Roughly 4,000 players have set foot on a court in an NBA game. Vince Carter became the 22nd of those players to amass 25,000 career points when, in a manner befitting his career, he threw down a two-handed dunk with 0.5 seconds remaining in a 124-108 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
“I’m thankful for every one of the 247 teammates that I’ve had,” Carter said afterward, about an hour before the clock struck midnight and Thanksgiving officially began. “I’m aware of that stat.”
The youngest two of those 247 conspired to help him take the final steps to the milestone. Carter checked into the game with two and a half minutes remaining and the Toronto Raptors assured of a win. Rookie Trae Young laid the objective out for fellow rookie Kevin Huerter.
“We’ve gotta get Vince six points,” Young said.
Young also let Carter know that the ball was coming his way. Vince Carter, half man, half amazing, was about to become a high-volume scorer once again just as he was in his heyday, when Young and Huerter were still toddling around in diapers.
“I hadn’t heard that in a while,” Carter said with a laugh, “so it was like – aww, man – it was a little uncomfortable.”
Young started firing every conceivable pass to Carter, including one that Vince sank for a three with 1:42 remaining. Then in the final minute off another pass from Young, Carter set up to attempt three-point shot and was fouled in the act of shooting. However, Carter ever-so-slightly toed the line to earn just two free throws, both of which he made.
With five seconds left, Carter missed a baseline jump shot. Huerter grabbed the offensive rebound with a chance to give Vince one more chance.
“I thought he was going to be out by the three-point line,” Huerter said, “so I was ready to catch and fire. I threw it at his ankle, so thank God he had good hands and he went up and dunked it.”
Assisted by two 20-year-olds who hadn’t been born yet when he was drafted into the league, Carter now had 25,001 career NBA points.
“He got up there, too,” Huerter added. “It wasn’t a Vince Carter 41 (years old dunk), it was a Vince Carter 23 (years old) type dunk.”
To hear Carter’s side of it, perhaps the look deceived the accumulation of years.
“When you hit your 40s and you’re playing professional sports, everything hurts all the time so you just get used to it,” Carter said. “If you saw me in the morning sometime walking in, you would probably be like, ‘Bro, you’re never going to be able to play’, but at night, it’s just the adrenaline rush of being able to play.”
The younger Hawks clearly appreciated the history that was made. Huerter called his pass the biggest assist of his career by a long margin. Taurean Prince left the locker room with a pair of Carter’s autographed shoes and his biggest smile of the season. Jeremy Lin got the game’s scoresheet signed by Carter.
They all wanted a souvenir from a historic event.
“All the guys tried to take everything I own in my locker, so all my backup pairs of shoes are gone now,” Carter quipped.
All season long, Carter has been the veteran voice in the locker room, the person who knew the answer when those younger players had a question. Young and the other rookies have had lots of them. They know that Carter has been in their shoes, sometimes with eerie similarity. Like Young, Carter was drafted with the fifth overall pick of the draft, then traded on the same night for someone who was chosen before him.
“For me, I’ve learned so much asking him questions on how to handle certain situations, how to grow as a rookie in this league, how to battle through adversity, even how to handle losing,” Young said. “It’s been a blessing having a guy like him to play with.”
But Carter, when he was in the same situation 20 years ago, was actually in a totally different set of circumstances: the 1998 NBA lockout. There were no official NBA team activities. Carter couldn’t talk to any coaches or staff members of the Raptors, the team that acquired his rights on draft night. He also wasn’t allowed in any of the team’s training facilities. To keep his game fresh for when the NBA snapped back to action, Carter returned to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to get counsel from his college coach.
So tonight, among the countless people that he thanked on reaching 25,000 points, Carter was particularly appreciative of his college coach, University of North Carolina legend Dean Smith. During that lockout, Smith tailored his lesson plan for Carter accordingly, knowing that Carter was bound for the NBA and not the NCAA.
“When you’re in college, you work on what you’re working on as far as what he wants within the confines of our offense,” Carter said. “But sitting there working out with him and preparing for the NBA and hearing the things that he was saying, you’d look at Coach Smith like, ‘We’re working on individual moves here, NBA moves!’ It was just great, and the knowledge that he prepared me for in that short stint of a semester was paramount for me.”
When the lockout ended in January 1999, Carter did find an NBA veteran ready to provide him with advice, much in the way that he now guides Young and Huerter.
“Charles Oakley, on the second day, put his arm around me and said, ‘I’m going to teach you the ropes. You’re going to learn how to be a player.’ “
That iteration of the Toronto Raptors with Carter and Oakley started the season with 6 wins and 12 losses. This year’s Hawks team trails even that humble pace by a few games. Fresh faces like Young and Huerter are learning the tricks of a highly-skilled, highly competitive trade, and they have to grapple with those lessons with thousands of spectators sitting within a few hundred feet of their workspace.
“That’s why I’m here,” Carter said. “To encourage through the tough times.”
Now in his 21st NBA season, Carter doesn’t dunk as often as he used to. The ones that he does thrown down are usually punctuated with his signature celebration. On this night, though, he squeezed the ball for a few moments and dropped it. In forgoing the ‘Crank It Up’, Carter momentarily lived up to his moderate age.
“I forgot,” he said afterward. “I totally forgot.”