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Sunday, August 27, 2000

School is in for Vince Carter

  LAHAINA, Hawaii -- The process is as old as sport itself:

 Veterans taking young players under their wings and handing them the secret keys, the ones that will help unlock their potential, show them the things that help them mature as players and people.

 For the Raptors' Vince Carter, that's an important part of what this Olympic experience will be about. The process began yesterday, Day 1 of training camp for the U.S. Olympic team. Carter's tutor? Nine-year NBA veteran shooting guard Steve Smith of the Portland Trail Blazers.

 "We played a lot of one-on-one," Carter said. "He was showing me some stuff."

 Ah, yes, the "stuff."

 Yes, as Carter emphasized yesterday, he very much wants to win a gold medal and represent his country, honours that will last a lifetime.

 "A gold medal will be among the top three achievements of my career," Carter said.

 But this is the time that will also allow him to begin to learn the intangibles that will last the course of his NBA career -- things that can be learned in no better laboratory, things that will almost certainly make him a better, more confident, NBA player.

 "An experience like this gives you a chance to get to know your colleagues," said veteran Miami Heat centre Alonzo Mourning, who spent most of the flight from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii sitting next to Carter, chatting, getting to know him, trading experiences. "During the season, the atmosphere is so competitive. This is neutral ground.

 "That's what (Vince) will value more than anything."

 That Smith and Carter hooked up together yesterday was virtually inevitable. Not only is Smith a veteran, but he's a veteran two-guard -- or shooting guard -- which just happens to be the position that Carter will make the transition to this coming season, assuming the Doug Christie-Corliss Williamson trade goes through as expected.

 That transition will mark the next phase of Carter's career. It's vital that it go smoothly. There's possibly no better tutor in the NBA than Smith, who played for more than four seasons under current Raptors coach Lenny Wilkens and who is almost certain to emerge as one of this Olympic team's leaders in Sydney.

 "On the court, (Carter) is there," Smith said. "He's going to be one of the greats. Off the court, this is an opportunity to learn how to handle the stardom that he already has. He already does an unbelievable job, given how young he is.

 "But here you get a chance to become a complete player on and off. He has a chance to take up the torch (from former Bulls great Michael Jordan). A lot of people say no one ever will do that, but I think Vince has that chance. If he does, you want to help him realize it."

 Carter said yesterday that U.S. coach Rudy Tomjanovich has talked about the Raptors star playing both shooting guard and small forward at the Olympics.

 "Both are fine with me," Carter said. "It doesn't matter."

 "We talked about just that," Smith said. "I showed him some things about playing shooting guard. What's so great about him is he's versatile enough to be able to make the switch. Time will tell what's best for him.

 "But it will be a challenge for him. He won't be able to rest on a single possession. He'll have to take it to the next level -- which is scary for us, for the rest of the league. 'Cause the thing is, he'll probably do it."

 When he does, some of the credit will lie in the experience Carter is going through now. He'll not only get a taste of playing two-guard, but he'll learn so many more invaluable lessons.

 "This will show him how to grow up and run his team," said Seattle's Gary Payton, a 10-year veteran who is playing on his second U.S. Olympic team.

 There are signs that already has begun.

 Asked yesterday about the Raptors, and the off-season moves, Carter was assertive, certain.

 'Pretty good team'

 "No matter what people say, I think we're going to have a pretty good team," he said. "I'm going to make sure of it.

 "Nobody wants to lose. You don't want to go backward if you can help it. The goal is to go forward."

 For Carter, wearing the Olympic-team uniform, learning from experienced veterans, will almost certainly help his own goals be realized.

 Craig Daniels can be reached by e-mail at cdaniels@sunpub.com