- Matt Wong, NBA
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Vince Carter is standing on the left wing, ball in his hands. One head fake and he's off, down the baseline. He's elevating, floating, levitating. Finally, he decides to throw it down ... on two defenders ... with his left hand.
"Man, I've never seen you throw it down with your left," I say after collecting myself.
"Yeah, I think I've only done it twice in my life," Vince says.
And now once in EA's NBA Live 2004.
He's smiling, admiring cyber Carter's emphatic flush. Me? I'm shaking my head, just like I would after any other 'real' Vince Carter highlight.
Just like when he dangled off the rim by his elbow, when he scissor-legged it over a helpless 7'2" French dude, and even when he -- understandably -- threw on a cap and gown despite a playoff series on the line and the media on his case.
The man leaves an image to behold, and the same holds true when he's hooping it up on the virtual hardwood -- on the screen or in front of it.
He's sitting three feet away from the TV as I take my place beside him for our head-to-head matchup. His stare and black Blue Jays cap are pointed in the same direction. He's slightly crouched, head tilted upward, legs shoulder-length apart. New Toronto coach Kevin O'Neill would be proud of the defensive positioning and even more impressed by his star's faithfulness to his team.
Although, he should know Vince was about to play using the Spurs, until I questioned his allegiance. "Fine, I'll take the Raptors," he said somewhat reluctantly.
Why wouldn't you, I thought. Wouldn't you want to be yourself, especially when being yourself means being a dunking machine with an outside shot -- an unstoppable combo? "I like that automatic scoring power down low," Vince says, referring to Tim Duncan.
My take? Some athletes have such an intense desire to win at anything that they look for any advantage they can get, in this case the NBA champs, even if it means putting team loyalty on hold.
I was looking for a team that would be a challenge both to him and myself. A mediocre lineup. A group of underdogs. A squad that could double as an excuse if I lost. I took the Knicks.
Vince immediately took control.
"Hit the X button," he says, not taking his eye off the screen. I hit it. "Hit it again." I hit it again. There was no time for small talk, it was time to ball.
No problem, I was ready. I even prepared the night before, playing Live with my brother. Unfortunately, the only version I found lying around was '99 -- back when KG had Steph, Grant Hill had a future, and EA had Antoine Walker on the cover! But it didn't matter, I just needed to refamiliarize myself with the controls.
I had a lot to prove after getting schooled by Mike Vick in Madden 2004. But with Vince Carter confessing he was better at football games, and with hoops games being my thing, I was confident the outcome would be different.
And it was ... for about a quarter.
The Raptors, wearing their new alternate red jerseys, won the tip. And before you could scream "Fire Layden", Vince jammed in the game's first points to the delight of the crowd at the Air Canada Centre. After a Howard Eisley turnover, Vince nailed a three and I was well on my way to politely putting down the controller and walking out the door until Allan Houston, thankfully, swished home an 18-footer.
"Who was that?" VC says. "Houston? He'll hit that every time."
We traded a few baskets, with most of his buckets coming from Vince and most of mine coming from the line.
Raptor rook Chris Bosh picked up his third personal when he hacked Kurt Thomas in the act of bricking home a three-pointer from the same spot LJ did back in '99. Bosh took a seat, Thomas completed the four-point play and, somewhere on the floor, Antonio Davis was having severe flashbacks.
"Man, you're gonna foul out all my big men," VC says, frustrated at his team's lack of discipline on D.
The score at the end of one: Raptors 21, Knicks 13.
With the offensively-challenged Knicks managing 13 points in a quarter, the Raptors frontcourt in foul trouble and me not even having fully grasped the new controls yet, I was excited. I was confident. I was about to look him in the eye and tell him in vintage Vince, hand-motions and all, "It's over."
I was down 38-19 by halftime.
The saddest part wasn't that I only scored six points in the second quarter or that Houston was my leading rebounder, but the fact that every time down the floor Eisley would chuck a 20-foot floater thanks to the new button configuration and my reflexes still stuck in '99.
The square button no longer triggers a cross-over move but now initializes a dunk or short-range shot. So Eisley would come down the court looking to get into the paint, but instead of a little shake and bake at the top of the key, the result was a nasty-looking tear drop, since dunking from 20 feet out isn't allowed.
I should've pulled Eisley, like Riley should've pulled Starks in '94, but I stuck with him. He went on to reward me with a 2-for-20 performance.
With no Spree or even Mark Jackson, who might've hit a few long-range heaves, I stuck with my entire starting five in the second half. I sure didn't want Maciej Lampe's first minutes to be against a guy who might have a thing for embarrassing seven-foot foreign-born Knick draftees.
Vince, on the other hand, showed confidence in young Bosh, putting him right back in. "I like this kid," he says. "He's got some talent."
For most of the second half all you would hear was VC talking to his players, Marv Albert and Mike Fratello calling the game, and me muttering.
Vince is yelling at his team to play D, cheering his team after a good sequence, and even tossing a little trash-talk my way. He's calling his shots, he's making the referee signal for a charge right in my face. And after his lefty finish, even virtual Vince shows me up with his famous pose -- hands pointing in the air as if he was shooting an arrow.
With the game well in hand now, VC stops rubbing it in. He's giving me credit for a sound rejection or tough shot. He's showing me how to perform an alley-oop. He's complimenting me when I execute one.
"Thanks," I say, hiding the fact that it was pure luck. "I think I'm finally getting the hang of it."
He wins 79-49. I lose all self-respect.
I suggest we check out the stats, just for fun, to further my humiliation.
"Hold up," he says. "Lets see who the Player of the Game was."
And much to his amusement it was him, Half-Man Half-Amazing, scoring 41 points on 16-for-24 shooting. "Solid," he says. Three blocks. "Solid." Three steals. "Solid."
He scrolls through the next screen. He's delighted to find that both Bosh and AD put up double-digit rebounds: "I like what I see from my big men. This was a total team effort."
Then he's on to my stats. He's in awe of Houston's double-double and Eisley's 11 boards and can only say, "Now that's impressive."
But what humors him the most is Keith Van Horn's 2-for-15 Knick debut. He smiles, "You know who was guarding him?"
I look at him. And all I can do is shake my head.
Matt Wong is an editor for ESPN Gamer.
Lifelong Knick fan Matt Wong found out even the virtual Vince Carter is too much for the Big Apple to handle -- especially when VC himself is at the controls.