The first part of this title is a quip made popular by the inimitable Charles Barkley, when describing the inevitable decline of players who were once superstars, kings of the NBA landscape relegated to title chasing or years lost to injury before they finally succumbed to that venerable father and hung up the sneakers for good. Hearing tales of Allen Iverson playing out some of his last games with mid-level Turkish team Besitkas irks many basketball fans. Having a player who had such an impact on the game spend his last few years toiling away largely forgotten on the margins of the basketball world (no offense to Besitkas) just does not feel right at a base level. To be fair, in Iverson’s case, an unwillingness to adapt to a diminished role and worries about the effect he would have on team chemistry accelerated his exit from the league. His case is hardly unique, where a one time superstar who sometimes seemed to transcend the game itself begins to show signs of aging and is forced to come to grips, one way or another with his own basketball mortality. Some are forced to the sidelines due to a series of injuries to the point that it is uncertain they will ever get back, like Steve Nash. Others chase the title that has long eluded them by signing with a contender in a minimal role like Tracy McGrady. The lucky few have games that age, if not like a fine wine that improves with age, like an ice cold beer that never wavers in its quality. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are two such players this season. Each has long been the face of their respective franchises. They have games and situations that seem almost tailor made to allow them to age gracefully. Neither ever relied too heavily on explosive athleticism in order to be successful in the league, one of Duncan’s nicknames is the Big Fundamental, and Dirk has only ever looked semi comfortable running up and down the court. Instead, Dirk relies on his unique shooting ability and the patented one legged fade away, and Duncan has unwavering defensive abilities and a bank shot unaffected by the effects of aging. This is not to say that these two haven’t had their share of troubles as they enter the twilight of their careers. Dirk had a knee injury that cause him to miss more than a third of the season last year, and Duncan had to contend with plantar fasciitis for a time. In both cases the missed time and the lower numbers cause some to question whether we were really approaching the end, as evidenced by Chuck’s Father Time quote.
This season, the two have allayed fears that they wouldn’t be able to live up their previous highs, producing two of their more efficient seasons in recent years. In part, these two are special cases, because each has been with one franchise their entire careers, which in some ways insulates them from the external factors that sometimes prevent aging stars from finding their new roles gracefully. Each has had a good deal of consistency with ownership and coaches (it doesn’t hurt that these are two of the best coach/owner tandems in the league). So the structure of the two franchises imbues them with more patience, and more leeway. There were no panicked calls in Dallas exploring possible Dirk trades after a couple relative down years following the championship in 2011, and the Spurs haven’t even thought about blowing up their Big Three in recent years. The Mavericks have even said they will do everything they can to build a competitive team around Dirk in the final years of his prime.
So in a way, while the experiences of these two stars approaching the tail end of their careers is a marvel to watch and deserves our appreciation each day they are able to ‘wind back the clock’, their experience is not the norm, and while it is unreservedly great that these two have been able to do it right, in their cases it is not at all surprising, given all they’ve shown us, it was almost expected.
Looking at another former star, one with a more volatile history, who has bounced from team to team is even more interesting, and reveals a lot more about how any player can, if not win against that venerable old Father Time, at least negotiate some favorable terms of surrender, and even to some extent rewrite the story dictating how he will be remembered.
He entered the league as a top prospect, having already been a McDonald’s All American in high school and reaching the final four twice with North Carolina. Success in the NBA came quickly, as he averaged more than 18 points in his first year en route to Rookie of the Year honors. He set the entire league on fire with his scintillating performance in the 2000 Dunk Contest, which many consider to be best ever.
Half-man, Half-Amazing was born. He continued to be electric for Toronto for the next couple of seasons, making the All Star team and leading them to the playoffs, but the honeymoon period was soon over. Carter became frustrated with the direction of the team, and forced his way out via trade, with allegations that he had effectively quit on the team. Fans in Toronto turned on him, booing him vigorously whenever he returned to the city in future years. This exit from Toronto led many fans to perceive Carter as selfish, a diva, a score-first player who had all of the natural ability, but didn’t work or care hard enough to realize his potential. Carter himself even seemed to acknowledge that in his first year, there may have been some truth to this view saying in an interview with TNT that he hadn’t pushed himself as much as he could have in years past because "I was just fortunate enough to have the talent. You know, you get spoiled when you're able to do a lot of things and you see that, and you really don't have to work at it."
He went on to have some successful seasons with the Nets and Magic, but an NBA championship eluded him, and in many respects his reputation remained tarnished from the Toronto debacle. After it seemed like maybe he was settling into his role as a sidekick to Dwight Howard in Orlando, with continued playoff success seeming like a real possibility, he was traded to the Suns. In his mid-thirties, it looked possible that this could be a last, ignominious stop on a career that once looked so promising. Vince Carter would go down as a player who put himself first, whose otherworldly natural talent was in many ways underutilized, and who could never win it all. It was all too easy to see him following the path of Allen Iverson, unwilling or unable to evolve his role, consigned to an earlier than necessary retirement.
Then the Suns waived him, feeling that an aging star due $18 million the following season did not fit into their rebuilding plans. So Carter was adrift, many teams looked at him askance when considering signing him. Questions remained as to how much he had left, and how much he could actually help a team given his reputation. The market for Carter never really materialized, so he signed a three year deal with the Dallas Mavericks at a steep discount from his previous contract.
Mavericks fans were in a strange place at the time, they were coming down from the euphoria of the unexpected championship the year before, and facing the reality that much of their championship team had moved on. Carter arrived with little fanfare, and not too much was expected from him, aside from maybe a couple throwback exciting dunks every once in a while.
But Vince decided that he was far from done. In his time at Dallas, he has embraced a reserve role and emerged as one of the vocal leaders on a team in the midst of an intense fight for one of the last playoff spots in the loaded West. Despite jokes that he is now 95 percent man, 5 percent amazing, Carter has been surprisingly effective during his tenure with the Mavericks, and has emerged as one of the better bargains in the league. Coach Rick Carlisle has repeatedly stressed how important Carter is to the success of the team, he even went so far as to name him one of the team’s ‘Big Three’ alongside franchise player Dirk Nowitzki and newly signed sidekick Monta Ellis. More importantly, he seems to have bought in completely to the team. There is 37-year old Vince Carter drawing a charge, there he is lofting a beautiful lob t Brandan Wright in what has become one of the more entertaining bench duos in the league. All of these seemed to culminate in a play that will probably be soon forgotten, one that won’t make any top ten lists, a fourth quarter rebound in a game against one of the league’s best teams in the Indiana Pacers.
Vince jumps four times, outbattling numerous Pacers players with more height and athleticism, willing himself to the rebound and unleashing a primal battle cry when he finally secured it. This is not a rebound that Toronto-era Vince would get, he may not have even tried to get it. It is emblematic of the player Carter is in this, the third act of his storied career: locked in, willing to do whatever it takes, and still playing with a level of joy and passion that eludes many stars as they are eclipsed by the next generation.
Amongst Mavericks fans he has almost unwavering support, and while some other fanbases, especially the Raptors, may never change their opinion of Vinsanity, he has shown in recent years that he has grown even as his basketball skills start to leave him. He has eschewed ego and embraced a new role on a new team, becoming an important contributor as he continues to seek that elusive championship. He has attained a level of wisdom that eluded him when he was still half amazing, and showed all of us the art of aging gracefully.