The Dunk of Death

Vince Carter has outlasted a great many of his peers. His greatest moment will outlive him.
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The first victim was Tim James – a star center for Miami’s Northwestern High and an eventual NBA first round draft pick. Vince Carter was 17 and not yet slowed by the churn of time and the inevitable toll of these moments, which would come to happen over and over again. We must assume that he wasn’t thinking of what a brilliant and strange career he would have, or of the injuries that would alter it. Also probably not on Vince Carter’s mind: that some of his NBA earnings would be lost in a ponzi scheme, or that his younger brother would be stymied by his success, that immense expectations would be placed on him and then tempered over time, that potential and probability and a marketable smile would make him a transcendent star and that it would all, eventually, fall away. And that he would play on after that.

There is no time for this in the flow of a basketball game, for all the idle dreaming that insulates those games. So Vince Carter likely wasn’t thinking about any of that as he charged at the basket with long, fast strides, the court rushing by underneath his feet. James slid into the middle of the key and waited. Carter picked up his dribble at the edge of the left elbow and took one more step before launching himself into the air. He wore a white t-shirt under his white jersey, and the sleeves billowed in midair. His left knee smacked James in the face and his right hand spiked the ball through the rim. James fell to his back, sliding underneath the basket and out of bounds.

Carter landed on his feet. His wrists came together as he lowered his skinny arms and flexed. Charles Brinkerhoff, then the head coach of Mainland (FL) High School, said it was the moment Vince Carter arrived.

James went on to play a season with the Miami Heat, another with Charlotte, and one more with Philadelphia before bouncing around the international circuit – Turkey, Venezuela, Japan – and finally finishing his career in Israel. At age 31, he entered a new line of work, leaving behind air-conditioned gyms and defensive rotations for Iraq’s desert heat and a military-issue rifle. His life’s infinitely more dangerous second act as an American soldier is ongoing.

We all know what happened with Vince. Eight time NBA All-Star. Rookie of the Year. Probable Hall of Famer. By most accounts, the greatest dunker of all time. His dunks were, and on increasingly rare occasion still are, athleticism become art; they were at their best an astonishing inversion of ordinary physics, in which his body manipulated gravity, not vice versa. Carter will be remembered for these dunks, partly because of their spectacular, era-defining nature and partly because there is so strangely little else worth remembering. This is just the way Carter’s career has turned out, but it’s not really an insult. The dunks are the dunks, and they echo.

***

In the summer of 2000, Carter was 23, and in Australia representing the Unites States at the Sydney Olympics. NBA basketball was a changed and open and decidedly international thing, which was exciting; the longstanding dominance that the United States enjoyed over the game was slipping, which was exciting in a different way. This was not quite clear yet, but it was palpable.

Carter was the youngest member of the team and the closest thing it had to a true superstar. Among his teammates were Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Allan Houston and Steve Smith – great players all, but on the back ends of their careers. In the preliminaries, the US beat Lithuania by nine points; it was the first time a US roster made up of NBA players had failed to win by double digits. The teams met again in the semi finals and the US survived by two points after Lithuania missed a potential game winning three-pointer at the buzzer. In the finals Team USA faced France and NBC chose to broadcast the game live rather than on tape-delay, sacrificing ratings to beam the game into American homes on a Saturday night, just in case. So it was then that Vince Carter’s magnum opus was performed, late in the night, and on the other side of the world.

The play started in the hands of French forward Laurent Foirest. Bringing the ball up court, he threw an errant behind the back pass and Carter snatched the ball out of the air just beyond the three-point line. Frederic Weis, France’s 7’2 center, slid into the lane. Carter took three steps, jumped and changed everything.

The French media called it "le dunk de la mort” – the dunk of death. Which is overdramatic, inarguably, but also not quite inapt. Weis, who had been a first-round pick of the New York Knicks, never made it to the NBA; his career essentially boiled down to this one moment of victimization. For Vince, when he landed on his feet, a career that had been growing in rapid, radical succession suddenly, inevitably began its descent.

***

In 1807, William Wordsworth published Ode, an 11-stanza poem that captures, among other things, how the memory of the divine allows us to sympathise with fellow humans. Here is some of it:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

Wordsworth, like some poets and most people, improved until he peaked, and then slid back down the other side of greatness. It’s a precise thing, poetry, and a little wobble and bloat undoes a lot. This poem, one of his best and best-remembered, is in some ways reflective of his career: a flash of beauty that disappears, recounted, in bright and wistful agony at the certainty of its loss. There are two sides to transcendence, and only one brief sharp point at the apex.

So: these are the moments that led up to the dunk of death; Vincent Lamar Carter grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida. There’s video footage on YouTube of Carter playing little league, his glasses secured by an elastic band wrapped around his head, his gangly body moving past other gangly bodies, not half-man or half-amazing, but a loping kid. He graduated from little league to Mainland High, where his stepfather lead the school band and Vince played drums, trumpet, saxophone, piano, and basketball; by his sophomore season he was the best in the state at the last one. Mainland is an average sized school, with an average sized gym, which all seemed about right until Carter enrolled.

After that, the school began having to broadcast games on closed circuit television; fans that couldn’t fit in the gym would gather to watch in the cafeteria. Carter had a younger brother named Chris, who quite understandably struggled to find his own identity in the shadows of his older brother’s success. Chris played ball, too – but not like Vince. Bill Guthridge, then the head coach at the University of North Carolina, came to town to watch Vince play. After a few moments, he told Brinkerhoff he wanted to offer Vince a scholarship and that was it – Vince went to UNC, playing for one of the top college programs in America. Chris left Mainland, too: dropped out, got addicted, and began splitting time between Florida’s streets and its prisons. Two sides, again.

We can skip forward, now. We know about the Rookie of the Year performance, the legendary arm-in-net dunk contest brilliance, about the Nike Shox and Dr. Funk and an entire brand built on Carter’s leaping ability.  We know he left the Raptors, where he had given and played in a great deal of joy, shrouded in misery when he infamously told the Toronto media in the months leading up his trade that he wasn’t going to dunk anymore, that there was more to his game and more to him than his ability to soar. He was done being Toronto’s star, the first of his kind. Almost a decade since he last played for the city his name still pulls emotion out of people.

It still pulls emotion out of me. I was in elementary school when it became obvious that Vince wanted out. I was young and yet to care deeply about sports, or anything really, but when Vince left I was devastated. I grew up in a small farming village in Southwestern Ontario, a few hours outside of Toronto and a long way from any ideals of the NBA. There, in the rolling doldrums and farmland, hockey was what mattered. When Vince left, my reason for introducing people to the sport left too. I no longer had a hook, a purpose to get anyone to look beyond the hockey rink.

When I moved on to high school, a few towns and a 45 minute bus ride away, I expressed myself on the biggest stage I had received in my young life – my yearbook quote. There, under my Grade 8 graduation photo, I told my story in three words, with the myopic sadness that only a 13 year old can muster. I wrote, “Vince Carter sucks.”

***

I wanted more, just like everyone else. We wanted the Vince that dunked, the beautiful athlete who let us boast, made us prideful just for having seen him do what he did and being able to believe that he did it for us. He was gone, though, in every sense of the word but the most literal.

This is just how it goes, maybe. Everyone around the dunk diminished afterwards. Alonzo Mourning was diagnosed with the kidney disease that forced his retirement shortly after returning from the Olympics; he recovered, made it back to the NBA, and was later famously victimized by a mid-career Carter dunk. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, right next to Mourning on the bench, was traded to the Hawks before the next season and was never great again. Vin Baker, who was on the floor, watched his career fade under the weight of alcoholism. Tim Hardaway’s abilities continued to erode and he was eventually traded to the Dallas Mavericks for a second round draft pick. The dunk of death is, of course, not responsible for any of this – but if you trace these careers backwards this shared moment seems like the final significant act before everything changed. It’s not about whether it is or it isn’t, really. It’s the sense of it, that Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour.

When Vince landed, he shook the energy from his body, out of his legs, and shoved away Kevin Garnett, who had rushed to embrace him. His incongruous scowl lengthened and he screamed into the air.

Or the scowl was not incongruous, and this dunk was Carter trying to fly over everything else, up and out. His brother Chris, was in jail. His agent, Tank Black, was on his way there. His coach in Toronto, Butch Carter, had been fired. Everything was uncertain, but there was something concrete in this moment, his athleticism, his art. It silenced everything else, and he roared, whether of himself or at everything else. That’s part of the legend, too.


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