Vince Carter might be playing his last NBA game in Miami on Thursday night.
The future Hall of Famer will turn 41 on Friday.
But Carter has learned never to say never during an illustrious career that is in its 20th season.
“I still love playing the game,” Carter said. “I can’t imagine not playing because it’s just not out of me. When I don’t want to come and put the work in, I’ll walk away. At this point I have in my mind, one more year and it’s time to walk away.
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“But I’ve said that a couple of times and then it was two years and two more years and that put me here where I am at 20 years now.”
Carter, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Sacramento Kings last summer, has made his way into the Kings’ starting lineup of late and Thursday night faced the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
A month and 12 years ago, Carter put together one of the most memorable performances of his career on the same court.
It was on Dec. 23, 2005 while playing for the Nets that Carter lit up a Heat team that was led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal for a career-high 51 points - a staggering 37 of which came in the second half.
That Heat team would go on to win Miami’s first NBA championship.
“That’s really the ultimate memory I have [of playing in Miami], doing that in front of family and friends and them getting the chance to see me play here,” said Carter after the Kings’ shootaround Thursday afternoon. “I played against some of the best Miami Heat teams in its history.”
Carter, who was born in Daytona Beach and became a McDonald’s All-American at Mainland High, is an eight-time All-Star, Olympic Gold medalist and former NBA Slam Dunk champion.
He became a basketball icon of the late 1990s and early 2000s with such memorable performances and displays of athleticism.
“The USA game where he jumped over the 7-footer, that was by far the best dunk ever,” Heat rookie Bam Adebayo said referring to Carter’s highlight-reel dunk over 7-2 French center Frederic Weis at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
“Half man half amazing is what they called him. Just looking at him now and looking at him back then, it’s like, ‘Man, he’s still playing.’ You can tell he’s taking care of his body and the sky is the limit for anybody that can do that.”
The USA game where he jumped over the 7-footer, that was by far the best dunk ever. Half man half amazing is what they called him. Just looking at him now and looking at him back then, it’s like, ‘Man, he’s still playing.’ You can tell he’s taking care of his body and the sky is the limit for anybody that can do that.
Heat rookie Bam Adebayo said, referring to Carter’s highlight-reel dunk over 7-2 French center Frederic Weis at the 2000 Summer Olympics
Carter said he wasn’t aware of any interest back then from the Heat in acquiring his services, but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said it was something that was pursued at one point.
“We had discussions back in the ‘heyday’ but weren’t ever able to get it done,” Spoelstra said. “I love seeing somebody like Vince who’s a pro, has a class about him and somebody who has been able to reinvent himself many times over, to be a superstar, a starting role player, to being a bench role player, to being a bench mentor.
“Obviously he can still put points on the board as he showed, but it takes a unique kind of guy with character to be able to do that without being caught up in all the typical dilemmas as you start to get older. He’s very secure in who he is it looks like.”
Carter, who is averaging only 4.6 points and 1.9 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game this season, has become a mentor for the Kings (his seventh NBA team) who entered Thursday’s game with a 14-33 record – tied for worst in the NBA with the Hawks and Magic.
“I knew that coming in and I accepted it and I’m all for it,” Carter said. “I love mentoring these young guys and helping them in any way. I’ve been part of almost every scenario possible outside of playing in the NBA Finals. Anything else I can help them with and I still have an idea of how it’s done.”
The most important lesson he’s trying to instill upon younger players entering a much different NBA than he remembers as a rookie is learning every facet of the game even more than just striving for playing time.
Carter said that while he may not physically be the same player who dunked over 7-footers and pulled off 360-degree windmill dunks that wowed current young players like the Heat’s Derrick Jones, Jr. when he was a little kid, it’s his adaptability that’s helped him achieve such longevity in the league.
“You have to lay the groundwork and that’s what I enjoy doing and that’s something these guys are more than willing to do is listen and work,” Carter said. “They say they want to be All-Stars and hopefully be in the Hall of Fame, but the groundwork is what helps you get to that.
“It’s one thing to play. But it’s also one thing to learn and get better and that’s for me the way the league is now. Teams say, ‘we have to let guys play.’ But guys have to learn to play the right way. You could have game minutes but not know how to play the right way. Laying the groundwork on how to play the right way first and then playing the right way makes more sense. Now you have a 9, 12 or 15-year career because you learned to survive and learned how to adapt.
“Like James Johnson, he can play multiple positions and the way the league is going now, that’s paramount.”
Although he said he hadn’t been able to watch this year’s Heat team play prior to Thursday, Carter said he was impressed with the way their roster had such adaptability and versatility. Carter said he was impressed particularly with Josh Richardson when he saw him play in the 2016 summer league.
Carter also said Goran Dragic, who was not selected for the All-Star Game, is playing at an All-Star level.
“Scouts were talking about [Richardson] and he was playing very aggressive and with a lot of confidence,” Carter said. “Wayne [Ellington] is Wayne. He’s getting his opportunity to play. Dragic is playing at an All-Star level. When you have a lot of guys who understand their role with all of that and the talent and what’s expected, you have a good basketball team.”
Jones, Jr., a slam dunk contest runner-up last year, said he grew up idolizing Carter and had originally intended to wear Carter’s vintage jersey from his days in Toronto while attempting his own version of one of Carter’s 360-windmill.
“I had the jersey in my locker and I wanted to wear it and do it, but I decided not to,” Jones said. “It’s great because he put in all the hard work to be here and if you’re still in this league at age 41 you’re doing something right.”