In sports writing, clichés abound, and avoiding them is part of the fun inherent to the process. The challenge is to deny the temptation to call a basketball the “rock,” to announce every dunk with the verb “posterize,” or to refer to every bench player as a “spark,” all while still making the words do their work. Maybe it’s a writer’s insecurity? After writing Nowitzki, Nowitzki, Nowitzki, the admonition against word repetition compels the writer to call him “the Big German” as a grasp at variance. The problem is that clichés are still clichés, and they have a tendency to lull readers into a coma. With their “perennial all-star” shooting “lights out” from “downtown,” I’m not any more impressed.
Plus: clichés follow players as stubbornly as they follow their own stale form, and Vince Carter has long been their victim. Sports writers and commentators take note: Any time Carter does anything spectacular on the court, you do not have to immediately say “he still has a little left in the tank” or “we got a glimpse of the old Vinsanity” or some reference to him still being “Half Man, Half Amazing.” It never fails, as so many among the media are surprised whenever Vince Carter plays like Vince Carter. He’s 35. He’s not dead yet.
Why do we want to add years and mileage to this particular player? I have a few guesses:
- Early in his career, Carter’s game was one of energy, aggression, and finesse. We remember him best as the monster who would and could dunk on or over anyone. As an athlete gets older, the energy, aggression, and finesse are the first things to noticeably diminish. The most durable players have been the ones with set shots and a predictable routine (think of Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s skyhook). Players who muscle and bully their way through a game tend to not last as long. Carter is in that latter category. We notice his game changing more.
- Now that Jason Kidd has left the Mavs, Vince Carter is the oldest player on the team. With the Mavs trying to get younger, Carter is the exception. And Carter is not egotistical or vain, so it’s common to hear his own self-deprecating humor. He picks on himself about his age, and everyone else joins in.
- Vince Carter still looks odd in a Mavericks jersey. We remember him with the Raptors, Nets, and Magic (though notably not the Suns), and to see him as a Maverick reminds fans of the trek that old journeymen players take near the end of their careers, moving from one team to the next.
- Like O.J. Mayo, Vince Carter was also a “next,” and possibly the most infamous. Despite being an eight-time All-Star, Vince Carter is still not Michael Jordan. Keep in mind, Kobe Bryant was the most shameless student of Jordan’s game and most desperate to be MJ’s heir, but Kobe stayed Kobe. With Carter, fans expected more. They wanted Jordan’s second coming, birthed into the league by Tarheel power blue. That clearly never happened, and though Carter has had an incredible career, his time in the league still has the tarnish of unmet expectations. He never took his game “to the next level.” (There’s another cliché for you.), and his presence on the court is thus a reminder of false hope. So, when he cuts to the basket for a slam dunk, the analysts reach for their cynical clichés.
Yes, it’s ageism against the player who still has a few years left, but professional basketball has always been obsessed with inches and years. Last Saturday, Vince Carter played his 1,000th career game. He was in the same draft class as Nowitzki (1998), and Nowitzki has played considerably more game throughout his career. But people aren’t ready to retire Nowitzki yet. And of course, Kobe Bryant has been in the NBA longer than both. Bryant remains forever young.
Carter’s game has changed, but it hasn’t died. He’ll occasionally dunk, but now he’s more of a spot-up shooter. People shouldn’t be surprised, especially during the absence of Nowitkzi, if Carter, Mayo, and Chris Kaman compete for the distinction as leading scorer. Don’t discount Vince; he was the newcomer last year who exceeded expectations, who found his place within the team, and continues to be a leader for a team badly in need of one.
As an interesting and unfortunate side note, every Dallas Maverick in the NBA Hall of Fame was a player “past their prime,” better-known for their time on other teams: Alex English who played with the Mavs during the 1991 season, Adrian Dantley who played during the 1989 and 1990 season (the trade that sent Mark Aguirre to Detroit), and Dennis Rodman who ended his NBA career with the Mavericks (returning to Dallas after going to school in South Oak Cliff) where he played only 12 games.
Vince Carter’s contributions to the Mavs have already been greater than what Alex English and Dennis Rodman offered combined, and ultimately we should expect that Carter will probably be more like Adrian Dantley — a prolific scorer, a spot-up shooter with a handful of high-percentage opportunities close to the basket, and a good guy to have around.
But before we retire Vince Carter, can we retire a few of the clichés first? There is still fuel in the tank. Move on.
David Hopkins is a freelance writer — a regular contributor to D Magazine and Smart Pop Books. After writing this column, David grabbed a soda, which is his fuel. Follow David on Twitter at @davidhopkins.