Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Vince Carter, Blake Griffin and falling
By Henry Abbott
Blake Griffin and Vince Carter both entered the NBA as revered high-fliers. Then ... the nitpicking.
The other day, bless him, Jalen Rose told one of those "was he supposed to tell that?" kind of stories on Grantland's YouTube channel.
The way Rose tells it, when he was with the Raptors, coach Sam Mitchell approached Vince Carter in the training room, saying something about how much time Carter spent there. Mitchell was essentially endorsing the accusation of untold millions of NBA fans: That Carter was soft.
Mitchell, it's worth pointing out, is no pushover. Toughness was no small part of his value as an NBA player and coach.
Carter didn't take it well. Rose says after a bit of shoving, Carter proceeded to pick up his head coach, and hold him across his shoulders WWF-style, before slamming Mitchell to the floor.
Carter's teammates first checked to make sure Mitchell had no permanent damage -- and then laughed their butts off.
There are a lot of things you can take from that story. That Rose is a more daring storyteller than most retired players, for instance. Or that Carter pushed some limits in the player/coach relationship.
One thing you really simply cannot take from that story is that Vince Carter is soft.
Which is in keeping with those who know him, who generally laugh that he was ever called that. It's easy to find people who'll tell you Carter was, for much of his NBA career, dispirited, or injured. He himself admitted that he did not always play hard, which was all the confirmation his critics needed. It is not easy to find people, however, who both know him well and buy that he's just not tough enough to do the job of being an elite NBA player and a winner. Interview people who knew Carter in high school, and they'll tell you he was not even a tiny bit soft. Talk to people who knew him in college, and they'll say he was tough as you'd ever want him to be.
Even NBA fans once agreed. Carter arrived in the league, got some playing time, and he toured arena to arena, night after night, destroying just about everybody.
I'm not sure I have ever been in an arena more electric than when Vinsanity was in full swing, at Oakland in 2000, when Carter redefined dunk contest greatness.
Oh boy did they love him. He could literally do no wrong. It's something you almost never see.
But the man they once called "half man, half amazing," who may have never really been soft, is forever branded that way. (Nowadays #NBArank calls him the NBA's 185th best player, with the cute line that nowadays he's "99 percent man, one percent amazing.")
All of which matters not all that much, I'd guess ... unless you're Blake Griffin.
Griffin is undeniably Carter's air heir, his clearing of that Kia being the dunk contest's post-Carter high-water mark. And they have other parallels.
Both entered the consciousness with a season of blowing minds, mostly via highlights. Both had played a season or more there was any serious conversation whatsoever about shortcomings they might have.
Did both follow that up with a period when critics reach to celebrate any flaw they can find?
As Carter can attest, a "Golden Boy" entrance onto the scene can be a double-edged sword: If you're introduced as essentially perfect people get all excited when flaws emerge, which they inevitably do.
There's a certain "you fooled me once already, I'm not buying that hype anymore" vibe that permeates.
Everyone went nuts for Griffin a year ago, and in the enthusiasm he debuted in the 2011 #NBARank as the tenth best NBA player. A lofty seed indeed.
From there, he went out and had a wonderful year, full of improvement, hard work, production and plenty of wins. And after all that, even as enthusiasm for many of his rivals has waned (Dirk Nowitzki, for instance, was at an all-time high post-title last summer) Griffin has dropped to 14th, and many still call that too high. People now are happy to point out things that were ignored a year ago: That many power forwards play better defense. That he'd help his team much more with a better jumper.
It's all probably nothing. Every player bounces around in public sentiment. Likely there is no trend.
But if Griffin has, through no fault of his own, passed out of the phase when millions are delighted to ooh and aah, and into the next phase where they take more glee in identifying his shortcomings ... then watch out. The narrative can turn quickly, the body slam to your reputation can be quick. The more they loved you, the more they'll love owning you with criticism, some of which may not even be based in reality.
Just ask Vince Carter.