Near­ing 40, Carter leads league’s el­der states­men

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY BRIAN MA­HONEY

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. The Griz­zlies say he’s ques­tion­able to play Wed­nes­day in Toronto, his first NBA home, af­ter hurt­ing his hip Mon­day.

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Griz­zlies guard Vince Carter sur­passed Michael Jor­dan this sea­son as the old­est player to score 20 points off the bench.

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