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Rare Air It figures that Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady of the Raptors are comparable talents and kindred spirits. They're cousins! (Well, sort of)

For all of Raptor Vince Carter's many virtues, he's not a patient
man. Tooling around Toronto in his black Navigator, Carter taps
anxiously on the dashboard at each red light. In the electronic
warehouse that doubles as his sprawling condo overlooking Lake
Ontario, he keeps four remotes on his coffee table so he can
instantaneously change channels or switch CDs. A fledgling golfer
who shoots in the high 90s, Carter usually starts his backswing
before he has finished strolling to the ball. "Even as a child,
he would get impatient real easy," says Vince's mother, Michelle
Carter-Robinson. "Sometimes I'd have to tell him to relax, calm
down and go to a movie or something."

Young, restless and preposterously talented, Carter was a bundle
of nerves during the (to hear him tell it) excruciatingly long
off-season. Ever since the end of the 1998-99 campaign, when he
made a telegenic ascent to stardom, earning the Rookie of the
Year Award and nearly leading the Raptors to the playoffs for the
first time in the franchise's four-year history, Carter, a 6'6"
forward, has been pining to start his second season and get back
to the business of basketball. When you're 22, on the cusp of
greatness and playing for a team on the upswing, delayed
gratification is a burden that's hard to bear. "Last season was
great, but it feels like ancient history," Carter says, looking
out the window of his condo. "I'm ready to keep showing what I
can do. When I say ready, I mean I'm ready now."

As Carter tries not to carom off the walls of his pad, three
floors up in the same building, the eagerness of his teammate
Tracy McGrady is less apparent. If the NBA blueprint shows that
successful teams boast dynamic duos, the Raptors have a
tantalizing one in Carter and McGrady. Like Carter, the
20-year-old McGrady has dazzling skills; Bulls general manager
Jerry Krause has likened him to Scottie Pippen. But upon
sauntering back to Toronto after his summer in Florida, McGrady
immediately revealed himself to be in midseason form when it
came to sleeping and chilling out. The abiding question: Can
McGrady overcome his somnolence, accelerate his development and
maximize the effectiveness of his mutually respectful--and
deep--relationship with Carter on the court this season? "No
problem," McGrady says. "Vince is hyper, and I'm laaaaid-back.
But on the court, I'm going to step up."

When Carter stepped up last season, he was pulled right into the
league's superstar vacuum. Thanks to his ability to score,
rebound and block shots--and, not least, dunk with
ferocity--Toronto will play on national television six times this
season, which is five more than it did last year. Stores all over
North America can't restock their inventory of Raptors number 15
jerseys quickly enough, and Carter's calendar is booked solid
with promotional appearances in Ontario. If the entire province
is pro-Vince, Carter is equally enamored of his new community,
one that until recently didn't know a moving pick from Movenpick,
a popular restaurant in Toronto. Cruising Yonge Street or
spending a night out in the Entertainment District, Toronto's
tallest celebrity greets all comers with a disarming smile and a
"What's up, cuz?" It's a generic address, but when directed at
McGrady, the term takes on a much richer meaning.

At a family reunion in Atlanta in July 1997, McGrady, who had
just graduated from Mount Zion Academy in Durham, N.C., was
approached by a woman wanting to talk hoops. She asked him
whether he knew her grandson, Vince Carter. McGrady said sure,
sometimes they played pickup games at North Carolina, where
Carter had finished his sophomore year. In fact, whenever
McGrady needed a place to store his gear, Carter would let him
use his locker. Carter's grandmother explained that her
father-in-law is the brother of McGrady's grandmother, making
Tracy and Vince second cousins once removed...sort of. It turns
out that the relative of Vince in question is his
step-great-grandfather, which means the two players aren't
really kin. Such genealogical technicalities will be forever
lost on them, though. Upon hearing of the distant connection,
McGrady says, "I started freakin' out. I couldn't wait to tell
Vince that we were related."

Carter and McGrady stayed in contact through a year that placed
them at vastly different coordinates. Carter was among the best
college players in the country in 1997-98, while McGrady made a
seismic leap, directly from Mount Zion to the pros. Drafted by
Toronto with the ninth pick, he had a rookie year he describes
tersely as "hell." Flashes of brilliance were leavened by
extended stays in coach Darrell Walker's doghouse. McGrady was a
frustrated, lonely teenager in a strange city, racking up huge
phone bills and sleeping as much as 20 hours a day. "Basically,"
he says, "I was just in a funk."

The clouds parted when Carter--again, think impatience--left
Chapel Hill after his junior year to turn pro and, following a
draft-day swap with the Golden State Warriors for his college
teammate Antawn Jamison and some $250,000, ended up in Toronto.
NBA players often import their friends and family to lend
familiarity to an alien situation; suddenly, Carter and McGrady
had a built-in support system. They realized that, in addition
to family ties, they shared similar tastes in food (fried
chicken and pork chops), music (R&B, rap and hip-hop) and, not
least, video games (Madden NFL). Soon they became inseparable,
each as likely to be in the other's apartment as his own.
Teammates tell of Carter and McGrady sitting at opposite ends of
the team bus and speaking to each other on their cell phones.
"They say they're cousins," says guard Dee Brown. "But Siamese
twins is more like it."

The presence and influence of his cousin Vinny buoyed not only
the 6'8" McGrady's spirits but also his basketball. Carter and
McGrady play a similar game--both are high-flying dervishes who
are quick off the dribble but iffy when given the outside shot.
Still, they're able to complement each other. "Tracy has the
versatility and perimeter skills to play shooting guard," says
Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald, "and Vince is pretty much
a pure three, so we can play them together."

In a game against Indiana at the Air Canada Centre last April,
they accounted for 50 of the Raptors' 99 points. A much-improved
McGrady finished the season averaging 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds
in 22.6 minutes--to Carter's 18.3 points and 5.7 boards in
35.2--and was suddenly being hailed with his cousin as Toronto's
future. "Me and Vince, we're the new generation," says McGrady.
"How many other teams have two players as exciting as us? On top
of that, we're cousins!"

For now, there are still kinks in their relationship to be worked
out. In a preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Carter
and McGrady got so caught up in trying to entertain the fans with
breathtaking dunks that they neglected to play defense or involve
their teammates. After the Raptors lost 112-102, veteran forward
Antonio Davis called a closed-door meeting. "That was
embarrassing," said Davis. "This game is a lot more than having
two kids go out and excite the crowd."

It's also possible that their time together may be limited.
McGrady will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and
teams like Krause's Bulls will no doubt want to gamble on his
seemingly limitless upside. The Raptors would just as soon
confiscate McGrady's passport, even if there are lingering
concerns about his work ethic and his long-term willingness to
play second fiddle to Carter. Lacking Carter's public relations
savvy, though, McGrady didn't endear himself to the front office
when, on the first day of training camp, he expressed his desire
to play 30 to 35 minutes a game. "I told him that was a decision
for [coach] Butch Carter," Grunwald says.

As his tentative handshake and the gleaming braces on his teeth
attest, McGrady is still very much a novice adult. He talks about
getting paid K.G. money--i.e., a salary comparable with that of
another high-school-to-NBA trailblazer, Kevin Garnett--on the open
market. Moments later, though, he muses whimsically about playing
his career in Toronto. "If I were in a room with a contract offer
from the Raptors, I think Vince would put a gun to my head and
force me to sign it," he says. "The next Pippen and Jordan,
that's what I see us being." (For clarification, McGrady adds,
"And I'm Pip.")

Carter smiles politely when he hears his cousin make these
pronouncements, but he bristles at the inevitable comparisons
with Jordan, which he has heard ever since he arrived at Carolina
as a bald-pated freshman. That's partly out of deference to
Jordan--"He's the best ever," says Carter--but he's also wary of
being saddled with unrealistic expectations. Yet even MJ
recognizes that Carter is unique. When Carter was a frustrated
freshman at North Carolina, Jordan advised him to keep his head
up. When Jordan heard the Raptors had drafted Carter, he called
his buddy, Toronto forward Charles Oakley, and told him to take
care of the rookie.

In addition to the physical similarities, Carter is endowed with
Jordan's ability to defy gravity. Several times a game, he
prepares for takeoff, achieves cruising altitude and deposits a
poster-quality dunk. If Dominique Wilkins was the Human Highlight
Reel a generation ago, in this postmodern age Carter is the Human
Highlight--Real Time. Fans who click on the Raptors' Web site can
download no fewer than 67 of Carter's jams and other levitational
feats from last season. "I realize people love the dunk, but one
time I swear I'm going to have a breakaway and just do a layup,"
he says. "I'll do it on the road, though, because the fans will
probably boo me."

It's not just folks in the stands who dig his dunking. While
playing in Gary Payton's charity game in Seattle this summer,
Carter threw down a jam so fierce that the other nine players
stopped the game to watch the replay on the big screen overhead.
"My boy is out of control," says McGrady, "but it's not just
dunks. He can take you to the basket, he's big enough to post you
up, he can rebound and block shots. He's just real well-rounded."

That could just as easily be a character assessment of his
cousin. As comfortable golfing with the team's sponsors and
luxury box owners at the Raptors' preseason scramble as he is
hanging out with his friends in his hometown of Daytona Beach,
Carter is a social Proteus. At Mainland High he not only was a
jock of all trades, starring in basketball, track and
volleyball, but he also wrote the school's homecoming
anthem--which his mom describes as "a pop number to a hip-hop
beat"--and played baritone, and alto and tenor saxophone in the
band. (The man Carter calls Dad, his stepfather, Harry Robinson,
was the director.) Like the ubergeek in the movie American Pie,
Carter enthusiastically reminisces about band camp. "Guys hear
that and make fun of me," he says, "but trying different things
and doing what I like is more important than being popular."

Even after the auspicious start to his NBA career, Carter remains
unaffected. His body is innocent of tattoos and piercings, and
he's an indefatigable autograph signer. His biggest immodesty? He
has his name and number on a neon sign hanging above his personal
computer. Anything else? "Sometimes," he says, "if I have a
really good dunk in a game, I'll go home and watch it on the
highlight shows."

Making good on a promise that he made to his mother before he
went to Chapel Hill, Carter returned there last summer and earned
nine credits toward his degree in African-American Studies. (He's
planning to graduate next summer.) He supplemented his course
work by stroking 1,500 jumpers a day and working on his defense.
The same impatience that causes him to ceaselessly channel surf
is evident when Carter bites on head fakes and gambles foolishly
for steals. "Once he starts knocking down the jumper consistently
and plays better defense on the perimeter," says Oakley, "look

McGrady's outside shot and defensive instincts could stand some
honing too, but his first task is to become a more consistent
player. Last season his performances fluctuated from execrable to
extraordinary. When the Raptors beat the New York Knicks on April
17, McGrady scored two points and, because of his indolence on
defense, played just 10 minutes. The next game, a victory over
the Orlando Magic, he dominated, sharing the game-high in scoring
(16 points) and leading both teams in rebounding (11) while
dispensing four assists and blocking a pair of shots.

"If you compare their rookie seasons, it was apparent that Vince
was the one who played in college and has had access to better
coaching," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "In Tracy's case,
the strides he made from his rookie year to last season were
significant, and I think he'll just keeping getting better. If he
can make the adjustment to point guard, which is what I think
they're trying to do with him--I know that's what I'd try to do
with him--he can be a great, great player in this league. His
mistakes will be more obvious there than if he's playing the two,
but he has the athleticism, and at his height, he'll be very hard
to defend."

"With Tracy, the skills are there," says Oakley, who has vowed to
"get on Tracy's butt" when McGrady's intensity lapses. "But he
has to give the effort night in, night out."

Carter, of course, has no trouble summoning up a sense of
urgency, especially now, on the chilly autumn afternoon of the
day before the Raptors are to open training camp. McGrady has
been practicing all summer and is ready to challenge Carter to a
game of Madden NFL 2000 on his Sony PlayStation. "This time I'm
taking you to school," says the younger of the dissing cousins.
"I'm shutting you down."

Come again? Take a player wise beyond his years to school? Shut
down the reigning Rookie of the Year? Were this not the world of
video games, it would require a leap that even Vince Carter would
be hard-pressed to make.

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL O'NEILL [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL FLEDGLINGS The 22-year-old Carter (left) and McGrady, 20, have just begun to fly.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN ELEVATOR MAN Carter's mid-range J is nearly as deadly as his dunks.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN MAC ATTACK At 6'8", McGrady can handle either backcourt spot.

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL O'NEILL LINKED Until two years ago McGrady and Carter didn't know about their family ties.

Carter stepped up last year and was pulled into the NBA's
superstar vacuum.

As a rookie McGrady racked up huge phone bills and slept up to 20
hours a day.

"They say they're cousins," says Brown. "But Siamese twins is
more like it."