Hold on. Let’s get our messages straight. First we tell every kid who holds a basketball in one hand and a potential college degree in the other that he should never forsake the diploma for the dribble.

Then, when Vince Carter wants to attend his college graduation the morning of a big game, we accuse him of letting his team down.

Make up your mind. I have no problem with it. Carter wants to get his degree, walk down the aisle with his class, so be it. That’s a special moment. It doesn’t come twice in life.

And by the way, it’s not as if he was missing the game.

Or anything else, for that matter. Anyone who thinks Carter somehow weakened his body by flying in a private jet the short distance from North Carolina to Philadelphia on Sunday morning:

1) Is obviously older than Carter.

2) Has never flown in a private jet.

3) Has never hung out with an NBA team the night before a game.

If you had any idea of some of the stuff that goes on late at night — even before the biggest games — you’d never think of criticizing Carter.

And if you knew how little actually gets done the morning of a game that has anything to do with the game itself, you’d never think of it, either.

Yes, it’s true. Carter’s Toronto Raptors lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals by a single point to the 76ers. Yes, it’s true. Carter missed the game’s final shot, a desperation 23-foot jumper with one second left.

But none of that has anything to do with his putting on a cap and gown Sunday morning. The only people who think so are people looking to lump Carter in with all selfish, egotistical athletes who think only of themselves.

Funny. That’s the same criticism you hear when a guy jumps early from college to the NBA.

Make up your mind.

Carter didn’t play tired

Here are the basic facts of Carter’s “controversy.” Saturday, he flew in his team owner’s private jet from Philly to North Carolina. He arrived on campus Sunday around 8:30 a.m. He was out of there before 11 a.m. and back in Philadelphia about noon.

In between he shook hands, signed some autographs, met with the media, walked down the aisle with his classmates, was announced early — as was prearranged with the school — and slipped out well before the commencement address.

He was back in Philadelphia five hours before game time. The rest of his teammates were still at the hotel.

“This is a special time for me,” Carter said in North Carolina. “I think I’m mentally prepared for both things.”

Later, in the hallway before Game 7, he told NBC, “I’m focused. I’m ready to play.”

And he was.

Now, it’s true, Carter didn’t play the greatest game of his career. He scored 20 points and shot 6-for-18. I can hear the critics clucking their tongues.

But before they cluck too loudly, add in these stats: seven rebounds, nine assists, three steals and no turnovers. Does that sound like a man who’s fatigued?

If Carter was tired, you didn’t see it with five minutes left in the game, when he crossover-dribbled between two defenders, left both gaping, then lifted high into the air and hung there like a kite until he was fouled.

And if Carter’s final shot was a lack of focus, what do you say about Allen Iverson, Philadelphia’s Mr. Everything, who didn’t score in the final 6 1/2 minutes?

What was he graduating from?

Graduation is what he’ll remember

The truth is, Carter’s team lost a very close series by a very slim margin in a Game 7 on the road. It happens all the time.

But certain moments in life do not. Maybe Carter made a promise to his family that he would come back and graduate. Maybe he made a promise to himself. He didn’t know graduation would conflict with a Game 7.

If that, as my “Sports Reporters” colleague Mike Lupica says, “shows a guy who thinks this is all about me,” I say this: So what?

I see enough guys thumping their chests after every basket. I see enough guys complaining in the media about lack of playing time. Even if Carter’s motivations are partly self-serving, are they sending such a bad message?

Moreover, is the alternative better? That he should skip his own graduation because of a basketball game?

No. There are already enough high school players who think college is some kind of joke. And there are countless examples of players rising above injuries, the flu, or even a death in the family to have perfectly focused games.

Vince Carter did nothing wrong. Years from now, when he looks at photos of May 20, 2001, they won’t be of him missing a jumper, but of him taking a walk, wearing a cap and gown. In today’s NBA, we don’t have enough snapshots like that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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