Carter's soaring climb reaches rare air

Guard's Carolina roots, rise to stardom spark comparisons to Jordan

February 12, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Antawn Jamison remembers watching the 1996 NBA All-Star Game with Vince Carter. They were teammates and road roommates back then, sophomores at North Carolina and dreaming about playing in the league's mid-season showcase.

"That will be us someday," Jamison told Carter.

Back then, Jamison was a bigger star than Carter, having taken the Atlantic Coast Conference by storm as a freshman. Their roles have since changed. Carter was the Rookie of the Year last season with the Toronto Raptors, while Jamison struggled with the Golden State Warriors.

Jamison will play host this weekend for the 49th All-Star Game tomorrow at the Oakland Coliseum, and now that he's pulled out of tonight's Slam Dunk competition with a sore knee, he'll also be among the fans who will come to watch the NBA's newest star.

"I can't wait to get into my front-row seat," Jamison said yesterday.

Carter can't wait for the festivities to begin. But as much as everyone else seems to be looking forward to seeing Carter show his stuffs, the 6-foot-6 guard can't wait until the game itself. "Playing with the greatest players in the world," he said.

He's now one of them. It's been a rapid ascent from a spectacular, if sometimes inconsistent, college player with the Tar Heels to the top vote-getter among the 10 players selected by the fans. Carter's total of 1,911,973 was the second-most votes ever received, behind only Michael Jordan (2,451,136) in 1997.

"It's exciting, it's a dream come true," said Carter, surrounded by a media contingent so large that two of the journalists sitting next to him nearly came to blows over the questions being asked by one. "I'm just living it up, trying to learn as much as I can."

Carter has trouble himself believing how dramatic his rise to stardom has been.

"It's happened so fast," Carter said. "I remember watching that game when I was just a skinny kid from Daytona Beach who could jump a little and now I'm here. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I'll be watching TV and I'll be on one of those NBA commercials and I have to laugh."

While becoming the league's most explosive player, Carter has had to deal with the obvious comparisons to Jordan. The similarity of their games as rookies as well as their North Carolina roots made it inevitable. But Carter said he has heard that since he showed up in Chapel Hill.

"It's hard because I'm not Michael Jordan, I'm not even close to him," said Carter, who has helped lift the Raptors to respectability this season as Jordan did with the Bulls in their pre-championship days. "It doesn't help that I came from North Carolina. But someday people might have to deal with being compared to me."

Grant Hill understands what Carter is going through. After being drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1994, Hill was also called the Air Apparent. Partly because the Pistons have not been consistently competitive, and partly because Hill's game is not a high-wire act, the comparisons have faded with time.

"He's a great player," Hill said. "He deserves it. I just hope he enjoys it. I hope he can keep it all in perspective."

There will be a certain amount of pressure on Carter in tonight's dunk competition. With defending champion Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers choosing not to compete, Carter will be the favorite to beat a group of rising stars that includes Raptors teammate and second cousin Tracy McGrady and former Maryland standout Steve Francis, now a rookie with the Houston Rockets.

"I don't feel like I have to do anything extraordinary," said Carter, who has often done that this season while averaging 24.5 points.

Carter caused some concern earlier this week when he cut his left hand lifting weights. The injury required three stitches, but Carter came back to score 70 points in his next two games. Asked yesterday if he ever considered pulling out of the dunk competition, Carter said smiling, "I still had my right hand to use."

Not that McGrady is conceding defeat.

"I'm sure we'll finish 1-2, but I'm not going to say who's going to be one and who's going to be two," he said. "We used to play a lot of pickup ball [when McGrady was attending Mount Zion Academy in Durham, N.C.], and I'm going to pull some of the nasty stuff I used back then."

McGrady, who went to the Raptors straight out of high school three years ago, was instrumental in getting the team to switch places with the Warriors and trade draft picks, in essence swapping Jamison for Carter. Jamison doesn't seem jealous of the attention swarming around his former teammate.

Or surprised by how Carter's game has exploded.

"I saw Vince do things in college that he hasn't done yet" in the pros, said Jamison, who is starting to live up to his own billing. "When you play in a system like Carolina's, you're not going to get 30 points and 20 rebounds a game. There's not a lot of one-on-one."

There will certainly be a lot of that come tomorrow. If Carter's Eastern Conference teammates don't freeze him out, as allegedly happened to Jordan in his first All-Star Game, who knows what the man they call "Air Canada" and "Vinsanity" will do.

Carter knows what he won't do.

"Why get big-headed?" he said. "These guys have been here before. Why not learn from them?"

All-Star weekend

At Oakland (Calif.) Arena

Today

4 p.m.: Rookie challenge

8 p.m.: 2ball competition, three-point shootout, slam-dunk contest

TV: TNT

Tomorrow

All-Star Game, 6 p.m.

TV: Ch. 11

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