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Vince Carter seeks signature moment

5/13/2010 - NBA Vince Carter Orlando Magic + more

It is arguably the greatest dunk ever: Vince Carter hurdles France's 7-foot-2 Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics. It was such an emasculating play, I am positive it is the reason Weis, the Knicks' first-round pick in 1999, never bothered coming to the NBA. After all, everybody gets dunked on, but how does a player recover from getting dunked over?

Even now, when I see the play I can't believe my eyes.

The only thing harder to believe is that dunk (en route to the gold medal) remains the most significant thing Carter has done on a basketball court.

During the decade since, that Olympic team's leading scorer has had moments of brilliance, and he remains one of the game's most recognizable names. But for all of the hoopla that surrounded him at the beginning of the millennium, for the most part Carter has fallen way short of the bar "Vinsanity" set. Early injuries made him a jump-shooter, tanking in Toronto made him a villain, and playoff failure and age have turned him into an afterthought. At one point, the conversation regarding trading for Carter was about shifting the balance of power. Now it's mostly about shifting his salary.

LeBron James prides himself in being a student of the game. Well, I hope "The King" paid attention to what happened to "Air Canada" over the years. One minute a player is the best athlete in the game and the next he's Dominique Wilkins 2.0: all highlights and no hardware.

I guess that's why, if there's any reason I'm the least bit invested in the Magic's success this season, it's the possibility of Carter to win a ring. What can I say? I'm a sucker for nice guys coming in first. And for all of his shortcomings as a franchise player -- and the suspect way he's handled those shortcomings -- it's hard to deny the fact that Carter has not only been one of the league's most electrifying players but also one of the nicest. Again, that doesn't mean he's always been a model of professionalism -- that crap he pulled on the Raptors to get traded to the Nets was shameful -- but every superstar has had his diva moment.

I'd hate to see a meaningless Olympic dunk define what was once a promising career with no limits.

Comb through the storylines of the remaining big-name players in the playoffs: There are many directions one's loyalty can go. Whereas James and Steve Nash are looking to validate back-to-back MVPs, and Kobe Bryant hopes to repeat, Carter just needs a little redemption.

Believe it or not, this is the deepest the eight-time All-Star has ever been in the playoffs. That's not entirely his fault, of course, but since he's always been "the man" on his teams it's important to point out historically this man shoots worse in the playoffs than he does in the regular season: 42 percent versus 45 percent. Of course everyone shoots blanks every now and then -- witness James' Game 5 performance against Boston. But it just seems Carter's gun is always empty when his team needs its superstar to be a killer the most. I'm sure Carter's 42 percent shooting in this postseason is not what the Magic were expecting when they traded for him in the offseason and let last year's go-to guy, Hedo Turkoglu, walk in free agency. But it is better than Carter's sub-40 percent clip in his last playoff appearance for New Jersey in 2007, so I guess there's hope.

For better or for worse Carter is the starting shooting guard and No. 1 scoring option for these Orlando Magic, and if they do win it all, he has to receive some credit. At 33, he may be past his prime, but last season's Eastern Conference champions did not bring him in to be a spark. They brought him in to get the team over the hump, and they are hoping that there are still enough big shots left in that battered body of his to do so.

The first "Superman," Shaquille O'Neal, needed young perimeter superstars Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to help him win it all. By comparison, Dwight Howard, the second "Superman," is looking at old man Carter.

It's weird to think of Carter that way. Old man. But for a guard 12 years into the league, that's exactly what he is now. A championship won't erase his past nor will it make him a surefire Hall of Famer. But perhaps it will be the balm he uses in retirement to soothe all of the aches and pains from being knocked down -- both literally and metaphorically.

At the very least it will make that dunk over Weis feel less empty. Having a ring on your finger as you tell old war stories usually does.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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