Nets will learn the hard way

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:08 AM ET

Funny thing about pro sports. One team's mess is another team's messiah. In Toronto last week, the Vince Carter era came to a close, and not a minute too soon. Tonight, for New Jersey, the Vince Carter era begins and they can't wait.

It's all a problem of perception. In Toronto, Carter was perceived to be unwilling, or unable, (or both) to play the kind of explosive basketball that made him one of the most popular and dangerous offensive players in the league during his early seasons.

He earned his nickname, Air Canada, by flying to the basket. He lost it by refusing to leave the runway.

The past three or four seasons, after suffering knee and ankle injuries, Carter has not only stopped playing above the rim but he stopped going to the basket with any regularity.

That reluctance is reflected in the number of fouls he has drawn. In his first three years, he averaged 6.5 free throws per game. In his past four seasons, he has averaged 4.9 free throws per game. This year, in 20 games, he only went to the line 72 times, an average of 3.6 per game.

When Carter announced a few weeks ago, in a rare attempt at humour, that he was no longer interested in dunking, anyone who has been paying attention said: "Tell us something we don't know."

Nobody really cares about the dunking, or lack of it. It would have satisfied many folks just to see Carter make a move toward the basket every once in a while instead of settling for the outside jumper.

Where once the Raptors had counted on Carter for leadership, this season he simply abdicated that responsibility.

Suddenly, though, as soon as the trade with New Jersey was made, he's singing a different tune. He's rejuvenated, he says, and reports from the Nets' recent workouts suggest Carter has been showing off above the rim.

"(Jason Collins) threw me a lob, just by accident, but it worked," Carter told reporters on Thursday. "And (Jason Kidd) threw me one. It felt good."

"Nobody was guarding him on that play," Kidd said. "There was nobody who could have guarded him."

There are few lingering signs of the Achilles problem that has sidelined him the past couple of weeks. Apparently everything, even the training staff, is better in New Jersey.

SWELLING IS GONE

"Zero (swelling)," Carter said. "Thanks to Tim (Walsh, the Nets trainer). He's trainer of the year now. I'm ready to go. I can't wait."

So now the stage is set for Carter to explode on the scene tonight in Detroit against the Pistons. "I'm going to make a lot of people eat their words when it's time," Carter said.

We in Toronto can choose to look at it a different way, however. Sure, Carter was criticized because he deserved it. We questioned his character because he failed his employers, he failed his teammates and he failed his fans. More than that, if he comes out flying in Detroit, playing above the basket and driving the way he knows the game should be played by a player of his talent, then he is only proving his critics right. If he can do it in a Nets uniform, why couldn't he do it for the Raptors?

The problem for Carter will not be tonight in Detroit or tomorrow in Chicago or on Thursday when he makes his home debut against Indiana. Expect him to shine all this week.

The problem for Carter will come when he has to reach deep inside at some point in the future when things are not so fresh and new, when expectations start feeling like a weight around his neck, as they have these past months in Toronto.

That's when New Jersey will make the unpleasant discovery that they didn't steal a superstar for a couple of draft picks and some role players, as they now believe. They will learn about Carter's half-hearted work habits. He may possess more natural talent than just about anybody in the game today, which makes it all the easier to fault him when his heart fails to measure up.

"If you hate me now, hate me later," chided Carter on his way out of town.

For anybody who admires professionalism and character, it won't be that hard. 


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