TORONTO – Vince Carter was back in the arena that he first christened with a – what else? –dunk back on Feb. 21, 1999 when it was called the Air Canada Centre.
But unlike Carter’s many previous visits to his old haunt since he was traded from the Toronto Raptors in 2004, the 43-year-old — who is playing in his record-setting 22nd and final season — didn’t field many questions about himself nor his lasting legacy in Toronto.
No, in his second-last visit as an active NBA player to the place where he became famous, Carter’s thoughts were with another icon from his heyday — the late Kobe Bryant.
“He was a star. He was elite. He was one of the best,” Carter said of Bryant after his Atlanta Hawks held a shootaround at Scotiabank Arena in advance of their game against the Raptors on Tuesday. “So regardless if he played for your favourite team or not you had an appreciation for him.”
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others tragically lost their lives in a helicopter crash Sunday. It was news that shocked the world, and Carter, especially, who had a unique connection to Bryant as they played with each other during high school, and against each other in the NBA.
And Carter took a stroll down memory lane Tuesday, reminiscing about Bryant for about 15 straight minutes. Here are some of the highlights of what he said:
Not wanting to play on Sunday
On Sunday, after word of the shocking news, there was a debate over whether or not the NBA should cancel its slate of games. Ultimately, they weren’t, but that doesn’t take away some of the initial sentiment behind the idea.
“I suggested when it happened that we cancel the game,” Carter said.
However, upon reflection, Carter said it turned out to be a fitting homage to Bryant’s ideals.
“I didn’t know what to do, to be honest. It was (therapeutic),” Carter said. “After the game you’re sitting there, thinking about it, you’re watching the news, it’s everywhere. Everywhere you turn you see it. And it’s like, man, you kind of reflect …
“You go out there and play hard. And being in the moment, because that’s what Kobe is about – the Mamba mentality – being in the moment, dominating in the moment. And that’s the way you pay tribute.”
“All-Star Weekend will be special”
Carter was asked for suggestions on how the league should honour Bryant, but was at a loss for words.
However, he does believe that the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in Chicago from Feb. 14 to 16 will be one to watch,
“What is the proper tribute? I don’t know. We can all come up with an idea and it’s probably a darn good one, so I’m sure All-Star Weekend will be special.”
Their AAU days
Bryant and Carter played together briefly during their AAU days in high school, and even then Carter could tell Bryant was cut from a different cloth.
“…The swagger, the confidence at that age, you knew he was going to be something,” Carter said. “And obviously, when we started playing games and doing what he was doing … I remember he was shooting half-court shots. He wasn’t making them all, but the confidence to come on an AAU team that was that good and still feel like (he) could shoot half-court shots in games – and he’d make a few.
“So you were in awe of his range and his ability, and his confidence was second to none.”
Competing against Kobe required preparation
Among the traits that were most admired by Bryant was his fierce competitiveness.
This is something that Carter said drove him to be ready for the challenge that was to come whenever he was to face Bryant.
“He wanted to go about the best competition and dominate, and I knew that coming in … (former Raptor Tracy McGrady) and I together, we used to be like ‘take turns guarding this guy’ because this guy was coming at us and he was playing to win. You had to get your rest (for) that day.”
Memories of the 81-point game
Perhaps the most enduring image of Bryant to Toronto fans was when he famously racked up 81 points against the Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006, a mark that stands second in NBA history only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962.
Carter remembers that game, but, as a member of the New Jersey Nets at the time, he’s happy he wasn’t a participant in it.
“I was like, I’m glad I missed that,” Carter said. “I remember talking to Jalen (Rose) and (Morris Peterson) and obviously seeing some of the game … And just hearing and, obviously, watching and just seeing, it’s easy when you’re sitting at home, watching on TV. Like, just double team, but if you go back and watch it they were trying to send double teams, and when a guy’s in a rhythm like that, I mean, I can’t even tell you what a rhythm like that (is like). I’ve never scored 81 points.
Kobe’s connection to L.A.
Lastly, Carter talked about the connection Bryant built up between him and the city of Los Angeles because he played his entire 20-season career with the Lakers.
This is something Carter wasn’t able to have in his NBA career, but is something he’s thought of.
“I think of the connection I had here for six years, and then think, ‘Wow, 20 years of that?’ Hearing (former Dallas Mavericks great) Dirk (Nowitzki) talk about that too. … I mean, I’ve never lived anywhere for 20 years. I can’t imagine it. It was home for him, he was still living there. It’s amazing what Kobe did there, just like what Dirk did and (Indiana Pacers lifer) Reggie (Miller).
“For me, it was six years of, when the season started, you went, it was home, like your home team. When I come back here, people say, ‘Well, you’re home.’ I’m not from here, but it’s like (I’m) back home even though I was born in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“When you think about basketball history for Reggie, Dirk, or Paul Pierce in Boston. It’s amazing for him to have had 20 years of that – I can’t imagine it.”