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Atlanta Hawks' Vince Carter looks on during a game against the Charlotte Hornets, at Spectrum Center, in Charlotte, N.C., on Nov. 28, 2018.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The mornings are the worst. That’s when Vince Carter feels every one of his 20 NBA seasons.

“Some mornings, I wake up and you see me walking into shootaround or meetings and the young guys are all, ‘You all right?’" Carter said. “And I’m just, ‘Yeah, you guys don’t understand.’ I think that’s the hardest thing.”

Hard, but not hard enough to make Carter retire.

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The 41-year-old was back in Toronto on Tuesday as his Atlanta Hawks faced the Raptors. A massive media throng greeted him, surely many believing it might be the eight-time all-star’s final game in the Canadian city that launched his NBA career.

But he chastised a reporter for asking if this is indeed his last season.

“Come on, man. You’ve got to read up, do your homework,” he said.

Carter hasn’t decided when he’ll walk away from the game. He says he’ll know when he’s ready. He’d love to become the longest-tenured player in NBA history.

Carter is currently tied for most seasons with Robert Parish, who played for four teams from 1976 to ‘97, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki. Like Carter, Nowitzki is undecided about whether he’ll retire this summer.

“The only thing that would be new to accomplish at this point, obviously winning a championship. But just the longest career,” Carter said. “If you go and look, you’ll see I said [my goal was] 15 years. I don’t know where I got that from. But now, in the summertime, I work hard and prepare myself as if I’m in my 30s, and preparing for the next season, and that’s kind of been my approach, and that’s what I do, that’s what I know.”

Carter, whose high-flying game launched a generation of Canadian basketball fans and players, said he still enjoys the rigorous routine of the NBA season.

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“For 21 years now, I’ve just prepared the same way,” he said. “I’m just not tired of it. It’s hard work and it’s a little tougher than it was 10 years go, but I still enjoy the grind. I don’t mind flying late on the plane or four games in five nights. I can’t imagine not doing it. Even in a preseason game, I’m fine, I’m good.

“When I don’t enjoy it or don’t want to go work out and put the work in, I’m definitely walking away from the game, because that’s disrespecting the game. I have to put the work in to be able to compete at this level.”

Carter used to tease Raptors teammate Kevin Willis, who played into his 40s. Carter gets it now.

“I apologize to Kevin a lot, because I used to make fun of him when he was here. I was like, ‘Man, what are you doing? Why?’ And he was like, ‘I love it, I love it.’ The game had been good to him and now, in this situation, I literally talked to him last game, and we talk about that every time. Just, the love of the game.

“I always see people saying, ‘Why? You’re older, you’re this, you’re that, you’ve seen it all, you’ve accomplished whatever. Why?’ And it’s just, ‘I love it. I love it.’ "

Carter will be paid US$3.93-million this season, and has earned more than US$177-million over the course of his career.

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He averaged 23.4 points in his seven seasons as a Raptor, and earned NBA rookie of the year honours. For years after he was traded to New Jersey, he was public enemy No. 1 to leather-lunged Raptors fans. They jeered him every time he returned to Toronto. But fans have softened in the past few seasons, partly because Carter’s effect on the growth of Canadian basketball is so evident.

Carter feels for Raptors star Kawhi Leonard, who was loudly booed in last week’s game in San Antonio.

“One thing I take from Kawhi that I love: People are going to do what they want to do regardless, and I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Carter said.

“I enjoy coming back, and I enjoy the moment each and every time, whether they boo or cheer. Obviously it’s a refreshing feeling to hear people cheer, because I am very appreciative of my time here. When I walk the hallways and see some of the people who have been here a long time, I enjoy it each and every time. I enjoy my moments stepping on the court and playing the game I love and, obviously, being here where it all started.”

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