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Chris Rock and the Vinsanity defense
by Dennis Hans / December 30, 2004

A week or so ago, the sports media were full of mindless allegations, insinuations and speculation by NBA players and commentators that Vince Carter intentionally sabotaged the Toronto Raptors’ comeback attempt in a November 19 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics. But common-sense logic, videotape of the key play and an insightful one-liner by comic Chris Rock establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Carter is innocent.

The controversy started December 19 – a month after the game was played – when Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune reported that “Three members of the Seattle SuperSonics say they believe Carter intentionally tipped off a play during the final minute of the Raptors’ 101-94 loss to the Sonics in Toronto”.

One of the Sonics told Hughes that Carter said directly to the Seattle bench, “It’s a flare. It’s a flare.” The other two Sonics confirmed that account. Hughes asked the first Sonic why Carter would tip the play. “We were all under the impression that he was sabotaging his team because he was getting booed by the fans and he wanted to get traded,” he said.

Two Sonics, including the one just quoted, accused anonymously. Only Reggie Evans was willing to be quoted by name. It’s my impression that all three truly believe their accusation. And even though few NBA players know as little about offensive basketball as Evans, ignorance doesn’t seem to be the prime factor in their belief. Rather, it’s the mindset through which they viewed Carter’s actions: In their minds, he had a motive to sabotage the comeback (his desire to be traded), and therefore it would be perfectly rational, albeit shockingly unethical,
to reveal the inbounds play.

When asked by Hughes if Carter had perhaps been acting as a decoy, the Sonic accusers pointed out that such an explanation went out the window when the Raptors ran the play and it was indeed a flare designed for Vince.

But there are plenty of other innocent explanations for Carter’s words and deeds. Before we get to them, we should note that Carter had an infinitely greater motive not to sabotage the comeback: If he did and if he were caught, his career would be over. He would have humiliated himself and his family, lost the respect of his peers, and kissed goodbye $100 million or more in future salary and endorsements.

Hoopsters aren’t the only people who succumb to paranoid fantasies. Among the topics I write about is foreign policy, and the Sonic trio remind me of some of the honest elements of the CIA who, because they assumed Saddam Hussein had WMD and active WMD programs in 2002, interpreted every piece of nebulous “intelligence” as further proof of their existence. The same mindset among journalists made them suckers for less-than-honest sources within the CIA and the Bush administration eager to inflate the Iraqi threat. Plausible, innocent explanations – e.g., the aluminum tubes weren’t suitable for nuclear centrifuges but were a perfect fit for Iraq’s arsenal of conventional rockets – were dismissed out of hand because they didn’t fit with the prevailing “we know he’s guilty” mindset.

In sports, when it comes to questioning a competitor’s integrity, players shouldn’t think twice, they should think at least 50 times, before leveling in public such a serious, career-ending charge. Reporters and commentators should do the same before reporting the accusation, echoing it, or even merely speculating on its validity.

As for innocent explanations, it would seem a reasonable possibility that Carter said what he said to make the Sonics think he was not going to run that play. It’s the old reverse-psychology trick: “He’s saying it to make us think he’s going to do that, but we’re not gonna fall for that ploy.” It’s like a catcher telling the batter, “Here comes the heater.” The batter has no idea if the catcher is telling the truth. Or a quarterback barking out an audible at the line of scrimmage. What does it mean? Even if you’ve broken the code, nothing in the rules would have prevented the QB from changing the code on the sidelines minutes earlier. Besides, the defense has no way of knowing if the spoken words are a real or fake order. Merely by making the defense hesitant, causing players to think before they react, the QB has gained an advantage.

Maybe Vince wanted the Sonics to believe the inbounds pass was in fact coming his way, so they would put excessive focus on him, thus increasing the chances that at least one good-shooting teammate would be
left alone, either for the inbounds pass or the pass after that one. Remember, with 29 seconds to go and trailing by seven, the object is to get, as quickly as possible, a high-quality shot. It is not to jack up the first available shot – say, a desperation, off-balance heave from treyville by a shooter with bad legs. The trio of paranoid Sonics would have a stronger case if Vince had jacked up a low-percentage shot.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Now let’s go to the tape – to be precise, my memory of a single viewing of the tape.

With the Sonics trailing by seven with 29 seconds to go, it’s Toronto’s ball out of bounds at half court. Vince cuts toward the right corner. A pass is thrown in his direction and the defense reacts to the ball. Vince catches the pass in motion, and in nearly the same motion he throws a pass to a wide open Matt Bonner at the top of the key. Why it’s almost as if he knows right where to find him! Bonner is a good shooter who will finish the evening 7 of 9 from the floor. At this pivotal moment he has his feet set. He’s prepared in the event the ball swings his way. It is, and as soon as he catches it he executes his sweet stroke and drains the shot.

It was a quickly and brilliantly executed play, whether it was drawn up by the coach or improvised by Vince. (Lest we forget, “read and react” is one of the pillars of sound offensive basketball.) The only way it could have been better is if Bonner had been behind the arc. (From my one look I thought he was behind the arc, but the refs had a better view and presumably made the correct call in ruling it a deuce.)

The pass led to one of Vince’s five assists on the night. Vince was a respectable 7 for 14 that night, but under the circumstances he made the right play, one that gave the Raptors the best chance for a quick score: a crisp past to a wide-open, hot-shooting teammate, rather than an off-balance, on-the-run heave by himself.

LAZY JOURNALISM KEEPS ACCUSATION ALIVE

To understand how an implausible accusation can linger, just look at this passage in the December 20 New York Times by an unidentified reporter or editor:

“On the play, which was designed for Carter, Toronto was trailing by 7 points with 29 seconds left. Matt Bonner ended up scoring on the play for the Raptors.”

Or this description from the same day’s Toronto Star, by reporter Jennifer Quinn:

“Toronto did run a flare play for Carter, but he was unable to get a shot off. Instead, the ball got to rookie Matt Bonner, who scored.”

To say that the ball “got to” Bonner, who then “ended up” scoring on the play makes it sound like Vince played no role in the bucket. Maybe the ball was tossed around the perimeter as the clock wound down. Maybe it was deflected a few times before miraculously winding up in Bonner’s hands. Those two reports leave it up to the reader’s imagination to wonder how and when the ball reached Bonner.

Nothing prevented the journalists from writing, “No sooner had Carter caught the inbounds pass than he whipped a perfect pass to a wide-open Bonner, a fine spot-up shooter having a hot night. Bonner caught the pass with his feet set and knocked down the long-range shot, cutting the lead to five.”

If the Times and Star had written that, most readers would have concluded that the only hoop-crime Carter committed was baiting the Sonics into focusing on him while leaving a good-shooting teammate all alone.

Other reporters did a good job of accurately describing the play in question, but the poor performance of Quinn and others helped to give the accusation more credence than it deserved.

ROCK'S VINSANITY DEFENSE

Carter’s Sonic accusers would have been wise to ponder one particular basketball insight of comedian Chris Rock before branding Carter a cheater.

I recall seeing Rock on TV a few years ago getting a big laugh with a line about white sharpshooters. Here’s how Rock put it to Ira Berkow, who conducted interviews with famous b-ball fans for his book Court Visions: “I always say that the most dangerous play in basketball is the open white man. It's because there is nothing more surefire. . . . A white guy open behind the arc is frightening.”

As noted, Bonner wasn’t quite behind the arc. But he was open, he’s white, and he fits the deadeye stereotype to which Rock eludes. The kid can shoot. If Sonic defenders had done their homework instead of being mesmerized by words from Vince that could have meant anything or nothing, someone would have rotated to the ready-to-fire redhead. No one did.

There’s more to the brilliant Rock than hilarious one-liners based on stereotypes. But the reason folks of every hue laugh at that form of humor (assuming it doesn’t demean a group or legitimize harassment and discrimination) is because there’s usually some truth behind the stereotype. How many Suns fans still have nightmares about John Paxson? How many Nets and Jazz fans awake in a cold sweat at 4 am because their team can’t keep track of slow-poke Steve Kerr in key moments of the NBA Finals? Granted, Robert Horry and plenty of other black shooters induce their share of nightmares. But white deadeyes tend to stand out because they’re a small percentage of NBA players and many of them would not be in the league if they weren’t phenomenal shooters.

If Matt Bonner survives in the NBA it will be as a bruiser with a deadly shot. He probably won’t inspire nightmares of the Paxson and Kerr variety or one-liners from Chris Rock, but I’m not surprised Vince knew just where to find him on that last-minute play.

If hoop court were in session, I’d find Vince Carter innocent of all charges. I’d order the three Sonics – and every print, radio and TV commentator who echoed their outrageous, unsubstantiated accusation – to pay substantial damages for defamation and slander.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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