Vince Carter

Vince Carter in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest (via YouTube)

Vince Carter has come a long way – and not just in years.

As the oldest player in the NBA, the 41-year former Tar Heel is both an inspiration for the AARP crowd and UNC fans who love their athletes. Now with the Atlanta Hawks, his eighth NBA team, Carter never won a national championship in college or a ring on the biggest stage — but is still one of the best athletes and good guys of the game.

It wasn’t always that way, though. When Carter came from Daytona Beach, Florida, as among the most highly recruited prep stars in the country, his ability to leap from floor to rim in a single bound got him in some hot water with Dean Smith — who always wanted his players to learn and honor the game and not just rely on their physical gifts.

The love was so tough that Smith removed Carter from the starting lineup midway through his freshman year, sparking rumors that Vinsanity would transfer to someplace where the coach would let him run and gun. But after consulting with his family and Smith, Carter stayed and helped lead the Tar Heels to Final Fours in 1997 and ’98.

He and Antawn Jamison left after their junior years and were the fourth and fifth picks in the 1998 NBA draft. Both players returned to Chapel Hill during the summers and proudly walked in the graduation procession, Carter slipping into town during the NBA playoffs to don a Carolina blue robe and get his diploma. And Carter has remained one of the most popular members of the Tar Heel basketball family, donating some of the millions he has made playing basketball back to his Alma mater.

When you walk between the Smith Center and Koury Natatorium, you pass argyle-laced plaques for the decades basketball has been played at UNC. Each plague has the engraved names of those lettermen who wore the uniform during their decades. Letterman’s Way was a gift from Carter to the basketball program and athletic department.

Today, 20 years later enrolling, Carter still plays for the love of the game, and currently has made the eighth most 3-pointers in NBA history. He averages 17 minutes and 7 points coming off the bench for the Hawks, and can still throw down a high-flying dunk. He certainly doesn’t need to play, but clearly will do it as long as some team will have him.