They called him Sunshine, which was less a reflection of his game or personality than a reference to his roots. Vince Carter came to New Jersey in the summer of 1994 from Daytona Beach, and for his new AAU teammates, that was inspiration enough. Long before anyone had thought to coin "Air Canada" or "Half-Man, Half-Amazing," the kids from Paterson simply named him for what they imagined was the defining weather feature of his home state.
Carter, a senior-to-be at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, had decided to spend the AAU season that summer hooping with his friend Tim Thomas and the Jersey-based Paterson Cats. The team's roster was built around Thomas, future UConn forward Kevin Freeman and their teammates from a loaded Paterson Catholic High School squad. Eventually, a few out-of-state ringers joined the mix—including a couple of junior guards from outside of Philadelphia named Kobe and Rip.
And then there was the kid from Daytona Beach.
"You'd hear people at our games: 'Sunshine coming, Sunshine coming…'" Freeman says. "There wasn't social media, but everybody knew who Vince Carter was."
To be fair, "everybody" back in the mid-1990s referred to a relatively small audience of hardcore high school basketball watchers in those technological dark ages. But those who were paying attention knew. Even on a juggernaut squad of sure-thing future college stars and pros—yes, even on a team with Kobe Bryant—Carter was different. "He did stuff in high school that hadn't been seen before," Thomas says.
"To this day," Freeman adds, "he's the freakiest athlete I've ever seen."
More than a quarter-century later, Carter is wrapping up his Hall of Fame career in the quietest possible fashion, coming off the bench for an Atlanta Hawks team that won't sniff the playoffs and whose best player was born five months before Carter made his NBA debut. Glimpses of his athletic flair, which opened SportsCenter seemingly every night at the turn of the millennium—back when the hierarchy of SportsCenter highlights was perhaps the relevant measure of an athlete's popularity—are now exceedingly rare. A new generation of highlight-ready players, led, fittingly, by supernova rim annihilator Zion Williamson, has already picked up the mantle. The legend of Vince Carter might seem like just that—an epic story from the distant past.
And yet, during an era in which Zion's dunks earned him a six-figure Instagram following before he'd finished his junior year at a small South Carolina high school, it's impossible not to wonder just how much more epic Carter's legend might have been had he been born 20 years later. It's a question that even those far too young to remember Carter's prime have pondered. "Everything is so much more magnified now—every top-50 high school kid has a highlight tape on YouTube," Hawks second-year guard Kevin Huerter says. "He would've been huge."
Predating social media and camera phones, Carter's pre-NBA exploits survive online in incomplete, grainy compilations of VHS-to-digital transfers. The clips offer an analog hint at the HD reality of a guy who regularly left fans, scouts, opponents and even his own teammates astounded. Thankfully, their memories remain (mostly) crystal clear.
Long before he could dunk, Michelle Carter-Scott remembers, her son played at a level above his peers.
"I can go back to his first competitive team at the Port Orange rec center (near Daytona Beach), at seven years old," she says. "He always played a grade level up, and he was just wreaking havoc. Sometimes it looked almost like he felt sorry for the players on the other team."
Carter-Scott remains far prouder of raising a well-rounded young man than she does a future Hall of Famer: Grades took precedence over extracurriculars, and Carter was encouraged to try his hand at anything that struck his interest.
That included football, where Joe Giddens, who would become a close friend at South Daytona Elementary School (and eventually a high school teammate), first met Carter. "He was a quarterback, and he was good," Giddens says. "He wasn't really that tall, but he could sling it. He probably could've played D-I."
But Vince, more than anything, loved basketball. When he was in third grade, he told his mother he was going to play in the NBA. "I thought, 'That's sweet,'" Carter-Scott says. "'Now, what's your Plan B?' Well, he has never had a Plan B. He refused to even discuss it. He was just hellbent."
So it was that countless central Florida biddy league players were victimized by the terrifying hops and relentless focus of the otherwise unassuming kid from Daytona Beach. As his mother remembers it, Carter's first dunk came in sixth grade.
By the time Carter reached Mainland High School, the coaches knew him by reputation. "We had heard about the athleticism, but you always think, 'OK, let's wait and see what they've got,'" says Charles Brinkerhoff, who was an assistant at the school when Carter arrived before becoming the Buccaneers head coach the following season. "This is an area that's known for producing Division I and professional football and basketball players, so you take it with a grain of salt."
Brinkerhoff was unmoved by his first glimpse of the then-6'2" freshman. "I have to say I was skeptical," the coach says. That changed when he saw Carter jump. "He already had that 40-whatever-inch vertical. It was amazing."
A year behind his friend and former Pop Warner foe, Giddens joined the team when Carter was a sophomore. By that point, he says, Carter was dunking often, and memorably—helped, perhaps, by the "strength shoes" that Giddens says Vince would wear to improve his already prodigious vertical. As hard to believe as the claim may sound, Giddens confirms that Carter was, indeed, rocking the dubiously effective shoes a generation of kids saw ads for in the back of every issue of Slam magazine. "Yeah, the ones with the big soles," Giddens says. "That's exactly what he had."
Whether due to genetics, gimmicky footwear or some combination of the two, Carter was already leaving his elevated mark. Giddens remembers witnessing "a couple of broken rims," as well as the elbow-through-the-rim dunk that Carter would make iconic in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. It was also around this time that Giddens says he saw Carter touch the top of the backboard.
Laughing, Giddens adds, "We never had any team dunk contests with him."
It's easy to be skeptical of such claims, but less so when you hear them again and again. Brinkerhoff calls them "fish stories," moments in practice when his star player did things the coach himself wasn't sure he believed. "I can't prove it. I don't have video," Brinkerhoff says. "But the stuff I saw him do…"
There was, for example, the move where Carter would throw the ball off the gym wall behind the backboard, catch the rebound after it came back over the backboard and dunk. Or the times he would take off from just inside the top of the key—never mind the free-throw line—and dunk. And then, echoing Giddens' story, there was that business with the top of the backboard.
"He said, 'Watch this' and jumped, but I couldn't really tell," Brinkerhoff says. "Well, about three years later, I was up on a ladder changing something, and sure enough, there's his fingerprint up there."
"He was a more powerful dunker later on," the coach adds, "but Vince will tell you that his leaping ability was best in high school."
His jaw-dropping athleticism confirmed, it was now time for Carter to show the world he could actually play.
Brick Oettinger is a pioneer among recruiting analysts, one of the first (and still most respected) full-time high school basketball talent scouts. And 27 years later, he absolutely remembers the first time he saw Carter on the court.
"It was at a Five-Star camp in Pennsylvania. He was a rising junior, one of only two or three underclassmen," Oettinger, who remembers Carter starting in the camp All-Star game and winning the camp dunk contest, says. At the midpoint of his high school career, Oettinger says, Carter was listed at 6'3" or 6'4", "depending on where you looked. He wasn't any taller than that."
To be clear, it wasn't only Oettinger's first look at Carter. It was the first time the Durham-based scout had even heard of him. "When I first saw his name on the camp roster, it was, 'Who's this guy?'" Oettinger says. "Nowadays, if there's a sophomore out of Florida who averaged 25 points per game, he'd be getting national attention."
The attention would come soon enough. For the time being, Carter was still a kid who sounded somewhat in awe of the bigger-name competition with which he'd just shared a court. "He came home raving about this guy named Stephon Marbury," Brinkerhoff says. "'Oh, man, he steps across half court and just lets it fly.' And I said, 'How did you do?' He says, 'Oh, I got co-MVP.'"
It was a sign of so many things to come. Among them was an invite during his junior season from the (almost) hometown Orlando Magic to compete that year in a halftime dunk contest—only it was never really meant to be a contest.
Before he spent 15 years as a recruiting analyst for PrepStars.com, Rob Harrington interned briefly with the Magic, where he learned from some longtime employees that the contest had been staged for the sole purpose of getting Carter to show up for the NBA team's halftime show. Needless to say, he won.
Back in an arena where contests actually meant something, Carter scored more than 800 points during his junior season. No longer just an elite leaper, he was now a star—and an elite prospect. Says Oettinger, "By the end of his junior year, everybody knew about him." He entered the summer of 1994 with a growing buzz and a chance to confirm it to a national audience.
It was after his return from a second run at Five-Star that Carter was, Brinkerhoff says, "a different player. Not a different person, just a different player."
The change was evident throughout that summer, most notably at Nike's All-Star camp in suburban Chicago.
Kevin Garnett, the top-ranked player in the 1995 class and soon-to-be trailblazing draftee, was the main attraction, but Carter made an unforgettable impression. Arguably the greatest lost footage in modern basketball history belonged to whoever filmed the camp dunk contest, in which Carter held off a pair of California-bred high-flyers—future Oregon State star and Bulls draftee Corey Benjamin and L.A. schoolboy legend Schea Cotton—and local legend Ronnie Fields, an explosive 6'3" guard who might have been his generation's Ja Morant. Carter edged out the field to win the contest, cementing his rep on a national level at the same time.
After that, says Freeman, "Everybody knew Vince from that dunk contest with Ronnie Fields."
Despite his growing fame, few outside of Florida had seen Carter play in actual games. That changed thanks to the friendship that had developed between Carter and Tim Thomas at Five-Star Camp. The Pat Cats eviscerated all comers that summer, and Carter—by that point pushing 6'6"—was the main attraction.
Freeman recalls a tournament game in Providence: "He's got like 38 points, and he's backing this kid down from half court, backing him down, backing him down, and then he just spins on him and takes off from damn near the free-throw line. It was just a foreshadowing of what he did in the NBA."
"The stuff we were seeing from him was totally different," Thomas says. "He had this one dunk, I think he called it the Spider-Man, where he used to go from the baseline, bounce the ball, jump and grab the side of the backboard, swing his body around, catch the ball mid-air and then dunk it on the other side. Then one time, it might've been Kobe, but someone threw a half-court alley-oop. It was so high and so far from the basket, I didn't think he'd be able to get it, but he went up and got it with two hands. You'd maybe see a dunk like that in the league, but not at the high school level."
It was a remarkable run for both Carter and the Pat Cats, who won a pair of AAU national tournament titles. (Asked about that in the summer of 2016, Bryant said, "It was the greatest AAU team of all time. We were smashing people by 60, 70 points. It was the first time I had a chance to see Vince in person. It was great, man.")
That run almost led Carter to a senior-year relocation. Thomas tried hard to talk his friend into transferring to New Jersey, but Carter ultimately turned him down.
Instead, he went about cementing his legend at Mainland, averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Bucs to the Class 6A state championship. "He could've averaged 35," Giddens says, "but he didn't because he trusted his teammates."
Still, there were plenty of moments that illustrated Carter was one of the best players in the country—and almost certainly the most exciting. He posted a triple-double in Mainland's title-game victory, an outing highlighted by an alley-oop that Carter caught and reversed in a defender's face. "I never wanted to humiliate a kid," Brinkerhoff says, "but just showing his athleticism like that was amazing."
Carter capped his prep career that spring with first-team All-American honors and a trip to the McDonald's All-American Game, where Harrington remembers his dunk-contest performance as "probably the best ever." In the fall, he headed to Chapel Hill, ready to dazzle a national crowd.
Twenty-five years and countless highlights later, Carter is ready to leave the game to high-flyers half his age—or less. But the legacy he forged in high school, in Daytona Beach and beyond figures to endure, both in those grainy YouTube clips and in the memories his contemporaries won't soon forget. "LeBron, Zion, those guys are incredible, but I always laugh when people go crazy about them," Freeman says. "Vince was unbelievable."
Ryan Jones is a writer living in Pennsylvania. He's the former editor-in-chief of Slam magazine and has written about sports and culture for XXL, Spin, Vibe and Esquire.com. Reach him on Twitter: @thefarmerjones.