Vince Carter: ‘Playing in the tournament is like no other’
March Madness still resonates with the North Carolina alum
Twenty years ago, the NBA welcomed a high-flying young man who created a phenomenon known as “Vinsanity.” Nearly 25,000 points later, at age 41, Vince Carter is the oldest player in the NBA and a member of the rebuilding Sacramento Kings. He’s still in love with the game.
Carter agreed to give The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears an exclusive look into his 20th NBA season on and off the court in a bimonthly diary. This is the seventh edition.
Chapter 20. Part 7. Carter recalls his March Madness experiences with the North Carolina Tar Heels, with whom he went to the Final Four in 1997 and ’98.
I have a lot of fond memories of the NCAA tournament. I remember my freshman year we played against a guy [from Texas Tech] named Darvin Ham who dunked the ball off the backboard and shattered the glass. I was on the court for that. We lost. With the time in-between waiting for them to bring the rim, they took the momentum after that.
My sophomore year, we had a pretty good team. We vowed to go a little further. We had some experience in the tournament. We were just too good not to get to the Final Four, if not win it. We got [to the Final Four] and played Arizona’s Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson team. We felt like we were playing a good game and had control in the first half. But we fell short in the second half and they went on to win a championship. My junior year we had pretty much the same team, but obviously had some changes. We played a young man [from Utah] named Andre Miller. Every time I see him I tell him about it. He had a triple-double against us. The same thing. We had the game in control in the first half and we fell short in the second half. It ended my college career.
Playing in the tournament is like no other. It’s win or go home. It’s the best time of the year. I don’t know what we were seeded my first year. But being a No. 1 seed, there was the pressure of not losing to a 16th seed, and after that going from there. You wanted to play the best. It was a great platform to show what I could do. I played well, in particular my sophomore year and my junior. That opened the eyes for the pro scouts. I had a good tournament, particularly in the finals. In the Final Four, I played well both times. It helped me out a little bit.
There is pressure to play well as a high seed in the NCAA tournament, but we kind of look at it as business as usual. That is what we were supposed to do. The pressure of not just making it to the tournament but making it to the top two or three. That is what we’re known to do. When you get there, the expectation is for a target team to go deep into [the NCAA tournament]. It’s tough.
We are always prepared. Coach [Dean] Smith had me prepared with info on my matchup and had me prepared with what we needed to do. You just have to go out there and do it. Late in the season, going into the NCAA tournament, that was our season. During the ACC tournament, he would say, ‘We can’t make these mistakes in the NCAA tournament or we’re going home.’ That was our preparation. That stuff meant something, but it was our practice for what we needed to do.
NCAA Selection Show Sunday was fun. We knew we were going to be a 1 or 2 seed, so we were hoping to play in North Carolina or in the South. My sophomore and junior year we took care of business, and obviously our goal was to win the NCAA tournament and lock [a good seed] up. Hopefully we get a Charlotte, a Greensboro. We played in Greensboro one year I was there.
That is what we wanted. It was fun to always see who got in from the ACC and who didn’t. We see who got snubbed and see what fans were looking at.
I was there for both of [the 2016 and 2017 NCAA appearances], the championship and heartbreaker the year before. We were there to just support the guys. We definitely had a lot of support. I went to two Final Fours, and my teammates want to keep supporting the guys. It’s funny. [Kings rookie teammate and former North Carolina forward] Justin [Jackson] talked about it today, and I said, ‘If we get back [to the championship game], we’re going.’ I told him that it was on me, we’ll be going.
That is the way it is supposed to be. It was also cool for me to support those guys the last couple years, and then Justin is here. Obviously, he is one year removed, so he wants to support his guys he played with. We want to continue to see the tradition live on, obviously, us making the Final Four. Whether we win or not, we just show up and support. It’s great to see. Seeing the [NCAA semifinal game] they won, watching on TV and seeing the guys support, I was saying, ‘I can’t wait to get there.’
Before they won that game, I told the coaching staff I was going. [Then-Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale] said, ‘I know you’re going. When are you coming back?’
That’s just what North Carolina is. It is a family. It is a brotherhood. We all keep in touch with each other through the generations. From [Jerry] Stackhouse and that group on down to now some of the newer, young guys. We are in this together. We stick together.
We all try to encourage from afar. All of us on the West Coast can’t get back there. ’Sheed [Rasheed Wallace] is always down in Chapel Hill. Shammond Williams is always down there. We keep in touch and give support from afar. It’s been an unwritten rule and tradition of the support we give each other and when we play games.
I just remember coming into the league my first couple of years, people used to say, ‘Y’all Tar Heels always doing this and always doing that …’ It’s just a great thing. It just shows our bond and how we support each other regardless of whether we are on different teams. Regardless, best believe before the game we’re going to speak and just reach out there. That’s just how it is, and you see North Carolina guys reach out to each other. That’s what it’s all about.
Could I have been a one-and-done player back then? I don’t think so. I felt like I had a lot to work on. The college game is a lot different than the pro game. At that time, that wasn’t something I felt was meant to be for me. There are a lot of guys that we look at now, particularly freshmen, who are coming in and leading teams now. It used to be sophomores, juniors and seniors.
There was Mike Bibby, who took Arizona to the Final Four and won it. It wasn’t as common to enter the NBA after your freshman year. Sometimes freshmen didn’t play much. Maybe if I had played somewhere else, it would have been a possibility. I don’t know. I’ve learned so much. Because of my experience there and three years there [at North Carolina], it helped me understand the game and be around at age 41 now.
I know the game. There are a lot of great coaches around the NBA. I knew we were prepared for the league by the way we were taught in school. [Current North Carolina coach] Roy Williams is trying to do the same for them. I watched Justin come in and with his basketball instincts you learn things along the way. I felt like I was ahead of a lot of guys, as well as [ex-North Carolina teammate] Antawn Jamison, because of that.
The situation with the NCAA and whether athletes should be paid is tough. I don’t know what guys should be paid. But I feel there should be some acknowledgment at some point. With what the student-athletes are doing for their schools and the amount of money they are bringing in, something should be done. You look at these arenas, and it’s not major Division Is, and the seats are packed because they love what these guys are bringing to the table each and every night.
The fans are coming out to support their teams. Obviously, everyone loves their school. But the revenue that they are generating from TV is because of ‘this team.’ If your college does not have a very good basketball team, more than likely you won’t be on TV. You have your basketball schools and your football schools. Some of these schools have both, and they are supporting other programs.
Something should be done. Some of these guys are making it possible for other sports at their college to stay afloat sometimes. There are a lot of sports in colleges that a lot of people probably don’t even know about. ‘They got this sport?’ ‘Yeah, and they are probably funded by football.’ You have crew and all of these sports that are not popular here, and in Canada it is. The average American may not know what crew is. They are supported by a football or basketball school because of the popular players on their campus who are bringing something.