By Kyle Magin
Vince Carter is the last in a proud lineage of former Dean Smith-era North Carolina Tar Heels who played well in the NBA well past their expiration dates.
Carter’s every game for the Memphis Grizzlies extends a 16-year professional career that began as prodigal and gravity-defying and is now sly and spry. He’s the oldest player on his NBA team’s roster by a long shot—and in that distinction he’s in great company. It’s been held by former Smith disciples Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Antawn Jamison and Rasheed Wallace, amongst others.
Those Heels all aged gracefully, making the transition from ingénues to grizzled veterans by constantly improving their games and finding new ways to make themselves valuable in a league that is used to tossing aside 24-year-olds once they start to break down.
Dozens of guys born in 1991 have joined the rest of us in our careers as non-professional athletes after washing out of the league following their first professional contract. Carter was born in 1977—one of 5.3 percent of NBA players who were born before 1980.
That Smith is the binding tie between all the aforementioned, long-in-the-tooth Heels is no coincidence.
From the early ’60s when Smith integrated the profoundly racist ACC through the late-’90s when TV money inextricably changed the game of college basketball, young men trooped to Chapel Hill to become better basketball players. Smith never cheated them in that pursuit. More than a few players with tremendous God-given scoring and leaping ability collected splinters in their asses because they wouldn’t or couldn’t play defense.
In his classic telling of Michael Jordan’s career, Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam notes the shock other ACC coaches expressed when His Airness only barely broke the double-digit minute mark in league play during his rookie season. He’d of course go on to sink the winning shot in the 1982 NCAA title game as a freshman; but Smith’s teaching message was noted: all of your skills must progress in order to find the court.
It’s a lesson a lot of these guys took to heart and carried through the years—due in no small part to their famous summer workouts under Smith’s watchful eye in Chapel Hill even after his 1997 retirement. An instructive study in their osmosis of Smith’s relentless refining is to look at the latter years in their careers.
Carter is as efficient as he was in his pogo-stick years of the early 2000s when it comes to getting to the free throw line—where last year he sank it at an 82 percent clip, as impressive a rate as he was shooting in his prime.
He’s still one of the game’s finest defensive rebounders as a guard (he pulls down 10 percent of available boards)—mind you, his average opposing two-guard was born in 1990 and more than a handful were still in diapers when Smith took Carter to a pair of final fours.
Perkins didn’t do a whole lot in his last few years with the Pacers at the turn of the century—he was thick in the middle and slowed by injury. In limited minutes, though, he still worked the boards through sage positioning to grab the same percentage of his own team’s missed shots at 39 as Chris Bosh does today at age 30.
Wallace was crucial to the Pistons’ playoff runs in the mid-2000s as he advanced into his 30s—he touched the ball on roughly a quarter of the team’s possessions and assisted on more than 11 percent of his teammates’ made shots. In Wallace, Chauncey Billups nearly always had a second point guard on the floor who could always be counted on to find a cutting guard or to kick it out to a wide-open wing.
Jordan, of course, ran a masters course on aging well. In the three full post-baseball Chicago seasons, Jordan (age 32, 33 and 34) saw more than one-third of the Bulls’ offensive sets run through him, yet he still grabbed almost 11 percent of available rebounds and shot as accurately from three-point land as at any point in his illustrious career.
Fans of his Washington Wizards years (all 12 of you) watched him maintain his stature as a gifted defensive rebounder while routinely checking the young players who wanted to tee off on their idol on any given night. That’s exhausting work.
These statistical finds are not anomalous and certainly not unrelated to Smith’s influence.
True, all of these guys would likely have enjoyed professional careers if they played for Montana State. Smith recruited thoroughbreds. But, without the constant admonishments to work on their all-around games, how early do they exit basketball?
Do Jordan and Carter coast through a few contracts as one-trick dunkers, as we’ve seen happen to nine out of every ten 6’6”, 220 lb. “next Jordans?” Does Perkins find himself cut once he loses the ability to out-muscle his competition? Does Wallace make it to the late 2000s without a face-up game and a professor’s understanding of spacing?
You’ll find a great pro alumni or even a few of them at every blue chip basketball program in America. But it’s really only at North Carolina where you could put together a formidable roster of alums who gathered a decade-plus of all-pro experience and found roster spots as the senior members of their respective organizations.
More frequently than not, those Heels were coached by Dean Smith. 15 years later, it still showed.