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Gary Washburn | On Basketball

At 41, Vince Carter still makes fans stand and cheer

Vince Carter (right), shown in an October game, is averaging 7.2 points this season.
Vince Carter (right), shown in an October game, is averaging 7.2 points this season.(Lynne Sladky/AP)

It’s not officially a farewell tour for Vince Carter, yet the educated TD Garden fan knows well enough that Friday could have been the final time one of the league’s most exciting players played on the parquet.

So they cheered him when he entered the game. They cheered when he made his first 3-pointer. And they shrieked when he soared for a second-half dunk.

“I’m grateful, believe me,” he said. “Because I’ve been on the other side of a lot of boos playing here [in Boston] for Toronto and [New] Jersey. I don’t expect it until you hear it and it’s a pretty cool moment.”

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It’s astounding that Carter is still playing high-level NBA basketball at age 41, a time when most players are almost a decade retired. Basketball is not kind to the 30-something year-old body, and for Carter to push his career into his 40s, to change his game from living above-the-rim to just subletting occasionally, is one of the league’s better stories this decade.

Carter is going out on his own terms. His career is not crashing to an unceremonious conclusion like most of his brethren. He is preserving his body well enough to remain significant and serve as the unquestioned leader and basketball savant to the Atlanta Hawks’ youthful core.

Carter could have waited for a contract offer from a contending team, for a shot at winning his first NBA title, but he wanted to actually play and didn’t want to rot on the bench and serve little purpose surrounded by a bunch of established veterans.

Many all-time great players accept that role just to win a championship, but Carter wanted to serve more of a purpose. He wanted to teach as well as run the floor for an occasional dunk or stepback 3-pointer. He is satisfied with his decision, even though the Hawks fell to 6-22 with a 129-108 loss to the Celtics.

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Carter walked away with 12 points in 16 minutes on 5-for-8 shooting, including a dunk that drew the roar of the TD Garden crowd.

“You mean like people still moving out of the way [when he dunks],” Celtics guard Kyrie Irving joked. “We were laughing when Marcus Smart moved out of the way. We commend him for jumping, but he looked at Vince and Vince was like, ‘I’m dunking it.’

“He’s just timeless man, like fine wine. He continues to really lead this group and be a great spirit for them, the young guys just going through what they’re going through.”

The Hawks are in complete rebuild mode, having allowed Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder, and DeMarre Carroll to leave from that 60-win team in 2014-15. The Hawks are playing with their three first-round picks from this past draft, including heralded Trae Young, a couple of journeymen in Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon, and then Carter.

The result has been as poor as expected. The Hawks play hard but they make a lot of mistakes, so Carter is more of a teacher and mentor, trying to keep his teammates, most of whom were infants when he entered the league in 1998, from getting discouraged.

“You get tired of losing, obviously,” Carter said. “But the most important thing is our approach and doing it the right way. Right now, we’re learning how to play basketball. We’re trying to fix some bad habits and understand how to play together and try to be professionals.”

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Carter has been able to adjust to the NBA culture change that has made the league much more casual with hip-hop influences. Gone are the days of players following the Michael Jordan pattern of wearing suits to each game. They wear sweats. They dress for comfort. The younger players are all mostly familiar with each other through AAU ball. They are buddies.

Carter came into the league during a time when the players were real rivals and the average age for a rookie was 21. Carter now looks to his left and sees 20-year-old Young and to his right is 21-year-old second-year player John Collins.

“I’m thankful that I’m able to last this long and be able to compete and play at this level,” he said. “That’s what my summer entails, that’s my vision, how can I preserve my body to where, when it actually counts. Guys are 20 years old, 21 years old. Obviously we’re not winning, but this is the satisfaction that I come out here and play with these young guys and compete and just try to show them how to play the game, that’s kind of my goal. I’ve been able to accomplish it for a long time.”

What differentiates Carter from other 40-somethings who could still athletically play is the love for the game. Most players don’t tire of the game, they tire of the preparation. They develop other interests. They have a hard time dealing with losing a step or two or backing up players they would have dominated in their prime.

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Carter has been able to accept a smaller role, and the benefit is that he still gets to play, enjoy the NBA life, and now getting ovations in arenas that used to jeer him. It’s a sign of appreciation for one of the most athletic players in league history.

The NBA fans don’t take Carter’s exploits and accomplishments for granted because, in a current generation dominated by the 3-point shot or players living at the free throw line, Carter made plays that would make fans jump out of their seats on a nightly basis.

So Boston gave Carter the thank you he deserves.

“It’s nothing like showing these young players how it’s done, how to play the game,” he said. “I’m still able to do it, so that’s why I stick around.”


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.