Since our first issue, in March 1998, ESPN The Magazine has tried to identify NEXT: the athletes who will change the face of their sports. As our 10th anniversary approaches, we'll go back in time to meet them Before They Were NEXT. This athlete was in his second season with the Raptors (we were in our second year, too) when we anointed him. We were just confirming what his sixth-grade buddies at Campbell Middle School in Daytona Beach had known since the day he saw them trying to dunk tennis balls, picked up a basketball and jammed it down.
DIAPER DANDY Before he could sit up, Carter was working on his skills. His dad, Vince Sr., and his uncle, former Marquette star Oliver Lee, would prop up the eager infant on pillows and toss a Nerf basketball to him. "I was furious with them," recalls Carter's Mom, Michelle Carter-Scott. "I thought they were gonna let him fall off the bed."
IF AT FIRST… In his strike-delayed NBA debut with the Raptors, in February 1999, Carter dropped 16 on the Celtics. But his shots didn't always fall so easily. When Vince was a toddler in Florida, he was known around the neighborhood for heaving miss toward the 10-foot hoop in his family's driveway. "One day he just flopped down Carter-Scott says. "I looked at him and said, "If you don't get get off that dirty driveway … ' " Moments later, family lore has it, Vince dusted himself off and drained his first bucket.
HE'S GOT GAMES Carter was making big plays in the Meadowlands long before he was traded to New Jersey in December 2004. "Video games were my hobby," says Carter, who as a kid owned Sega, Atari, Coleco and first-edition Nintendo consoles. His favorite titles? Excitebike, Double owl, in which he battled younger bro Chris with his favorite team: the New York Giants. "I was a big Joe Morris fan," he says.
TUNED UP When Carter entered the sixth grade, his mom encouraged him to play an instrument. Vince, whose stepdad, Harry Robinson, was the high school band director, picked up the sax. He loved it so much, he moved on to the trumpet and various percussion instruments as well. During his senior year at Mainland High, Carter was even the drum major for the marching band. "It was different, but I enjoyed it," he says. As for the ribbing he inevitably took from his hoops pals? "It didn't discourage me."
AHEAD OF THE CURVE He was the first seventh-grader to start on Campbell's varsity team. And when, as a high school frosh, Carter sprang from 5'7" to 6'1" in the months between the first day of classes and the start of basketball season, he took over the starting point guard spot on Mainland's varsity. Though he ended the season with about 300 points and 60 assists, the lanky teen had trouble filling out his No. 15 jersey. "He'd pull up the left shoulder, and the right shoulder would fall down," Mom recalls. "He was like a pencil."
SPIKE JONES After breaking his wrist as a freshman QB, Carter gave up football, ignoring pleas to return when the varsity job opened his junior year. "He was getting taller and taller, so I said, 'Boy, linebackers would love to aim for those knees sticking out like that,' " Carter-Scott says of her then-gangly son. By then, Vince was involved in another fall sport, anyway: volleyball. With just one season under his belt, he nailed Volusia County Player of the Year honors in 1993, averaging 24 kills a game as a junior.
STUDENT OF THE GAME The state high school athletic association requires that players maintain a C average. "In the Carter household," says Carter-Scott, "it was a B." No wonder, then, that Vince often made Mainland's honor roll. He also fancied himself the teen bard, crafting many poems, some for the ladies. "My best friend and I thought we were suave," he says.
WANTED MAN After averaging 18.7 points and 7.6 rebounds as a sophomore and acing the Five Star camps, Carter was one of the most hotly recruited juniors in the country, fielding mail from 77 D1 schools. "I surely hope I can be your college coach," wrote Dean Smith. The UNC icon was not alone. "I had three boxes of recruiting letters," Carter's mom recalls. By the time Vince led Mainland to its first Class-6A title in 56 years with a 22-point, 16-rebound, 10-block game against Fort Lauderdale Dillard in his senior season, Florida's 1995 Mr. Basketball had narrowed his choice to being a Tar Heel or a Gator. "Florida was the football state, and Carolina was the basketball state," Carter-Scott explains. "We had a basketball player."
GOOD-BYE, TOBACCO ROAD Along with fellow junior and AP National Player of the Year Antawn Jamison, Carter, a second-team AP All-America, led UNC to a regular-season No. 1 rank. VC topped the ACC in FG shooting (59%) and averaged 15.6 points and 5.1 boards. At the 1998 Dance, the Heels made it to the Final Four, but despite a team-high 21 from Carter, they fell to Utah, 65-59. Jamison and Carter declared for the draft and were picked fourth and fifth by Toronto and Golden State—then were promptly swapped for each other. While the NBA lockout postponed the beginning of Carter's rookie season, it didn't stop his elevation to NEXT.