The Dunk arrived less than five minutes into the game, a reverse two-handed slam by Vince Carter off a touchdown pass from Jason Kidd.
The arena (small case, definitely) exploded. The franchise’s largest home crowd of 20,174 shook its head in wonder. It was a fine gymnastic performance, precious frozen moments manufactured for posterity and SportsCenter. Then came harsh reality, in the form of Jermaine O’Neal and a 96-83 rout by Indiana.
Carter was both brilliant and awful. “I was trying too hard,” he said. The New Jersey Nets were way too small. The fans got their oohs, their aahs, their 13-point defeat. That is what the 10-18 Nets are all about, and it isn’t just because they traded away their replaceable frontcourt for Carter, a postgame analysis by the kick-them-while-they’re-down Pacers.
More to the point: Carter is not Kenyon Martin, a man who could dunk well himself. Carter is not that tough defensive presence in the frontcourt that once allowed the Nets to get away with playing so small in the East. Kidd, Martin and Richard Jefferson were a magical triumvirate that grew of age as one, from three motors into one, smooth machine.
It isn’t so easy to replace such combustion, even with a certified, authentic superstar.
In his home debut, Carter was 3 for 10 with three turnovers by halftime, before finishing strong with 25 points. O’Neal killed the Nets in the lane, early and often. By halftime, the full house grew impatient. The fans had come for the joyride, then suddenly realized there was a destination that never would be reached.
Those spectators weren’t thinking like that when they plunked down big dollars. Such is the hypnotic power of The Dunk, of Carter, who is leading all Eastern Conference forwards in All-Star votes while missing chunks of games and playing the off-guard position.
People will always pay to watch his aerial show, with its promise of thrills, its portent of disaster. The promotional poster on the way into the arena said it all: Vince was “Cleared for Landing Tonight.” If he crashed or touched down smoothly, it hardly mattered.
The little boys came and gawked behind the basket during pregame warm-ups, and they gave Carter the biggest ovation of all the starters when he was introduced.
Kidd? Polite applause.
“You give ‘em a dunk or two, that’s something they remember,” Carter said. “They think, ‘Maybe next time, he’ll show me something different.’ It’s a great feeling, that people enjoy what you bring to the game.”
Carter came into the game conscious of his entertainment value, and of the fan base’s drowsy reputation. Whenever he came here as a Raptor, Carter was stunned by the absence of fans. “There was nobody in the arena,” he said.
He hoped he might change that with a few gaudy plays. He understood that the games here would be track meets, a series of races to the hoop propelled by Kidd’s pace. Now Carter was on the relay team with Kidd, running the lanes, keeping an eye out for the surprise pass.
“I know the look,” Carter said. “Sometimes, he’s not looking at you, but he is looking at you.”
Long ago, the Nets discovered Kidd’s limitations as a drawing card. He won a ton of games, but did it by making those around him look better. As much as people say they want to see players like Kidd, they really want to see players such as Carter.
Even Kidd says he wants to see Carter’s next dunk.
“I found out about that in Detroit,” Kidd said. “I just wanted him to catch the ball and he dunked it. He can make the spectacular play. He’s the big draw we’ve needed the last couple of years.”
Carter had another one of those dunks at the start of the second half, and again you heard it from the fans. He drove the lane with a behind-the-back dribble and drew the foul. They loved it.
There were other things that were not so swell. Kidd is still nowhere near the old Kidd. The owner wants to move the franchise through a tunnel and over a bridge that is more clogged than Route 3.
Carter is the bottle of bourbon that makes people forget all those troubles. By the end of the night, the fans got what they paid for, and exactly what they deserved.
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