Vince Carter turns 41 on Friday.
In his 20th season in the NBA, the man nicknamed Half-Man, Half-Amazing doesn’t get up for highlight-reel dunks with regularity anymore (although he will still occasionally remind us that he can). Over the past two decades, however, Carter has been responsible for some of the greatest dunks of all time: from jumping over Frederic Weis at the 2000 Summer Olympics, to his performance at the 2000 Slam Dunk contest, to in-game throwdowns like this one on Alonzo Mourning.
But there’s another dunk, seen firsthand by a much smaller crowd, that some consider Carter’s greatest:
(Video courtesy: YouTube)
It was witnessed by around 2,000 people at an indoor gym in the Bronx in the summer of 1999, after Carter won NBA Rookie of the Year for an impressive debut season in Toronto. This was the pre-social media era, so while grainy video footage exists on YouTube (see above), the dunk has become the stuff of legend thanks to word of mouth.
And there's at least one person who doesn’t need footage to remember what happened, because he was in the gym that day, going head to head with Carter. His name is Adrian Walton.
Walton played at Rucker Park for the first time as a 17-year-old. Like many other streetballers growing up, Walton knew about the Rucker, and the reputation you could forge by impressing people there.
“I’m from Harlem,” Walton told theScore. “Growing up in our neighborhood, you had to find your path. Growing up in the inner community, you had to be tough, because only the strong survived. I took that attitude to play at the Rucker.”
One of the best ways to earn a reputation at the Rucker was to play well enough to get a nickname.
In his first game there, Walton didn’t impress enough, and received a generic nickname: the Young One. He changed that by dominating in his second outing.
“I was shaking people with my quick dribbles, going to the basket, hitting threes, putting up reverse layups,” Walton said. “I was showing them I could do everything on the court. You have to understand, being from Harlem, I’m doing it like I’m doing it for TV. I’m a trendsetter. Coming from where I’m from, we have to do it with a little style and nostalgia.”
Announcers Al Cash and Duke Tango saw his performance and gave him a more appropriate nickname, one that would stick with him: Whole Lotta Game.
The following year, Walton was a member of a team called the Vacant Lots, coached by Tony Rosa, who were undefeated during the summer of 1999 heading into a matchup against Blackhand Entertainment.
When Walton arrived at the Rucker that day, he'd heard the chatter about Carter - who was in New York City for a photo shoot with rapper Eve for the cover of The Source Sports - potentially making an appearance in the game. Before tipoff, though, Walton was more focused on going up against Prime Objective - the nickname of Washington, D.C., streetball phenom Lonnie Harrell.
A rainstorm forced the game to be played indoors at nearby Gauchos Gym in the Bronx. According to Greg Marius, longtime CEO and the founder of Rucker Park’s Entertainers Basketball Classic, it was 100 degrees in the gym with no air conditioning.
Halfway through the first quarter, Walton heard a roar in the crowd. He looked to the sideline, and saw Carter casually walk in. Carter checked into the game for Blackhand Entertainment wearing No. 13, and immediately went to guard Walton.
Walton still remembers everything from the game, especially the moment when he walked up to Carter and asked why he had chosen to guard him. “Don’t worry about it,” Carter told Walton. “I’mma make you better.”
“I took that a different type of way,” Walton said. “I was ready to go to war. As soon as I got the ball, I was ready to take the game to the next level. He gave me the heads up, and I was prepared.”
By the third quarter, the crowd was buzzing as Walton and Carter went back and forth, turning the game into a one-on-one matchup. “I hit a three. He would hit a three,” Walton said. “It got to a point where the crowd was mad whenever anyone else touched the ball. I’d make a layup, he would make a layup. We did this like six times straight.”
As Vincent M. Mallozzi recounted in his book "Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of the Rucker Park Tournament," Carter scored eight points in a minute during the third quarter, and went for 18 points in 10 minutes.
“He took it personally,” Walton said. “He didn’t want to let this kid one-up him. I knew he thought I was a problem when he started picking me up 94 feet. He wasn’t getting paid for this, this wasn’t the NBA. That’s when I felt like he was taking it a little personal. I did the in-and-out dribble on him and got to half court and he knocked me out of bounds. I just kept going after the foul and dunked the ball after the whistle. I had the crowd going crazy.”
The gym was buzzing with each possession, and exploded when Carter caught an alley-oop on a fast break and threw down a thunderous reverse dunk. Several fans rushed the court in excitement, which briefly stopped the game.
For many, this would be a crowning moment at a Rucker game. For Carter, it was just a preview.
Late in the third, Carter found himself on a fast break once again. This time, he caught an alley-oop lob, brought the ball down to his knees in midair, and threw down a full windmill dunk. When he finally landed, Carter gave the same "it’s over" signal that he would popularize at the 2000 Slam Dunk contest a year later.
A much bigger crowd rushed the court this time, forcing the game to be stopped for 15 minutes. Everyone in the gym, including Walton, knew they had just witnessed not only one of the greatest moments in Rucker history, but one of the best dunks of all time.
“I’ve never see anyone catch the ball in the air and wind your whole body like that and dunk it,” Walton said. “Once he dunked the ball, I knew it would be remembered forever.”
Blackhand Entertainment won the game.
Walton outscored Carter.
All of those details became footnotes.
An eight-minute clip with highlights from the game can be found on YouTube. You can see the excitement of the crowd building as Walton and Carter go back and forth, culminating with Carter’s windmill dunk.
The dunk went down as another highlight-reel slam for Carter (Nike even replicated the moment in a 2002 commercial starring Carter as Dr. Funk). For Walton, the game meant something more. It gave him the confidence that he could go up against an NBA star, and earned him the respect of his peers for standing his ground against Carter.
“He made me better,” Walton said. “He made me more competitive. Not too many killers warn you when they’re going to kill you. I’m appreciate of the fact he told me that he was going to make me better. I don’t know if he knew my .45 clip was ready, but I was ready.”
Walton went on to play almost 20 years at the Rucker, and became one of the best streetballers in New York. Fat Joe once called Walton the one streetballer who deserved to be in the NBA. “He was the one player that could have made it to the NBA out of the streets,” he said. “There’s no question. I brought Rasheed Wallace, I brought Carmelo Anthony, I brought whoever to the sideline, they all said this guy should be in the NBA.”
Walton never did make it to the NBA, although he does recall working out with Stephon Marbury at the New Jersey Nets' facility. “I used to kill Steph in those workouts,” Walton said. “And whenever their coach would ask who this kid was, Steph would say, ‘You can’t talk to him, he’s in high school.’”
Walton retired a few years ago, but has fond memories of his battles at the Rucker. He brags about schooling Jason Terry and Jamaal Tinsley (“in the same game,” Walton clarified) and going head to head with Ron Artest and Baron Davis. But his matchup against Carter remains his favorite Rucker memory.
Today, Walton hosts a basketball and entertainment podcast called "Streets First," and hopes he and Carter can reunite for the first time since facing off at Gauchos Gym in 1999 to reminisce about that fateful day.
“They’ve been talking to me about Vince Carter for 20 years,” Walton said. “That game was legendary.”
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Sports on Earth, and Complex, among other publications.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)