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Monday, October 2, 2000

Vince: The dink of dunk?

Raptor takes gold in bad sportsmanship at Games


  SYDNEY -- Is Vince Carter becoming a dink?

 You asked this question, I know you did, when you saw the highlights or the live feed of Carter and his American basketball buddies, waxing France 85-75 in the gold medal game Saturday evening.

 You noticed that he was in two shoving matches in the tournament. Maybe you also took note that he seems to be talking all the time, to his coaches, to the game officials and to opponents.

 You saw Carter's two fourth-quarter dunks. The first prompted a kiss to the crowd, the second drew a double smack.

 And when you saw these things, you asked yourself: Who is this guy?

 This is not Vince Carter. This is Gorgeous George.

 "It was my mom, I was blowing kisses to my mom," Carter said after the game.

 Great. I'm sure she appreciated it. Couldn't he have just kissed her later.

 I know, Vince Carter blowing kisses to his mom might seem like small potatoes. It isn't.

 Vince Carter is the finest professional athlete Toronto, I might even guess Canada, has to call its own.

 He is the greatest pure athletic talent to play for a Toronto team since Roberto Alomar, who, you may remember, went from being a nice kid who hustled out every ball to a talented stiff who complained about the level of respect he received. Alomar signed with Baltimore in 1995 and became forever memorable to Blue Jays fans, not for his ninth-inning blast against Oakland in the 1992 American League championship series, but for gobbing on umpire John Hirschbeck.

 Before our very eyes, Roberto Alomar became a dink.

 Is it now Vince Carter's turn?

 The U.S. basketball team had staggering talent and was infinitely better than France. But two nights earlier it almost lost to Lithuania because it lacked leadership. If someone named Ramunas Siskauskas had hit two free throws in the final minute, the Americans would have left Sydney as the greatest collection of stiffs in Olympic history.

 And what was Vince Carter doing as his team walked off the floor. He was flashing his index finger. We're No. 1.

 The Americans constantly complained about officiating. Many, including Kevin Garnett and Gary Payton, devoted great energy to verbally trashing opponents. And against France, against everyone, Vince was right in there.

 The French were dumbfounded. All they wanted to do was play. No talk, no complaints, just basketball. Imagine.

 "There is a different culture of basketball," French forward Stephane Risacher said. "They play the game NBA style and some of things they do, we just don't understand. It's not our culture."

 Dead on Steve. It is American culture. It is the culture that values the dunk over the layup because the dunk is about expression, about emphasis, about not beating a team but beating up on it. But it's not our culture either.

 Hockey, more than anything, defines the harshest elements of our sporting identity. We might try to beat you up, but we will not try to humiliate you. There is a difference. Canadians understand that.

 Canadians loved Wayne Gretzky as much for his demeanour as his skills. He was one of us, not so much because he was from Brantford, but because he represented the best we could be. You never had the feeling he wanted to embarrass anyone.

 In his first two years with the Raptors, Vince Carter fit that mould. His athletic ability made him instantly charismatic, but his comportment on the court made him likable and worthy of our loyalty and respect.

 And now, we wonder. Is he the same guy?

 He has changed agents, dumping the suspect Tank Black for Merle Scott. He has changed shoe companies from Puma to Nike. But, what about the man who wears the shoes?

 "I don't think I've changed at all," Carter said after the final Olympic game. "What's different? A gold medal."

 You've got to admire a man who, at 23, answers a tough question straight-on. But maybe you also have to worry. If he hasn't changed, maybe we never knew him at all.