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Old Man, Still Amazing: A Changed Vince Carter Still Making Big Plays in Memphis

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterNovember 17, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Vince Carter #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball against the LA Clippers on November 16, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Watch someone long enough, as Vince Carter is allowing us to watch him, and you see the same stuff, except from new perspectives.

It was without trepidation that Carter ferociously rammed both ball and arm deep into that net in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Same sort of thing when he soared up and over 7'2" Frederic Weis in the Olympics mere months later.

Sixteen years later, that fearlessness has evolved into something so serene it barely registers as the daredevil act it is.

Carter turns 40 in two months. He is playing in his 19th NBA season. And he goes into competition now like a samurai without his sword—but unflinching.

"I've passed the point of, 'Man, I used to dunk that.' I'm past that," Carter told Bleacher Report. "I know that's not a part of my game. I mean, it's a part of my game, but I'm just smart about it. Is the highlight of the dunk worth not being able to continue playing the game possibly?"

Most men who preen with confidence to attack at full strength would never risk following in their own footsteps and being made a fool.

Yet there was Carter, with kinesiology tape running down his sore left knee—his takeoff leg!—and wraps on his left hand and left elbow, playing Wednesday night in L.A. against the Clippers not as the slashing guard he was, but as the viable stretch 4 power forward he has become in today's game.

The oldest player in the NBA logged 27 minutes in the Memphis Grizzlies' 111-107 victory. Carter wasn't great, but he was awfully good—same as he was in the game before that, and the one before that, and the one before that. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Vince Carter #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots the ball against the LA Clippers on November 16, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"I know who I am. I know what I bring to the table. I know I'm capable," Carter said. "I'm not afraid to go out there and compete with these younger guys."

Carter is scoring 10.5 points per game this season and could be the fifth player in NBA history to average double figures in points at the age of 40 (joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Robert Parish and John Stockton).

What has driven Carter to such long-lasting relevance is a fearless willingness to adapt. Part of that is derived from the lessons he learned as a child with a mother who extolled the benefits of a variety-filled life. 

A school teacher, she pushed her son to try different things—no matter if he wasn't as good at them as basketball—to find balance, stir creativity and just be free. So he tried skateboarding, went to band camp, graduated high school with honors.

Yet the heart of his long-lasting fearlessness flows from what all fans wish motivates the athletes they follow.

"I still love playing," Carter said.

The wonder of competition and teamwork and, yes, being in the spotlight are such that Carter does not want to give it up. Maybe not even after next year.

"They say, 'You make it look easy,'" Carter said. "That's kind of the goal and the reason I put the work in. But it's not easy."

It's also not so glorious to rouse yourself from your pregame nap earlier and earlier to get to the arena to do more and more prep work. Carter doesn't ride either the early or late team bus to road games because no one else wants to get there as early as he does; he gets his own car. Then there's the running joke inside the team about Carter being the last one out of the locker room after his postgame treatment or even weight training.

And this is going light if you've seen what Carter does at his home gym in Orlando in the offseason. Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale has seen it—"You could run training camp in that place with all the different things he has going on there," Fizdale said—and now has no choice but to believe it with how much he is leaning on Carter.

Smiling through his soreness Wednesday night, Carter mimicked how Fizdale approached him before the season, literally whispering with worry: "We need you to play big minutes." 

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 29:  Vince Carter #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies gets taped up before the game against the New York Knicks on October 29, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In that regard, Carter's minutes and production thus far this season are already a triumph. Heck, he was proud he was able to run wind sprints like his younger teammates when he got to Grizzlies training camp.

"By the time I get to camp and the regular season, I'm satisfied," Carter said. "I look back on all the hard work in the summer, the way I have to approach the summer—all summer. Doing work, doing work, doing work. Stretching all summer. Training like I'm in training camp. That's just how it is."

He doesn't exactly love that grind. ("It's not like I despise it," he said.) There are days when he doesn't feel like it. ("I think that's just normal.") And maybe he'll skip a morning workout...but make it up at night. ("I'll get it done.")

But that love-of-the-game gauge isn't close to empty.

Carter remembers hearing Kobe Bryant describe his retirement plan as playing basketball "until it is out of me." That's how Carter feels: Basketball is not out of him yet.

Who knows when it will be?

"I love playing. I love competing," Carter said. "And I still am willing to do all the things it takes to get prepared each and every night. When I don't feel like doing that, I'll walk away for sure.

"That's the deciding factor of it all. If I'm not willing to put the work in during the summertime, I won't be worth a damn in a regular-season game, because I'm not prepared. And I just don't like being unprepared. That's something I'll never do. That's something I consider disrespecting the game."

While age means physical preparation takes longer, it also means the mental side comes quicker. His biggest shot of the game Wednesday—a top-of-the-key three to give the Grizzlies a 97-90 lead—looked simple enough, except it resulted from analyzing a mismatched defensive switch that left Zach Randolph drawing so much help in the post that Carter could surreptitiously weave through the weak side all the way out for the wide-open shot.

"He's playing basketball now because he's smarter than everybody," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. "He used to play basketball and be great because he was more athletic than everybody."

Such is the normal cycle of basketball life—and it can end quickly unless you can transform gut boldness into learned vigilance the way Carter has.

Indeed, he has been "trying to step out into the world of all this new technology and just different ways" of maintaining his health and energy. It has especially made a difference in strengthening a right ankle that needed surgery in 2008 and '14.

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 1:  Chris Crawford #6 and Vince Carter #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies stretch during an open practice on October 1, 2016 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Carter said wading into medical analytics springs from that same source that has served him well over the years (and has him very much enjoying preparing for a broadcasting career): being unafraid to try new things.

"Mornings are tough," he said of his physical condition. "But it comes with it. I'm OK with it. I'm used to it. My body's going to hurt sometimes. That's why they made the cold tub."

He has been half-man, half-amazing. Now he's mostly work for a little play.

But he's quite clearly proved he is more than that fierce dunker.

Carter won the NBA's Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award last season for selflessness, leadership, commitment and dedication.

At nearly 40, he's defending top wing scorers. With that snap-shut wrist action still finishing off every jumper, he's up to sixth on the all-time list for three-pointers made.

And if this 2012 pass didn't prove it once and for all, Carter's needle-threading inbounds flip for Marc Gasol's buzzer-beater last week showed how good Carter can make others look.

Of course, the highlights feel a little different now.

But they all stem from his same willingness to try.

        

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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