As the Sacramento Kings finished shootaround on Monday morning, Vince Carter noticed music playing in the background of the Spectrum Center.
The song was by Bob Marley, or for Carter, 40, someone he’s been listening to for years. As for the rest of his team, one of the youngest in the NBA?
“I guarantee you,” Carter said with a grin, “they didn’t know that that was Bob Marley playing.”
It’s a trivial moment in the grand scheme of things, but it’s also the perfect example of Carter’s standing on his own team and in the league. At 40, Carter is the oldest player in the NBA, and on this youth-oriented Kings squad (where 11 of 17 players are 25 or younger), his veteran status stands out even more. He’s also the last of a generation of NBA players coached by former UNC coach Dean Smith, who died in 2015.
This offseason when he signed with the Kings, Carter knew the situation he’d be coming into – loads of young, unproven talent; a mentoring role; and trying to educate inexperienced players on what the NBA is all about. In fact, the first text message he received after signing was from rookie Justin Jackson, a fellow North Carolina alum (who was 3 years old when Carter entered the league).
“He called me Mr. Carter, kept calling me sir,” Carter said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Hey man, cut it out – it’s VC or Vince or whatever.’”
But even given Carter’s advanced age, he hasn’t accepted a bench role or stopped giving the game his all.
That makes sense, considering it’s what drives him to keep playing.
“I love it, to be honest with you,” Carter said. “If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have the desire to put the work in that I have to put in each and every day.
“The day I don’t want to prepare for the season, prepare for a game, is the day I’ll walk away – and I’m still willing to do it.”
It’s also not like Carter is just holding a ceremonial roster slot for this team either. Carter, who started his NBA career in 1998 with Toronto, may only be averaging 4.5 points per game in 15.7 minutes, but there are still flashes of the man known better as ‘Air Canada.’ For example, when he scored 24 points in a win over the Cavaliers, or had 12 points and eight rebounds against the Nuggets ... in the span of two weeks.
Those sorts of performances are outliers, of course, but they demonstrate that when Carter is on, he’s still got it.
To manage Carter’s minutes (and physical needs), coach Dave Joerger has implemented a rotating schedule for resting his few veterans. That means Carter may not be active for every game, but that’s more a method for keeping him fresh than anything else. It’s akin to the Panthers giving veterans such as Julius Peppers days off from practice – Carter and Peppers can still play, but they have to be more careful with their bodies.
“Sometimes you see a guy out here who is stronger, faster, taller, jumps higher than you now, all that stuff, it’s just the competition,” Carter said. “With him being able to do that, I just try to outsmart my opponent. It’s the preparation that’s the toughest, that everybody doesn’t see.”
Jackson, who has been taken under Carter’s wing somewhat, said he’s still constantly surprised by some of the things Carter can do.
“You’re not supposed to be able to still jump and shoot the way that he can at 40 years old,” Jackson said. “It’s the reason he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.”
But does Carter ever surprise himself? With his longevity, or outbursts like against Cleveland, or anything?
“Sometimes I do surprise myself,” Carter said, “because some days I feel awful. If you watch me in the mornings walk in, you’ll be like, ‘There’s no way he’s playing today.’ That’s the honest truth, they kill me all the time. I think that’s the motivation because I know. I try to walk all cool, calm and collected, and sometimes I can’t do it because it’s 40. Forty is forty.
“I know some of those days, you’re gonna watch me like, ‘Oh, he looked bad today. Why is he playing?’” Carter said. “But if I love it, I just keep going.”