step up and do my job,” he says. “Coach had enough confidence in me to leave me in the game, and not the starting small forward, James [Ennis]. So, I didn’t want to let him down. And for me personally, you take pride in the challenge. [Wiggins] is a young star in this league, and I just wanted to make it tough for him more than anything.”

Carter says Fizdale and the new coaching staff in Memphis has provided “a different voice, a different look,” for the Grizz, who over the summer parted ways with Dave Joerger after three seasons. “We have a pretty darn good team, and everybody just needs to try and be selfless, and just willing to do whatever it takes to win for the team.”

As for what the future holds, even Carter is unsure. While a few of his peers—Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett—bowed out this summer, Carter says he doesn’t feel like the last man standing. Well, at least not yet, “because there’s still Paul [Pierce], I’ve had many battles with him,” says Carter. “Still Dirk, a former teammate, plus we had our battles. So I think when Paul goes down next year, if I keep doing it, then I will kind of feel that way.

“It’s weird just being the oldest guy now,” Vince says with a rueful laugh. “It’s just like, golly, man, where has the time gone? All these guys that you see year to year, without a shadow of doubt, are… moving on to phase two now, I guess? I tell guys, ‘Yeah, you see that coach? Well, when he was my teammate…’ It’s just crazy.”

So as tantalizing and improbable as the possibility seemed of a 40-year-old strolling into the NBA’s biggest weekend and turning back the clock—it ain’t happening. But as long as Vince Cater is still a productive member of the Memphis Grizzlies rotation, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“I just worry about the now, play it by ear. At this point, when you’re this old,” Carter laughs, “I just think let’s see how I feel at the end of the year and go from there.”

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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