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High-Flying Carter Stays Grounded in NBA

It was billed as an NBA preseason exhibition game.

But most of the 5,588 people who gathered in the Smith Center for the Philadelphia 76ers-Toronto Raptors matchup Monday night were there to see one thing: the Vince Carter show.

With 7:42 remaining in the third quarter, the fans got what they had come for, something they had not seen in the Chapel Hill since Carter left North Carolina in 1998 after his junior season.

Carter ran down the left side of the floor and converted a Corliss Williamson pass into a windmill dunk.

The crowd erupted in cheers in much the same way countless other crowds have during Carter's first two seasons in the NBA.

Even some of his teammates and coaches get caught up in watching the 6-foot-7 swingman soar through the air.

He's made Raptors point guard Mark Jackson, who is entering his 14th season in the NBA and signed with Toronto in the off-season, watch in awe a few times.

"Sometimes you look at him and you're like, "Wow, it's incredible," but you've got to keep playing," Jackson says.

In his first season as Toronto's coach, Lenny Wilkens is looking forward to a season full of Carter highlights after two years of coaching against him.

"It's going to be more fun to be on his side than against him, so I'm looking forward to it," says Wilkens, who has coached in the NBA since 1969.

Yet while Carter is glad the people enjoy watching him play, he makes it clear that he's not about being the main event. He's about winning, he and was upset that his team was on the wrong end of the 107-98 contest Monday.

"I've learned not to get caught up in that," says Carter, who led all scorers with 38 points. "I'm not here to put on a show. I'm here to get better, and I'm here to win. I'm here to play in front of the crowd, yes, but not like that."

Take Carter's mind-blowing dunk in the Olympics this summer. He jumped over France's 7-2 center Frederick Weis and stuffed the ball home. Just like the feats he pulled off to win last year's NBA slam dunk contest, Carter didn't plan that move. He just improvised on the spot and now downplays the event. He's more excited that his team won the gold medal.

"That's all it was, just the act of the moment," says Carter, who led Team USA with 14.2 points per game. "If it happened three different times, I guarantee you'd see three different things. Next time I'd probably pull up, next time I'd shoot a layup. You never know, it's a game-time decision."

It's plays like that which draw comparisons to another former Tar Heel, Michael Jordan. And Carter is none too shy about shooting down those comparisons.

"It's not a fair comparison," he says. "He's who he is and has accomplished what he's accomplished. I'm only in my third year. Trying to compare me to him, it's too early. I'm just going to try to continue to play the way I play and just do what I do and don't worry about that."

Carter spends more time worrying about his game, trying to improve.

He has focused on getting stronger, physically and mentally, since he won the NBA's Rookie of the Year award after the 1998-99 season. He says he is just now starting to understand the NBA game better - a scary proposition considering Carter's 25.7 points per game last year ranked fourth in the league.

He piled up so many points largely because of his improvement behind the 3-point line. Carter hit 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc last season, compared to 29 percent in his rookie year. Now defenders have to check him on the perimeter rather than focusing on stopping his drives to the hoop.

"It makes me smile," Carter says. "If they don't respect the jump shot or whatever, it doesn't bother me at all. Most importantly, I'm learning to take what the defense gives me and try to make something happen with that."

While Carter will continue to fly high on the court, he remains grounded off it.

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"Just because I'm in the NBA doesn't mean I have to change," he says. "It doesn't mean I'm higher or better than anybody. I'm just in the NBA doing something I love. That's all.

"The only thing that's changed for me is I have NBA behind my name instead of North Carolina."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.