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Say hello to Vince Carter. He's never been arrested. He hasn't cut any offensive rap albums. He has no illegitimate children, no tattoos, no pierced body parts. He's gracious and accommodating with the media. He has a youth foundation. He was the top vote-getter for the All-Star Game. He has a smile that could light up the Peace Bridge.

In short, the Toronto Raptors' star is everything the NBA wants desperately in its players, everything the league is eager to market to a public that has grown increasingly disillusioned by pro basketball. So what's the knock on Carter? What's the big criticism?

He's too nice.

"Well, that's a matter of opinion," Carter said after a recent shootaround at the Air Canada Centre. "I live my life every day to come out here and play hard for the Raptors. People are going to say what they want to say. 'You're too nice, you're too this, too that.' Fine. If I get the job done, in my mind that's all that matters to me. You can't make everybody happy."

That was just the point of a recent profile on Carter in Sports Illustrated, that he tries too hard to make everyone around him happy. His estranged father, his brother with the drug problem, his teammates, needy children in Canada -- why can't he make them all smile, too?

It's a heavy burden for the 24-year-old Carter. But he seems to be handling it very well. Three years into his career, he has become one of the biggest stars in sports, the most popular player in the NBA if the all-star vote is any indication.

In a recent poll, he was voted the most popular English-speaking athlete among Canadian youth. That's remarkable when you consider hockey's exalted status north of the border.

"He is basketball in Canada right now," said Jim LaBumbard, the Raptors' media relations manager. "It's a two-pronged situation. He ends up trying to be the spokesperson for the Raptors and for basketball in Canada. And he tries to fulfill all his obligations with TNT, NBC, ESPN, CNN and everybody in the States who wants him. So a lot of things come at him."

Carter has a fulltime PR manager, Dave Haggith, who coordinates his various endeavors in Toronto. Last year, Carter opened a Canadian chapter of his Embassy of Hope Foundation, which he formed in his hometown of Daytona Beach, Fla. In his capacity as a spokesman for literacy, he hosts a group of children at Raptors home games six times a season.

So in a public sense, Carter has approached the stature that Michael Jordan held during his ascent as an NBA superstar in the mid- to late-1980s.

"Oh, I'm not even close to what he had to go through," Carter insisted. "I still haven't touched one-fifth of what he probably had to go through."

Carter has grown weary of comparisons to Jordan, his fellow North Carolina alumnus. He also understands that they are inevitable, and that anyone will suffer from such comparisons. Carter's physical skills are comparable. But Jordan possessed an almost mythical will to win, a competitive instinct that lifted him to an even higher plane.

Critics question whether Carter has a similar will to win. Some of them are his own teammates, like Charles Oakley, Mark Jackson and Antonio Davis, veterans who publicly prod the Raptors' "young guys" to show a greater commitment to winning.

"Young guys" has become a euphemism for Carter. Like many of today's NBA stars, he is perceived as being too content with his lot in life. His teammates want him to exhibit more of the edge, the nastiness that characterized great players of the recent past -- champions like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and, of course, Jordan.

Once again, the suggestion is that Carter is simply too nice. Not tough enough.

"Personally, I want to see him meaner," said Davis, the Raptors' outspoken center. "It shows the other team that no matter what they do to him, no matter how they try to push him around, he's not going to stand for it. I think a lot of people take his smiling the wrong way. He's just a nice guy. But we've all seen him with a mean look on his face and what he's done afterward. We just want to see more of that mean look, that's all."

Last season, after learning he hadn't been named to the Olympic team (he was added later), an angry Carter had a monster game the next time out. At the Sydney Olympics, he played with uncharacteristic ferocity (and, people said he wasn't nice enough). Last month, he had a big game in Orlando against his cousin and former teammate Tracy McGrady, who had made some disparaging comments after leaving Toronto as a free agent.

So if challenged, Carter will respond. But that doesn't mean he's not motivated to win when he has a smile on his face. There are a lot of smiling assassins. A sunny demeanor can be misinterpreted as a lack of passion.

"My passion?" he said. "OK. So what?"

Well, the profile in Sports Illustrated suggested your game lacked passion, he was told.

"I don't care," he said. "I don't. It doesn't matter. I don't care what SI has to say, what ESPN has to say. I'm just going to play every day. I'm going to play hard, I'm going to play to win. I know I'm a winner. I know how to win. I come from a winning program in college, so that's just a matter of opinion.

"Maybe they should come and play me one-on-one and see. You know? Find out the truth."

Calling him out one-one-one would not be advisable, because Carter is a stunning offensive force, a man whose flights to the basket can leave observers falling out of their seats, in much the same way that a young Jordan did in his formative years in the NBA.

Like many great dunkers, though, Carter wants to be recognized for his all-around game. He won the Slam Dunk contest at last year's All-Star Game, but he isn't likely to take part this year because of a sore left knee that has bothered him since November. After he missed a home game against Philadelphia last Wednesday, there was speculation he might not play in the All-Star Game, either.

Sore knee and all, Carter has had his finest season. The 6-6 shooting guard is fourth in the NBA in scoring at 27.7 points a game, up from 25.7 a year ago.

He has worked especially hard on his three-point shooting. He hit only 28.8 percent as a rookie, but he is now 10th in the league at 42.3 percent.

Carter is an average defensive player, but he has worked hard to improve and is among the league leaders in steals. His intensity has been questioned, though. Minnesota's Wally Szczerbiak ripped him for "styling and profiling" on the floor. Toronto's Oakley hates the way he fraternizes with the opposition before games. When coach Lenny Wilkens said his team was too "friendly," you can guess who he had in mind.

While Carter doesn't care what the media says or thinks, he does take his teammates' admonitions to heart. It is no coincidence that team management has surrounded him with veterans like Oakley, Davis, Muggsy Bogues and Jackson.

"We have veterans who are there not only because they're good players, but because of their leadership and their understanding of what it takes to win in this league," said Raptors General Manager Glen Grunwald, who played for Bobby Knight at Indiana. "Someday Vince will have that veteran role, but he's not there quite yet."

Carter said the veterans treat him like a kid brother -- harshly at times, but with his best interests at heart.

"They still do," Carter said with a laugh. "Oak', Mark, all of them, still. It's just little things. Whether I play a good game or a bad game, they say, 'Do this or do that. Watch this, think about that.' And it helps. Sometimes I think, 'Man, these boys are giving me a hard time.' But when I go home at the end of the day, that's when it starts to make sense to me. After."

He is the franchise, a community treasure, and they do their best to protect him. The team's greatest fear is that he will leave when his contract expires at the end of the 2001-02 season, the way McGrady did last summer. In the SI piece, McGrady asserted that Carter is "out of there" as soon as he becomes a free agent.

Carter said he loves Toronto and has no plans to leave. But some feel the NBA would rather see him on an American franchise, instead of in a country where NBA ratings are still dreadful. The Raptors are fifth in the league in home attendance and third on the road. Clearly, he is a major attraction.

The league also would love to see him vie for a championship. But the Raptors have been just above average this season. They made the playoffs for the first time last year, but Carter struggled against the Knicks and Toronto got swept.

So critics continue to wonder if Carter is a spectacular but one-dimensional scorer, like Dominique Wilkins, or a killer, a champion, like Jordan. Never mind that Jordan didn't win a playoff series in his first three years in the league. People need to know if he'll measure up, if he'll ever be tough enough.

"You have to define tough," Davis said. "I think it's tough just being him. It's tough having everybody tell you what you're supposed to be and who you're supposed to be compared to. It's tough for him not to jump up in everybody's face and say, 'Hey, I'm not that guy. I'm not Michael Jordan. I'm Vince Carter and if you give me a few more years, I'll show you what I'm all about.'

"There's a lot of things he still has to learn. So just imagine in a few years what he's going to be. Then what are they going to say? What are they going to say to tear him down then?"

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