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Screen and Role: Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, Liam Neeson, and the Value of a Veteran Leader

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On Vince Carter’s 41st birthday, we explore what The Commuter teaches us about the value of a veteran leader. (Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Kimani Okeerah

**Minor Spoilers for ‘The Commuter’ ahead. If you will not be seeing it, but want to know the basics of the plot, check out Zach Harper’s in depth review on the Talk Hoops Podcast**

“What kind of person are you?”

An older man in his 60’s steps aboard a metro train—the same train that he’s stepped aboard for many years. However, there’s something different during this trip. Earlier today, this man found out that he would not be returning to the job he’s held for many years. It’s all that he knows; he’s no longer a spring chicken. So, what is he to do? He makes his way through the train, says hi to a few familiar places, and finds a seat where he begins to read a book. Suddenly, a voice is heard behind him. She comments on the book, asks about his life, and expresses interest in this man. She asks a seemingly simple question. “What kind of person are you?”

It’s a question we will often ask ourselves as we go through a labyrinthine life, and NBA players are no different. As fans, we are often quick to label these players as teammates and as human beings based on what we see on the basketball court and social media, but we fail to consider what they’re like as people—what they bring to the table when we do not see them, how they contribute when the stadium lights are off and there’s not a camera to be found. Many probably see themselves as decent human beings, but perhaps there are some who do not. There is, perhaps, no one type of player who is asked this more than a veteran player in the National Basketball Association. For so many others we see flaws both great and small and ignore them. For veterans of the game, every flaw in their game, every slowed down step, every blown assignment, and every subpar game is analyzed as though they’re actively hurting the team. We often see these players as a detriment to the team. Their numbers aren’t what they used to be. They’re stealing minutes from younger talent. They’re actively hurting the team that they play for.

The older man looks at the lady with a puzzled expression, as she goes on to explain her question more thoroughly. She asks him if he’d do an unnamed task, knowing that it would help a stranger in one way or another, without him knowing the outcome of his answer. She offers him $100,000 to do the very thing she asked. To stay aboard the train and figure out what doesn’t belong aboard. After brief deliberation he decides to play this game, not knowing how it may affect the others.

In the summer of 2017, the Sacramento Kings asked a similar question of three different veterans in George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter. Hill was still considered young enough to be a major piece, and was thus expected to be among the Kings best players. Randolph and Carter, however, were both on the wrong end of 35 and 40 years of age. People questioned why they’d sign these aging men. Much like the man on the train, they were considered too old to contribute in their current jobs, but much like that same man, they knew that there was something left in the tank.

The man on the train, of course, is Liam Neeson’s character, Mike MacCauley, in the latest addition to the Liam Neeson sexagenarian action franchise, The Commuter. It’s the story of what happens to a man who is well past his prime, but asked to do what many think is unthinkable at his age, go into a precarious situation and get rid of that which does not fit. The problem is that he does not know what that thing is. Much like Randolph and Carter, he’s thrust into a situation where he’s asked to take money to put up with a bit of uncertainty and fix some problems which may not seem immediately fixable.

“Let’s do an experiment…”

The Sacramento Kings experiment has been an inconsistent trainwreck for the worse part of the decade. There’s been lots of different starts to different paths, but the paths often led us to another lottery pick that was inevitably squandered on a player who would disappoint the team. After making the questionable decision to get rid of players like Caron Butler and Seth Curry, Vlade Divac brought in a rambunctious Matt Barnes to be a veteran leader on a team with a star player who many consider to be a hothead himself, DeMarcus Cousins. We don’t need to rehash how that ended, but the the biggest takeaway from the situation was the Kings eventually hitting the reset button, yet again. They stockpiled young talent and shed the players whom they perceived as detrimental to the team’s new direction, a direction which eventually led to bringing in these veteran leaders. Much like Mike MacCauley, a police detective-turned-insurance agent, these players were looking for one last taste of glory. Whether it was the money, the opportunity, the intrigue, or a combination of those three, the Kings would ask these leaders to help get what didn’t belong off of a perpetual train wreck not knowing what the endgame was. They accepted.

Without a clear direction, it’s be tough to find what’s wrong with whatever situation somebody is given. We can give them all the money, let them roam free throughout their situation, and hope that they discover clues, but inevitably there will be hurdles. For Mike MacCauley, this means getting to know his surroundings. He questions people who need to be questioned and finds himself asking questions that wouldn’t normally be asked and going head-to-head with people half his age. Thus is the life of a veteran in the NBA. Zach Randolph and Vince Carter have been riding the NBA train since many of their teammates were born, or in their diapers. They offer a unique perspective that, like MacCauley, the average youngster does not have. Those years aboard the train getting to know the people involved, learning the ins and outs of how everything works just cannot come to those who don’t have the experience that he has. Sure, he’s lost a step here and there; and his current role may not be what he desires, but he has to make the best of what he’s given. He has to show that a man his age has value that may never be fully appreciated despite the outward appearance as he does so. It’s a fascinating look at how the reward of all his actions may far outweigh the consequences, even when the consequences may look dire to those who aren’t aware of the situation where he finds himself.

“Just once, I want to see the end of the line.”

Nobody likes to come to grips with their mortality, and NBA players are no different. Fans are quick to declare that guys should retire, to scoff at the notion of intangible veteran leadership, and to only judge a player’s worth by what he does when they can see him on camera. They may not see the players getting dirty in practice. They can’t hear the talks they give the rookie on the bench. They don’t know what kind of lessons the veterans instill into the rookies that may reap long term benefits that last far after they are gone. This is the situation that MacCauley finds himself in.

While everyone around him thinks he’s crazy, he is perhaps the only thing that’s keeping people alive. His relentless attitude amidst the current adversity is what’s keeping the train he’s riding together. People question his motives, they judge his outward moves, but they do not know what’s driving hm down below. It’s a drive that comes in handy when he has to go hand-to-hand with men who are decades his junior, or climb outside the train in order to save the lives of everyone onboard. MacCauley has the intangibles to keep the people aboard that train from going in a direction that they can never return from.

Vince Carter and Zach Randolph are Mike MacCauley. They keep the train on tracks in ways that we will not immediately see. When all is said and done it will not be the missed buckets and the failed defensive stops that we’ll remember. It will be the lingering effects of what they did that shaped the team to be better than before. When the Kings seem certainly derailed, they spring into action and help the team stay afloat. When someone to town and tries to talk some trash to our young players, Zach Randolph is there to protect him and reminds them what will happen to the bullies when he’s around. When a seemingly unstoppable King comes into Sacramento and threatens to derail us once again, Vince Carter’s there to spar with someone half his age and somehow come out on top. The youngsters on this train will see the sacrifice that their geriatric teammates showed and use it to be better in the future. This year never was about the minutes that the youngsters get. It was never about the wins and losses. In many ways, it’s not even about the game-to-game performance. It’s about planting the seeds in these youngsters so that, much like the people on the MacCauley’s train, they can look back and thank them when the situation gets much better.

When Vlade Divac asked these veterans what kind of people they were, they may not have immediately known the answer, but five years down the road when these men are retired and the young guys are still playing, the impact of him asking that question will resonate through the team, and all of us will be better having lived through the bumpy ride of having these men here.