Vince Carter is no longer the NBA’s highest flyer, though he’s certainly not ready to be grounded.
Once one of basketball’s most ferocious dunkers who put opponents on posters long before there were internet Vines, he can no longer rely just on his athleticism. Nearing 40 years old, the guy who famously put his arm through the rim while winning a dunk contest now often plays below it.
Like everyone who wants to keep playing toward middle age, it’s about the mind now as much as the legs.
“That’s how I was able to stay around this long, is just, I learned the game,” Carter said. “Not being able to play. Everybody can play basketball, but learning the ins and outs of the game is what has kept me around.”
Same with Manu Ginobili in San Antonio, Jason Terry in Milwaukee, Paul Pierce in Los Angeles and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, who follow Carter as the oldest players in the NBA this season.
“Basketball is a game a lot of people don’t understand,” Terry said. “When you are not as athletically gifted, you still have your brain. I learned from none other than Jason Kidd.”
Terry plays for Kidd now but they were teammates in Dallas when the Mavericks won the 2011 NBA title. Kidd by then was well past his dynamic days as a nightly triple-double threat, a guy who burst into the league with everything but a reliable jumper and left it at 40 ranked third in career 3-pointers.
“As I got older, the speed limit started coming into effect. Instead of going 55, I could only go 45,” Kidd said. “But, you know, when things started to go a little bit slower, you got to see things a lot better. For me, things were a lot clearer. As you get older, that’s the best time to get better at the game. You can always learn, you can always do something different. For me it was shooting the ball. If I wanted to play for a while I needed to make an outside shot.”
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant made similar transitions, outworking and outsmarting opponents when they could no longer just outplay them. Now Carter, who will turn 40 on Jan. 26 and ranks in the top 25 in career points and games played, does the same in Memphis — where he surpassed Jordan this season as the oldest player to score 20 points off the bench.
Like Jordan, he played at North Carolina for “the mastermind, Dean Smith,” as Carter called him, where even as a teenager he was being prepared for how he would need to play 20 years later.
“So he taught us how to learn the game, how to take your abilities and dominate to the best of your ability,” Carter said. “And with that being said, as I’ve gotten older, just the little things that we tend to not want to do as a young guy stuck with me, as far as just the little things that we say a lot of guys make mistakes on.”
Carter acknowledges tiring of the endless “play the right way” mantra preached at Chapel Hill, but now he lives it. He can’t just jump over players like he did to Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics, though he quickly earned the trust of first-time coach David Fizdale, who had Carter on the floor defending 21-year-old Andrew Wiggins to spark the Grizzlies’ comeback victory over Minnesota in their season opener.
“Again, I’ve said this before, I don’t put limitations on anyone because of age, whether it’s youth or because they’re one of the elder statesman,” Fizdale said. “Vince Carter, he’s a veteran, he’s a professional, he stays in shape. I always remind people he was the best athlete in the NBA, so his falloff athletically isn’t the same as an average athlete’s falloff.”
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said the key for players who are effective into their mid-to-late 30s is their work ethic, and he marvels at what the 38-year-old Nowitzki puts himself through to keep playing on legs that support his 7-foot frame, particularly in this season when he’s battled an injured Achilles tendon.
Medical enhancements have helped, with teams providing such improvements for their players that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes young players entering the league now should be able to play into their 40s if they have the talent.
“When I first got to the NBA, taking care of your health meant not eating Twinkies before a game,” Cuban said. “Guys would smoke cigarettes, they’d drink, there would be beer — people sometimes would have a beer at halftime. There literally were bars in locker rooms. Things have changed.
“The things that we let players do 15 years ago that created inflammation and created orthopedic issues in their bodies, we know not to do as much anymore.”
Carter has prolonged his career by becoming a reserve for the last five seasons, and by resisting the urge to create the spectacular highlights that made him the leading vote-getter to the All-Star Game four times.
He still gets the internet buzzing — and occasionally surprises himself — with some vintage Vinsanity, but mostly skips the unnecessary risks to preserve his body to get through the long NBA season.
And how many more after this?
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m still flying. It’s not time yet.”