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Prep basketball star Aquille Carr still harbors pro dreams despite his complicated present

As he finishes senior season at Laurel's Princeton Day Academy, he's already looking ahead to Seton Hall or overseas career

By Childs Walker

The Baltimore Sun

8:51 PM EST, February 23, 2013

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LAUREL — Good luck reducing Aquille Carr's story to a tweet or a television sound bite.

Has the Baltimore prep basketball sensation grown into a man? Well, the calendar says so, as do his daughter, about to celebrate her first birthday, and his talk of the sport as a job. He hinted strongly in a recent interview that he's ready to bypass college in favor of seeking an overseas professional offer for next year.

“Seton Hall is still my choice right now,” he said of the school to which he committed orally last year. “But I'm thinking about a lot more stuff that I could advance to. I think I'm ready to make it like my job. If you know about basketball, you know what that means. By the end of the season, everybody will find out.”

At 19, he is also still a kid. On a recent afternoon, Carr's coach at Princeton Day Academy, Van Whitfield, called his cellphone a half-dozen times to make sure he was on his way to an interview. When he arrived, 30 minutes later than promised, Whitfield made him apologize, which Carr did with a dog-ate-my-homework grin. And for all his talk of the court as a workplace, he still plays with a dreamy half-smile, as if he's forever imagining the next outlandish move he might attempt.

Is he a star? Sure, if you ask the young fans who crowd the sidelines at Carr's games, hoping to touch him as he takes the court or to click their camera phones the instant he does something amazing. It doesn't end with them. There are also the guys with video cameras, looking to capture the next clip of the 5-foot-7 Carr dunking or embarrassing his defender with a no-he-didn't dribble move. Some of those videos have drawn 300,000 views on YouTube. When Carr traveled to Europe for an amateur tournament two years ago, fans already knew him. In his social media world, fame has no borders.

But he is on the wrong path, according to many scouts. ESPN ranked him among the top 60 players in his class as a junior. Now he's not in the top 100. The big postseason all-star games are sending out their invitations, but Whitfield says Carr hasn't received any. There's little buzz in recruiting circles about whether he'll fulfill his oral commitment to Seton Hall.

ESPN analyst Dave Telep says Carr's ranking has slipped because of the instability in his life and because he will have to alter his showy game to fit in with a college team. He regards talk of Carr's pro potential as absurd.

“I don't even want to address that,” Telep says. “Aquille Carr is a big enough talent that he can hope to be a good college player. But you can't skip steps, and it's not a good use of anyone's time to talk about anything beyond that.”

Is he troubled? Carr has certainly had a turbulent year, bouncing between four schools in three states as he looked for a place that could get him on track academically. Last year, he faced charges of assaulting his daughter's mother and had to attend 22 sessions at the House of Ruth to clear his record. He says, and Whitfield agrees, that he has matured and learned that as a public figure, he can't afford such mistakes. But Carr knows there are many people who still think poorly of him.

“I think about it all the time, what could've happened if this situation hadn't come up,” he says. “I always think about it, but I never let it bother me that much. I just keep moving. The past is the past — no charges, dismissed, clean record. It was just a mistake that will never happen again.”

Yet there is a sweetness to him, the way he glows when he talks about his daughter, Averi, whom he says he visits frequently. The way he runs over to slap a teammate on the back when they've connected for a great play. He's gracious with young fans. His smile, slightly gap-toothed and extending to his big eyes, still comes out readily.

So put all that together and what do you have? Is this the story of a prodigy whose problems have overtaken his dreams or a redemption tale with magnificent chapters ahead?

These are strange questions to ask about a guy who's not old enough to drink legally. Whitfield says he wouldn't wish such scrutiny on his own child.

“He grew up in front of a camera, if you really consider it,” the Princeton Day coach says. “He may be the first kind of uniquely positioned student-athlete who was a celebrity and became a celebrity based on social media. … It's going to be a unique study, five years from now, to see what comes of Aquille Carr. How does he handle having to share that spotlight with other uniquely talented players? How will the media process him? Will they build him up just to bring him down? I'm intrigued by that.”

‘The Crimestopper'

There was a time when Carr's story was a straight sunburst unmarked by shadows. Baltimore had seen its share of diminutive standouts, from Muggsy Bogues to Shawnta Rogers, but nothing like this kid. In his first game as a 5-foot-5 freshman at Patterson, Carr posted a triple double. He dropped 39 points on NBA-bound Josh Selby. He dunked on future Terp Nick Faust.

“He just takes ownership of the room,” says Harry Martin, Carr's former coach at Patterson. “Both in basketball and otherwise.”

CNN and GQ showed up to tell his story, anointing him the most electrifying player in high school basketball. NBA stars such as Kevin Durant became fans.

And the nickname put the cherry on the sundae. “Crimestopper” they called him, because he was so must-see that crime supposedly dwindled in East Baltimore during his games.

Real life, of course, is messier than mythology, as Carr and his supporters have learned over the past 12 tumultuous months.

In that span, Carr became a father, led Patterson to a Class 3A state title the next day, spent a night in jail on the assault charge and flirted with high schools in New Jersey and Florida before settling at Princeton Day.

Martin says he never had real trouble with Carr, though he adds that his former star, like many players, struggled to focus on school outside basketball season. He says, however, he strongly advised Carr to get away from Baltimore.

“He needed to get away from his entourage, from all his fans,” Martin says. “It seemed to me that he was playing to them at times more than worrying about the game or his team.”

The legal trouble, especially, weighed heavily on Carr. In August, he was accused of throwing his daughter's mother, Treshonda Williams, to the ground, then kicking and punching her. Many around him say the situation was overblown, a disagreement between young parents that got out of hand. Williams could not be reached for comment. Regardless of the details, it was the first time Carr understood that the spotlight would shine on him in bad times as well as good.

“It was a dark and depressing time for him,” Whitfield says. “A moment of real reflection. It forced him to look at what he had done. It forced him to look at his associations. It forced him to understand that not everyone who appears to be with you is actually with you.”

Carr, who lives with his parents in East Baltimore, confirms this.

“I was really like done with everything,” he says. “I didn't want to focus on basketball anymore, because I was feeling like it was bringing a lot of problems. I was really just giving up on everything, until I talked to Doc Whitfield and he brought me in with open arms and told me he was going to make it work for me and make sure I had the support I need.”

Carr had first heard about Whitfield, a published novelist who didn't pursue his coaching dreams until middle age, from another highly ranked player, Chris Thomas.

Princeton Day has just 40 students and operates out of an annex building at the Laurel Boys and Girls Club after occupying a different location in Beltsville last year. Laurel officials recently came down on the school for allowing students to sleep overnight in spaces that didn't meet fire codes and for operating without proper permits. A city spokesman said Princeton Day has been cooperative in addressing the problems.

The school is accredited by AdvancED, the same organization that accredits many Catholic schools in the Baltimore area. Whitfield says Princeton Day offers much-needed individual tutoring for players such as Carr, who have struggled to achieve the grades and test scores required for college eligibility.

Carr says the instructors have helped him break down schoolwork in new ways. Both coach and player say he is on track to achieve college eligibility, though Carr says, “I'm not going to say I'm there yet.”

Butting heads

On the court, Whitfield says Carr initially lived down to the criticisms that followed him to Princeton Day. He played for the crowd instead of his teammates, and Whitfield even benched him for a quarter after he earned a technical foul for taunting.

“When we got in the locker room, I backed that up with some of the most colorful language I think that I could process,” Whitfield recalls. “And I made it clear that if he didn't do things our way, we were headed toward what would be an unsuccessful end.”

He says Carr responded with a “Yes, Coach” and played a brilliant second half after apologizing. Whitfield says they've butted heads less and less as the season has gone on.

Carr seems the perfect distillation of a basketball generation raised on highlight reels.

His good plays are rarely just good. They're spectacular — perfect alley-oop passes to streaking teammates, blink-quick dribbles that leave defenders dead where they stand, knifing drives through thickets of players a foot taller than he.

Even when he's having a poor game, Carr will produce a few plays that send fans surging from their seats, whooping as though they've just found religion.

But he can also be frustrating to watch. When he came to Baltimore in December for a big return appearance against the city's No. 1 team, St. Frances, he couldn't find his shot. Instead of easing off and playing the distributor, he fired errant jumper after errant jumper, many from well behind the 3-point line. He seemed unable to change gears, even as a tight game slipped away from Princeton Day.

Lack of effort isn't the culprit. It's more that Carr expects to be the hero every moment of every game. So he overreaches.

He doesn't apologize for this, saying “can't” is a word he does not accept.

“I don't ever shy away from anything,” he says. “I always want to be that person to take the last shot. If it's going to fall on somebody, let it fall on me.”

Nonetheless, Whitfield says he's seen real progress on this front. Last weekend, Carr went scoreless in the first half of a game, the day after a huge win over archrival Riverdale Baptist. “Don't push it,” Whitfield told him. “You have good teammates. Trust your teammates.”

Carr did just that, and Princeton Day blew open a close game in the second half.

Playground legend?

There are a number of basketball stars known as playground legends. These are men who never made it big on the pro or college stage but whose names have been passed down through verbal lore: Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, Lloyd “Sweet Pea” Daniels.

To this day, you can find devotees who swear Hammond was better than Julius Erving or that Daniels was Magic Johnson with a jump shot.

In many respects, they loom larger than the thousands of players who ground out solid careers. But they carry, also, a whiff of tragedy, of youth squandered and talent untapped.

Could Carr go down as one of the first playground legends of the digital age, a half-man-half-myth whose feats endure in YouTube clips long past the time he's relevant as a player?

It's an awfully cynical question to ask about a 19-year-old high school senior. And yet the elements are there — the blend of eye-popping feats and struggles that could bring him down. His former coach at Patterson, Martin, remains hopeful but says he's wondered whether that's the path ahead for Carr.

“Without a doubt, I think about that,” he says. “If we're five, 10 years down the line and he's not playing professionally in the NBA or overseas, it would be a huge waste of talent. But we've all got lives, and we can't do it for him. I hope he zeros in on his commitment.”

Carr says he never allows himself to think that he might have seen his best days. He has his eyes on a professional path similar to that of Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, who played a year in Italy out of high school before returning as a first-round NBA pick.

There was a report two years ago that Jennings' old club, Lottomatica Roma, had offered Carr a $750,000 deal after watching him scorch European amateurs. The club's manager denied the offer to Italian publications, and Martin says he never heard anything concrete about it while Carr was at Patterson.

But he and Whitfield say there's logic in Carr's thoughts about playing overseas, even if he's not nearly as highly rated as Jennings was in 2008. “He's got to keep his options open,” Martin says. “If you look at the last 10 to 20 years, how many 5-foot-6 guys have been drafted to the NBA? So what's his path going to be?”

Carr smiles and nods when asked whether he's intrigued by following in Jennings' footsteps. “His path is similar to mine,” he says. “He grew up in a hard city, sort of like mine. I think that was the right way for him to do what he had to do. Now he can provide for his family more. I think that could be a possible way for me to provide for my family.”

The show goes on

The scene at Princeton Day's home gym in Laurel on a recent afternoon captured the blend of uncertainty, oddity and excitement that is Aquille Carr.

The Storm, at 30 wins and counting, hardly ever play in the space. The floor is worn and dusty. Visitors are greeted by a busted-out window in one of the front doors. Adults jog on exercise machines that overlook the court from behind a mesh fence. It's hardly the stage for the most electrifying player in high school basketball.

Whitfield hadn't even planned to use Carr against badly overmatched Heritage Christian Academy. Princeton Day will play in Pennsylvania the next day, and playoffs loom later in the week. So why waste Carr's energy? The coach tells his star to take as long as he needs with an interview, even though the game is about to start.

But as soon as Carr answers the last question, he shakes hands and scoots down the hall to the gym. He emerges on the sideline a few minutes later, dressed in his jet-black uniform with black pads covering his short, powerful legs. Lest you miss him, he's sporting aquamarine Under Armour sneakers with neon orange laces. He has barely stretched and hasn't taken a single warm-up shot but checks himself into the game midway through the first period.

He eases his way into the action, but late in the second quarter, he flashes through the lane and flips the ball up against the momentum of his body, using a crazy reverse spin to direct it off the glass and through the hoop. On the next possession, he pops up off his dribble and makes a long 3-pointer. He hits an even longer one the next time down.

The young boys in the stands hop to their feet, raising their arms in supplication to this basketball deity who's barely taller than some of them.

The score is lopsided at halftime, and Whitfield is asked whether Carr will continue playing. He doesn't want to come out of the game, the coach says. So Carr keeps going, keeps his dreamy smile as he tries increasingly difficult lob passes and wildly improvised scoop shots.

For now, the show goes on.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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