Raptors' Skywalker Cousins

It's a rare Saturday night off in the NBA. Time for the league's hot young blades to don their best duds, pop in the diamond stud and hit the clubs, right? Well, maybe not.

Raptors' Skywalker Cousins

It's a rare Saturday night off in the NBA. Time for the league's hot young blades to don their best duds, pop in the diamond stud and hit the clubs, right? Well, maybe not. For Vince Carter, the Toronto Raptors' flashy young skywalker and the odds-on favourite for rookie of the year, Saturday night solace is found in the noisy anonymity of a Yonge Street video arcade - his collar turned up, cap pulled down, plunking quarters into Doom II and whatever else catches his fancy just like any other 22-year-old millionaire alone in a city he can't quite call home. Carter is both proud and a little sheepish about his video game obsession: "I do go out," he explains. "I've been to clubs. But basically, I'm a homebody." Yeah, right. Some home. Some body.

At six feet, seven inches, Carter has the perfect Michael Jordan-size physique for the game. Hands that can grip a basketball like an oversized grapefruit and feather a fadeaway jump shot to the hoop. The shoulders of a quarterback. And the almost impossibly skinny legs that enable him to blow by an opponent with blinding speed or jitterbug in that rare air above the rim.

In the three months he has been a professional basketball player in a strike-shortened season, Carter has become the first Raptor to be named NBA player of the week, to be interviewed during NBC's Sunday afternoon doubleheaders. His quicksilver dunks have become the staple of highlight films and have given a decidedly Raptor flavour to the NBA's Web site, where he shares the spotlight with teammate Tracy McGrady, his spring-loaded 19-year-old cousin. Teammates like veteran centre Kevin Willis say they hurry home after a game to watch again what their rookie guard has rained down on his opponents' heads. Following a recent game, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley said: "As far as skill level goes, the sky is the limit for that guy."

While fans of the Vancouver Grizzlies stagger through a desultory, injury-plagued year, Torontonians who wouldn't know a power forward from a power play are flocking to Raptors games at the Air Canada Centre, breathing in the improbable air of a spring playoff drive. What they go for is that precocious Carter scoring touch, the head-bobbing lull before the storm - will he go left, right or straight over the top? What they get as well: the infectious little-boy grin, the solid middle-class values (no tattoos or diamond studs on this guy) and a sense of family that now permeates the dressing room. Ask cousin Tracy.

Tracy McGrady was last year's rookie might-have-been: drafted straight out of high school at 18, a virtual unknown eight months before, some said he was the creation of a sneaker company (Adidas) who signed him to a six-year, $12 million (U.S.) contract before he had donned a pro uniform. A six-foot, eight-inch guard, he also has the flair for the spectacular dunk. ("Two guys like me and Vince, we're crowd pleasers. That's what we gotta do to motivate our team.") But his rookie season was not a kind one. Raptor general manager Isaiah Thomas left in a huff, followed not long after by the coach (Darrell Walker), the star player (Damon Stoudamire) and a host of other teammates. "Last year was embarrassing, man," says McGrady. "I was just so confused. Now, every day I look forward to. Especially with Vince around. He's pumped all the time. I know he's going to pick me up."

The cousin factor. The two are actually related in a distant way. McGrady's grandmother and Carter's grandmother are cousins, and when McGrady discovered this at a family reunion two years ago he called up Carter, then a sophomore just breaking into the starting lineup of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. McGrady was 15 minutes away in Durham, finishing high school at Mount Zion Christian Academy, a religion and basketball boot camp. The two have been almost inseparable ever since.

Family is important to McGrady, maybe because he grew up in such an extended grouping. Raised mostly by a doting grandmother, Roberta Williford, in the small central Florida town of Auburndale (population 9,000), a strip mall on the way to bigger centres, McGrady has six younger stepbrothers and stepsisters who he is close to; three of them came to Toronto for spring break to hang out with the Raptors. Next door lived a family of cousins that he played sports with almost every day. Now, when he dunks in a way that amazes even him, he puts his thumbs and forefingers together in the form of an A for "the cuzzes" back in Auburndale. When Carter works his magic, he merely beats his chest or flexes his muscles like a cartoon character: "Hey man, just having some fun. That's what it's all about."

Family is important for Carter, too. Both parents were teachers in suburban Daytona Beach, about an hour from Auburndale in a fast car, who instilled in him values of caring for others in a formal way (he has already established his own foundation for disadvantaged children) and learning from his mistakes. He was always a good athlete. Basketball took over from football when his teenage body began to stretch. But he was never the centre of attention as he is now.

The Raptors also know something about family. Like most pro teams, they look after their "boys" with team doctors, nutritionists, dentists, and help in finding accommodation or a good tailor. Rookies go through a daunting NBA-run transition program at the beginning of the season to teach them how to manage their money and to stay away from gamblers and groupies. But the cousin connection is one of the key components in the Raptors' Cinderella year, along with the stand-up toughness of veteran players Willis and Charles Oakley.

The two cousins clearly have a feel for each other on the court, and lately coach Butch Carter has been extending their playing time together, notably in the crucial final minutes. In a recent game against the division-leading Indiana Pacers, Carter and McGrady scored 50 of the team's 99 points. McGrady, the dreamier of the two, sees them sometimes as the next Scottie Pippen-Michael Jordan combination, with himself in the supporting role. "That's my game," he says. "I enjoy getting Vince the ball. He's our scorer." Carter won't touch that analogy. He's played pickup ball with His Airness at UNC, their mutual alma mater; he knows he has a long way to go to be in that league and he is desperate to be his own man. His sneaker deal is with Puma, not known as a basketball power. And he has recently asked some of his old UNC teammates to help him find a nickname.

But he also has a sixth sense for his cousin, bucking him up with head butts when he's down, finding him when he cuts to the hoop. "Sometimes we're running down the court I couldn't tell you who is on my right," says Carter. "I know he's on my left. For some reason, I just know where he is."

He ought to know where he is. They live three floors apart in the same apartment building by Lake Ontario. They spend most of their free time hanging out together or with teammates, renting movies, playing Play Station video games. (Of the four Floridians on the Raptors, all single guys, three live in the same building.) "I do a lot of sleeping," says McGrady. His 19-year-old body is still growing; he's willing it to be six-foot-nine and a half. They are also phone-aholics, with the occasional $1,500 a month phone tab. "Sometimes," says Carter, laughing, "I'm at the front of the team bus, he's in the back. We're talking to each other on the phone. Drives the other guys crazy."

Life in the NBA is a crazy gig anyway - part closed brotherhood, part star machine. "People in Toronto are cool, they give me some space," says Carter. "Back home everybody wants a piece of you." McGrady, with the sleepy eyes and laidback manner, is the most outgoing. He thinks of himself as the big brother: "That's right," he says. "I look out for him. But I know he's looking out for me, too. We don't need an entourage." Adds Carter: "There are not too many guys that come into the NBA with family on the same team." The NBA norm is every man for himself. But not in Toronto. Here it is two guys linked by the same dreams, the same charmed life and their own sneaker commercials set to air this month. Family stuff. Showtime.

Maclean's April 26, 1999