Shortly after signing a one-year deal with the Sacramento Kings in July 2017, Vince Carter received a text message that made him feel older than his 20-plus years in the NBA ever have.
The text was from fellow North Carolina basketball grad Justin Jackson, the Kings’ first-round pick (No. 15 overall) in that summer’s draft. Jackson had never met Carter, but after getting the future Hall of Famer’s number from his agent, he wanted to express his eagerness to learn from an all-time great player.
“Man, he hit me with, ‘Hey, can’t wait to work with you, Mr. Carter,’” Carter laughed. “Like, wait, don’t ever. Don’t ever … Once I got there, I was like, ‘What’s up? This is Vince, man.’”
Jackson, a three-year standout and 2017 NCAA champion with the Tar Heels, was simply showing respect to a player he grew up admiring. A player who made his pro basketball debut when Jackson was only a toddler.
Although Carter jokes being addressed as "Mr. Carter" rubbed him the wrong way, he is in the twilight of his career. The eight-time NBA All-Star, Slam Dunk Contest champion and Olympic gold medalist — now a member of the Atlanta Hawks — is the oldest active player in the league at 42 years old.
But even after two decades in the NBA, Carter — who earned the nickname “Vinsanity” after sticking his elbow in the rim as part of his legendary “Honey Dip” dunk in the 2000 dunk contest — says he isn’t ready to walk away. Earlier this month, on ESPN’s "Pardon the Interruption," Carter said he “could stretch it out one more” season.
“If the opportunity knocks, it’s something I want to do, something I feel like I’m able to do,” Carter told The Daily Tar Heel. “I just have to wait for that phone call and that opportunity."
While he still occasionally shows flashes of the player he once was, Carter has embraced a different role in recent years. The last time he averaged double-digits in scoring was in the 2013-14 season with the Dallas Mavericks; the last time he was a consistent starter was in 2012.
This season, the 6-foot-6-inch guard-forward is averaging 7.3 points, 1.1 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game in 17.2 minutes off the bench for the Hawks.
“That’s how I can survive, just trying to outsmart them and play the angles until I can’t do that anymore and these guys figure it out,” Carter said with a chuckle. “Then I’m in trouble.”
Players with Carter’s resume generally prefer to retire while still a staple of their team’s offense or join a contender to chase a ring. Carter has never won an NBA title, but the fifth pick in the 1998 NBA Draft has found a passion for mentoring younger players like Jackson.
Traded to the Mavericks in February, Jackson spent the 2017-18 season with Carter on the Kings. In little time, Jackson felt comfortable enough to ask Carter questions on everything from preserving his body to managing his finances.
“A lot of times, I would catch myself saying like, ‘Dang, this is Vince Carter,’” Jackson recalled. “But, at the same time, he just kinda carries himself as a normal guy, as a cool, relatable guy."
For Carter, the transition from superstar to locker room voice and mentor came naturally. He credits his former UNC coach, the late Dean Smith, for teaching him all aspects of the game, which has helped him stick around. The knowledge he gained at Chapel Hill, and throughout his pro career, is what he strives to pass down to the next generation.
“When you’re around long enough, it’s like, 'Damn. Hey, I’ve seen that before, so let me tell you about it,’” Carter said. “‘Let me tell you how I’ve handled it. Let me tell you how I’ve seen other guys handle it that are stars that I’ve played with.’”
During his rookie season, Jackson would pick Carter’s brain on flights to and from different cities. The two often talked until 2 or 3 a.m. about basketball and how to deal with personal goals and expectations.
They’re no longer teammates today, but Jackson still frequently checks in with his mentor — primarily through a group chat he’s in with Carter and former Kings teammates George Hill and Garrett Temple.
Jackson’s enthusiasm makes Carter want to continue to be the same role model he was to him when they shared a locker room.
“He understood what it took, and he was just trying to make a name for himself and his game, even when he had the tough times when he wasn’t playing much,” Carter said of Jackson.
Jackson averaged 6.7 points per game as a rookie in Sacramento, starting 41 of the 68 games he played in. In 20 games with the Mavericks, he’s only started twice, playing 15 minutes and averaging 6.3 points a game.
While Jackson looks to find his niche in a crowded rotation of wings that includes Rookie of the Year candidate Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, Carter will be just a text away, ready to offer advice and guidance.
For Carter, seeing young players mature is a rewarding reminder of why he isn’t quite ready to hang up his jersey yet.
“I wanna beat the next player, just like anyone else,” Carter said. “But at the same time ... I’m comfortable with my game to where I can go help the next young guy if they need to talk, if they have questions, if they even want to work out in the summer. That’s just who I am, who I’ve been.”
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