It's late in the first half of a tournament game, more than 3,000 basketball fans have filled the auditorium, and as the Patterson High Clippers of Baltimore toss the ball inbounds and head up the court, a spectator leans over to speak to his young son.
"Watch No. 3," he says. "I want you to remember what you see."
That player, a 5-foot-6 spark plug named Aquille Carr, seizes the "rock," crosses midcourt and unmoors a defender with a bounce. He levitates as he enters the paint. And as three big opposing players raise their arms, blocking access at every level, he flips the ball from right hand to left, curls an upward shot from somewhere near his hip while descending, and careens past the glass as the Wilson NCAA Special circles the rim and drops through.
The crowd gasps. Players on the other bench applaud.
"He went through the whole team," the father exclaims.
It's a longer way to the NBA than it is to the basket of Gonzaga College High School, the Washington-based prep powerhouse Patterson is playing tonight. But an impression is growing that Carr, an 18-year-old junior from East Baltimore with a 48-inch vertical leap, a worldwide following on the Internet and a nickname for the ages — "The Crime Stopper" — could reach exactly that height.
"His skill comes through the street, but the more his knowledge of the game grows, the more I [believe] the sky's the limit," says Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, the 5-foot-3 former Dunbar High legend who played 14 years in the NBA.
You can count on one hand the number of players shorter than 5 foot 8 who have made it to the NBA. Even fewer have weighed as little as the 140-pound Carr. Moreover, his inner-city background comes with the usual temptations, and he recently told his surprised family that he's to be a father in April.
No matter how many points he has scored (1,400 and counting at Patterson), scholarship offers he has fielded (more than two dozen, though he chose Seton Hall last month) or invitational tourneys he has ruled, he's going to have to elevate his game.
Sitting at the dining-room table of his sister's home in Belair-Edison, last year's Baltimore Sun Metro Boys Player of the Year flashes a smile that lights up the room — just as it lights up gyms, whether he's sinking a 3-pointer, jawing with refs or getting to his feet after a flagrant foul from an opponent.
"All my life, people have been saying, 'You're too small to do this,' 'You can't do that,'" Carr says. "I enjoy proving them wrong. What [those] people don't know is the size of my heart."
On one hand, the play against Gonzaga was nothing special. Carr did something like it several times that game, as he does nearly every time out. On the other hand, it's the kind of play Dime Magazine, an international basketball publication, surely had in mind last summer when it put him on the cover, a place previously reserved only for NBA stars, and called him "the most electrifying high school player in the country."
It's partly the size, of course. Scouts say few players at any level can do the things Carr does, but to see a guy no bigger than the kid scooping fries at McDonald's catapulting to the rim, crashing dunks and distributing bullet passes makes for great theater. It's also his biggest stumbling block.
Check out those few seconds at hoopmixtape.com, a website where a Carr highlight reel has drawn 3.1 million hits, and you'll glimpse the qualities many say he'll need if he's ever to play in the NBA: aggressiveness, the courage to take risks and rare control.
"Aquille has a gift," says Bogues, a Carr family friend who played for 10 years with the Charlotte Hornets. "But as I always tell him, 'You have to understand what we small guards have to do to get by. As you move up, you'll face guards who are much bigger and stronger, and just as fast. You have to show you won't be taken advantage of."
Carr, it seems, may have known that part from birth.
He first picked up a basketball at 4, when he grew sick of seeing his older siblings, Alan Carr Jr. and Ashlie Carr, playing hoops with the neighborhood kids and not involving him.
They were in their teens. Aquille (the name is Latin for "strong as an eagle") wouldn't take no for an answer.
"He came up to your waist," says Alan, 29, a recent graduate of Maryland Bible College & Seminary. "He was mad and crying all the time. You had to swat him away."
Ashlie, 23, a Towson University graduate, says when he couldn't strip the ball from her, he'd jump on her back, cry, or both.
"I was emotional in those days," Aquille says. "I guess I never liked being boxed out."
In East Baltimore, where the lure of drugs and crime is ever-present, such feelings might have meant trouble. Two things helped: jaw-dropping talent and a family that helped him see how not to waste it.
His father, Alan Sr., a star shooting guard at Patterson in the 1980s, gave encouragement and tips. Alan Jr., a prominent athlete at Lake Clifton High, rode herd over Aquille's talents, forbidding him to shoot, for example, so he'd have to work on his moves.
At 6, the baby of the family was dribbling through his legs, at 8, juking foes cross-eyed. At 10, crowds were coming to see him play in AAU leagues or on the playgrounds, often "oohing" and "ahhing" as he did his thing against bigger, older kids.
His father, now 49, and Tammy, 48, who have been married 27 years, offered a stable home. (They'll be near him in 2013 to help him stay focused at Seton Hall, where he hopes to make a big impact as a freshman.) And when his temper flared on the court, as it often did, Tammy's mother, Sylvia Matthews, was there.
"He was always such a defensive child," Matthews says. "I told him, 'Aquille, don't show you're upset. Put a smile on your face. Just do better.' It was my own little course in anger management."
By 12, he had drawn the attention of Kurk Lee, the former NBA player who is now a widely respected youth coach in Baltimore.
"Aquille had an unbelievable, lightning-quick crossover," says Lee, a mentor at the Carmelo Anthony Foundation, a youth organization based at the Carmelo Anthony Center, the facility Anthony, now a New York Knicks star, built in his hometown of Baltimore in 2005. "Aquille was like he is now — hard-nosed, aggressive. He'd go to the rack against bigger kids. He attacked the basket, drew fouls. But he knew when to shoot, when not to shoot, who to pass to and when. He had a maturity about his game."
Lee chose Carr for a 14-and-under team he took to Richmond, Va., for a tournament that summer. Aquille led the team to a 12th-place finish out of 116 teams, and Lee saw a star in the making.
"I always tell the kids I work out, 'I can't teach toughness; I can't teach heart. That has to come from within,'" he says. "Aquille asks questions, and you can see him trying out what you tell him. He's always trying to find a way to beat you. Add talent like his, and, my Lord, yes, he's a guy who can get to the highest level."
When Carr enrolled at Patterson in 2009, coach Harry Martin, a reserved taskmaster, had just led the Clippers to their first winning mark in years. Since Carr has come on board, Patterson has become one of the state's top basketball programs.
He might never have attended the school.
Students in Baltimore may enroll at any city high school they choose, and when he was nearing his freshman year, Carr says, it was tempting to consider traditional powerhouses like Dunbar or City College. But in life, as well as on the court, it's his way to attack the rim.
The family liked Coach Martin's reputation for stressing academics — Tammy says she held Aquille, a middling student, back a year during grade school so he could polish his reading — but mostly, Carr liked the idea of putting a team on his shoulders.
"I decided to turn [Patterson] around," he says. "I wanted to make my own mark."
His first two years were a highlight reel. He logged a rare triple-double in his first start, notching two-digit figures in points, assists and steals. He scored 38 points in an upset of City, then 39 against Lake Clifton and its star guard, Josh Selby, who now plays for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. MaxPreps.com, a CBS sports website, picked Carr as its National Freshman Player of the Year.
His parents were at every game, just as they are today, Tammy hollering support as Al wanders the sidelines, chatting up friends. But as of December 2010, his grandmother had never seen him play. One night, she decided to change that.
Early in a game against Forest Park High, Carr felt the Foresters were singling him out for abuse — a problem he typically faces. He pleaded with the refs. He raised his arms in protest. And he searched out Matthews in the stands, shrugging pointedly as if to say, "What's wrong with these people?"
She shook him off. "Smile," she communicated without words. He quit complaining, went on to score 57 points, breaking a school record that had stood for half a century, and ended up leading the Clippers to a 25-2 record, the regional Class 4A championship and the state title game before 13,000 fans at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center.
He dropped 27 points that game aginst eventual winner North Point High. John Thompson, the basketball legend who coached the likes of Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson at Georgetown University, was on hand. He hugged Carr after the game. The legend grew.
After the season, The Crime Stopper — the criminals of East Baltimore, it is said, shut down operations long enough to see him play; police say that's hard to quantify — erupted beyond his usual beat. In April, he led the U.S team to a gold medal at the Junior International Tournament in Italy, averaging 40 points and winning tournament MVP honors. In August, he was named co-MVP at the Boost Mobile Elite 24 in Los Angeles, a tournament for the nation's best two dozen high school players as chosen by ESPN.
Even last summer's NBA lockout raised his profile. During the work stoppage, many NBA stars joined high-level amateur leagues around the country to stay sharp, a phenomenon that played out in Baltimore, where Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks, John Wall of the Washington Wizards and LeBron James of the Miami Heat, among other top pros, tested their talents in the "Melo League," a long-standing summer circuit at the "Melo Center."
They wanted Carr to play. Those who saw the games say The Crime Stopper fit right in, driving to the hoop against giants like DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings' 6-foot-11, 270-pound center, while dishing the ball to teammates in the mold of a floor general.
One witness, Darrick Oliver, a longtime area coach who is now on the Patterson staff, was not surprised to see Carr do well. "I've seen him play at every level, on the playground and against the pros," says Oliver, who has worked with the likes of Juan Dixon and Anthony. "Upward or downward, he always adjusts his game."
Was Carr intimidated? "Why would I be?" he asks, surprised at the question. "They're regular. They have weaknesses, just like me."
It was last month that Carr made his verbal commitment to Divison I Seton Hall. What drew him was the coach, Kevin Willard, a former point guard who gives his point guards a lot of freedom. Carr says that however long he's at Seton Hall, he'll put the program on the Big East map.
Some say the change will help him. Where Carr attacks the basket more or less solo, the thinking goes, the coach of a big-time program, such as Willard, will likely use his teammates to set up picks and screens, freeing him for his aerial assaults.
"He'll see the basket even more," Lee predicts.
Dave Telep, an ESPN writer who covers high school basketball, isn't so sure. He has conservatively ranked Carr as the No. 53 prospect in the nation.
Carr is a unique talent, Telep says: "He's fast and fearless, a good combination off the bounce to the rim. He's great in transition, when the tempo is quick, but where he's going [in fall 2013], everything is not a race. But what happens when structure and rules become the norm? Do the things he's good at project to the college level? We're watching closely."
During a recent stretch of five games, he seemed to be doing fine.
He's faster with the ball than others are without it. Against Digital Harbor High, he leaves a parabolic bounce pass spinning above the hoop for Leonard Livingston, a 6-foot-10 teammate, to stuff in. A few nights later, against powerhouse Dunbar, he drills a few bullets, passes that come so suddenly his teammates often aren't ready — but that typically show he's thinking ahead, directing play into defensive gaps as they emerge.
He drops 36 mostly spectacular points against Gonzaga at Calvin Coolidge High in Washington, a game Comcast SportsNet aired around the region. The crowd in the college-size gym erupts repeatedly as he improvises around the basket. He vaults from the top of the key, flies in the face of two and three defenders at a time, and makes so many minute adjustments while airborne — switching hands, dealing head fakes, rotating his body — you have to watch the replays to digest them.
"He's like a blur going up the court, and he has so many angles to the basket, most players at this level have no idea how to react," Martin says. "When Aquille goes up, it seems he's in the air for 30 seconds. I don't even know if he knows what he's going to do."
Indeed he doesn't, says Carr, who notches 20 assists to go with 102 points over the four games, though the team uncharacteristically drops a pair, slipping to No. 3 in The Sun's city rankings.
"When I [jump], I don't know what's going to happen," he says. "I see what they're doing and react. I don't like to think too much when I'm playing."
Will this slow patch interfere with Carr's goal for the year, to lead the Clippers to the city and state titles?
He smiles, perhaps in self-belief, perhaps in indignation. "We're just getting to know each other. Check at the end [of the season]," he says.
The right people
Bogues stayed in the NBA as long as he did, he says, in part because he surrounded himself with the right kind of people.
He might have enjoyed a recent Sunday afternoon at Ashlie's house, where Aquille's parents, siblings, cousins and friends have gathered for a family feast every week for years.
The Ravens' game was on — yes, that loss to the Patriots — and the men watched, pacing and hollering at the action, as Tammy cooked three separate meals to suit everyone's tastes.
"What we do, we do as a family," she says with a booming laugh.
Ashlie says if any troublemakers ever want to lure Aquille into bad behavior, they know they have to go through the whole family first, and that's not likely to happen. "We're too close for that," she says. "We look out for each other."
Al Sr. and Tammy plan to move to New Jersey next year to be close to hand when he starts college.
"Where my baby goes, that's where I'm going," Tammy says.
The Carrs are more concerned about his pending fatherhood. The news caused an "uproar" at first, says Ashlie, herself a single mom, but they've overcome any distress and set plans in motion.
The extended family will provide the child a solid home, they say, just as it has for all the Carrs, so the process should prove no setback for Aquille's life work.
"I got a chance to realize my dreams," says Ashlie, a developmental therapist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. "After all this time, Aquille's not going to miss his."
And what are his dreams? First, there's pushing himself to learn from Martin for one more year. There's adding bulk and improving his midrange shooting. Then there's moving on to Seton Hall. Carr, who has logged a 2.5 grade-point average at Patterson, plans to study sports management as a career fallback, but he hopes to spend no more than the one year the NBA requires before making himself available for the draft.
Afterward, Carr says, he'll be able to take care of everyone.
It's a plan only the best follow — the Carmelos and Derrick Roses of the world. Can he pull it off?
As Carr sees it, it's no more of a long shot than things he has already achieved.
"I learned a long time ago that when you're small, they come after you," he says. "Stay aggressive, and good things happen. You just don't know what they are yet."
Born: Sept. 28, 1993, in Baltimore
School: Patterson High School
Height: 5 feet 6 inches
Weight: 140 pounds
Position: Point guard
Honors won: MaxPreps.com National Freshman Player of the Year, 2009-2010; Baltimore Sun Metro Player of the Year, 2010-2011; named ESPN National High School Player of the Week on April 6, 2011; member of the gold medal-winning U.S. team and tournament MVP of the Junior International Tournament in Milan, Italy, April 2011
Best high school game: Scored 57 points against Forest Park High in December 2010, including seven 3-pointers and 12 of 15 free throws
Polaroid moment: After he scored 45 points in a game during the Junior International Tournament in Italy, fans carried him off the court
Twitter handle: @cantguard3