When Vince Carter arrived at the Atlanta Hawks' training facility last September, the first thing he said to newly hired head coach Lloyd Pierce and general manager Travis Schlenk was, "Who do you want me to talk to and what do you want me to tell them?"
As the Hawks' season progressed, Pierce stopped providing Carter the specific message. From Pierce's perspective, he didn't need to.
"He's been a guy who now I just go up to and say, 'Have you talked to John [Collins] lately? Have you talked to Trae [Young] lately? This is what he's worried about,'" Pierce says. "Then I let Vince address whoever it is in the locker room on his own, knowing he'll have the right message for a young player with that concern."
At 42 and planning to enter his final NBA season in 2019-20, Carter is the oldest player in the league by a considerable margin. He's still a solid bench performer at about 18 minutes per game, but Carter's real benefit to young teams is his institutional knowledge of NBA locker rooms.
How do you quantify the value of a veteran imparting the wisdom accumulated over 21 years in the NBA to a player who didn't exist when that career began? Is it even possible to measure the tangible worth of a late-night conversation on a team flight between Carter and a rookie who, hours earlier in a rough performance, encountered real doubts about himself as a basketball player for the first time in his young life?
Assignments like these in his latter NBA years have been every bit a part of Carter's professional portfolio as play calls or defensive coverages. It was evident on a January 2018 afternoon in Sacramento, when the Kings' brass led the team on a tour of the organization's business side operations. There was Carter, fully engaged, with the team's youngest players -- De'Aaron Fox, Malachi Richardson, Skal Labissiere -- following him through the cubicle farm as he provided relevant addenda to the business execs' spiels on topics like brand marketing. Carter's young teammates couldn't get enough of his authority and presence.
Carter has lived through seismic shifts in pro athlete culture and league trends. The smartphone wouldn't land until halfway through his career, and much of the power claimed by players in today's NBA is a relatively new advent. Carter has seen can't-miss talents bust, and obscure prospects rise to fame. He has a pretty good sense of why many NBA players succeed or fail, and agreed to discuss some of these beliefs with ESPN ahead of the 2019 NBA draft (Thursday on ESPN).
Think of it as Vince Carter's Guide for Young Ballers.
On personal hygiene
You see it more often now, where guys are just like, 'Eh, yeah, the facility, that's where I live.' No, no, no, you're in a house now, and it's not walking distance. Go hop in the shower!
So hygiene, believe it or not, is just as important as anything else. With the season going so long, with the travel, hygiene plays an important part of this, as far as just getting sick, and obviously getting everyone else sick. My third year in Dallas, I want to say, we had one guy get sick who, in essence, ended up getting five guys sick. And it just spreads like that, because we spend so much time together, more than in college.
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On the hazards of nightlife
Let's say you live in those smaller markets. The excitement of going on the road to other cities can be dangerous, as opposed to living in Miami, Dallas, Houston, L.A., New York, where you see it every day. Trouble can happen, particularly for a young guy -- though not just young guys.
The NBA is different -- it's a whole new world. I remember as a rookie it was like, 'Oh man, I'm on my own. No responsibilities of going to class, the tutors, whatever the case may be.' And you're free to do whatever.
When you make those decisions like, 'OK, if I hang out this late I've gotta be able to still be at the facility early to do your rookie duties, or to get my early lift in, to get my shooting in.' And if you're not performing up to par, it tends to carry over on your minutes, and then you wonder why you can't get your minutes. Well, it's because you're looking tired, and fatigued, that's the thing that a first-year player doesn't think about
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On winning the locker room as a young player
Perform your rookie duties, whatever it might be. Sometimes it's, 'Hey, grab a towel young fella.' 'Hey, can you grab me a water.' Simple things.
For second- or third-year guys, team functions -- participate. Like when guys want go to dinner together, go to eat, or guys want to just hang out together? Let's go out together, because it builds a camaraderie on the court. Or even after practice, if we sit in the locker room, and laugh and joke, just be in there even if you don't speak.
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On the frustration of not getting minutes
At first, you felt like you were gonna get the minutes. Maybe it didn't work out for the team, or they brought somebody else in. And now you don't get many minutes.
What do you tell that young player? First of all, you say the most cliched thing you can say: 'Don't get discouraged, and continue to work on your game.' But after a while, you don't wanna hear that.
I think sometimes coaches and organizations -- and they would probably disagree when I say this -- I feel they do things like that to see where your character, and your heart is. How do you handle adversity? I really believe that. Because sometimes I can't figure out how you have guys who deserve to be in the rotation and don't get to play. And they play well, and then all of sudden it's like, 'Hey, let's just see how he handles this adversity.'
So what do you tell them? I just tell them to continue to work at, and do the things. Ask questions. You know, sometimes it's the thing that we as athletes, a lot of us, but particularly young athletes don't think about: Go talk to the coach. 'Coach, what do I need to get my minutes back? Or get into the rotation?' A lot of times they don't want to do that. You have to work your game, and you also have to work on your mental game -- and that's part of it.
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It's the individual work that is key, and paramount for a young guy. You're still developing your game, and you're developing the mental game -- which is confidence.
So when you get in the game, there's no doubt that you can compete and play. The team will have what it sees as the kind of player you are, but maybe you have your agenda in what type of player you think you are, which is a different vision. And you have to kinda find a way to intertwine the two, and I think that's the toughest thing. So you go talk to the coach.
And obviously most teams, most coaches, in the beginning of the season, they say, 'Hey, Vince, here's your role. This is what you bring for us right now.' Well then be the best at that until they give you a little more rope, when you can kinda be that player you think you're supposed to be. Prepare for that role they've designed for you, even if it's not the role you'd design for yourself.
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On family and friends asking for money
Guys wanting to come and hang out for a couple of weeks and just do nothing, sit around, and I've never been good with that. When I was a rookie, my guys would say, 'Oh yeah, we're going to hang out.' No we're not. I'm working, and if you're coming here, that means you're gonna work. Then you get into the issue where you're funding, funding, funding. It's the toughest thing to do, and I had to go through it, and family members that to this day, going on to 20 years, haven't talked to me since then for saying no.
Giving a young guy the formula on how to handle that is tough. There's no real blueprint in my opinion, but you have to be honest.
Some of the requests are a little far-fetched. You feel like, 'Hey, I don't have the money to give you. Yes, I signed a contract, but I don't have anything to give you.' You start there. You have to buy yourself time until you feel comfortable telling that uncle, that friend, mom, or whatever, 'No.' The hardest thing to do is telling mom, grandmother, brother, sister, whoever, 'No.'
And then you have guys from your neighborhood, from your community who've looked after you. Now they're like, 'Hey, I was looking out for you, making sure you were comfortable. Now I want mine.' That's the toughest one. You always want everybody in your corner, and you want to keep everybody happy. Because once you say no, that's the first thing. That is the first thing, 'Oh, you're big time now? Oh, cuz you're in the NBA now you think you're better than us.'
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On expressing yourself politically
If you're a guy who feels comfortable doing it, go for it. That's your business. I would say, educate yourself on the situation before you speak out on it. Don't just haphazardly speak out if you don't know what you're talking about.
So I don't have a problem with guys speaking up, and having an opinion, even if sometimes we're criticized for having an opinion. But pick your spots.
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On how to balance the team's medical opinion vs. your own specialist
Players now have the option to go and get a second opinion. I feel like it all stems from the Kawhi [Leonard] thing [with the San Antonio Spurs]. And most teams are willing to work with us. So there, again, most of the problems that occur now are lack of communication, from player to coach, player to organization, agent to organization. We don't get on the same page. So it's about establishing trust.
As a young guy you don't really know. Obviously you could say, 'I don't trust them.' But based on what? You haven't been around long enough. So ask questions -- talk and communicate. Talk to the veterans who have been around long enough.
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On dealing with referees
Vets can help you. I remember Charles Oakley before games, he'd bring me as the rookie to the referees, and introduce me to them. Whether I knew them or not, that's where it started. Maybe it was Joey Crawford. 'How are you doing?' 'Oh, I know who you are.' 'I just wanted to introduce myself.' Keep it at that. It was something simple, and it was a little awkward at first. But then I started, as I grew, to gain a little more respect, and a little more rope from the officials. They allow you to show your emotions sometimes.
When there's a bad call, walk away. The rookies are actually pretty good at it. It's when they get to that second, third year is the problem. It was easy for me, because every time I would go to say something, Oak would move me out of the way, and take care of it. They've been around long enough, so they have the power to talk. And that's what I try to do with these guys now. I tell Trae all the time, even if he gets beat up, no calls, I say, 'Hey let me do it. Let me get the fine. Let me get the technical before you. Save your money.'
One of the first things you talk about in preseason with young guys, you kind of give them the rundown on each referee. 'These are not the guys to mess with. We leave him alone.'
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For the young baller, I'd say, in the beginning, tread lightly and ask questions. Utilize your veterans.
I think you win your teammates from the beginning, in pick-up games in the summer, in training camp, when you're learning how to play this game, and how this game works. When you're frustrated, and a vet comes to you and says, 'Hey, try this. Look at it like this,' Don't, 'Nuh uh, I got this. I got it.'
Don't think you're bigger than the game. Nobody is bigger than the game.