When Morgan State freshman center Chris McCarthy sorted through his mail over the holiday season, there were the usual smiling Santa Clauses and snow-covered country scenes, reminding him of his hometown, Mount Carmel, Pa., an old mining town some 120 miles north of Baltimore.
But he also received a typewritten note full of racial slurs.
For McCarthy, the first white to play for Morgan since Gary Koterwas in 1988 and only the third since 1978 (James Gorman), the hate letter was hardly a surprise.
"We've got a lot of racists and skinheads back home who don't know any better, and just love to preach hate," he said. "The thing that makes it so strange is that there wasn't a single black in Mount Carmel, where I spent my first 20 years. And, I guess, they want to keep it that way."
McCarthy has become a pariah in his hometown for electing to play basketball at a historically black school after dropping out of St. Francis (Pa.) College in 1991 before participating in a single game.
"My mom fears for me whenever I come home, because it's a constant battle," he said. "I get in a lot of arguments and near-fights with all the hotheads.
"Quite honestly, I'm still not comfortable at Morgan. I didn't even know it was a black school until I first visited here in 1992. It was total culture shock.
"I've actually met only four other white students on campus. I've tTC felt more comfortable playing on the road. But being here is important to me, learning and understanding how other people act and think.
"Back home, I never got respect. I was no angel. I got in some scrapes. But I always stood up for the town and Mount Carmel High."
McCarthy, 6 feet 11 and now a slimmed-down 290 pounds, slowly is gaining the respect of his Morgan teammates and students who once regarded him as a curiosity.
"The first time I practiced with the team," said McCarthy, who was redshirted last season, "everyone stopped bouncing balls and shooting around. The other players stared at me like I was someone from Mars."
But perceptions quickly changed, and McCarthy now rooms off-campus with junior guard Damion Zellous of Pittsburgh.
"When I transferred this year from PotomacJunior College, Chris showed me around. We just kind of clicked and asked to be roommates," said Zellous.
"We discovered we have a lot in common, both being from Pennsylvania and big Steelers fans, and we're both baseball junkies and go to a lot of Orioles games together.
"But Chris gets along with everyone on the team. He's just like a big, overgrown kid, and you can't get mad at him. When he first came here, he didn't have a clue about black culture. But he's getting better. We've even had him dancing and talking some of our slang," Zellous said with a laugh.
But McCarthy, averaging 5.9 points and 5.8 rebounds in 17 games, remains sensitive to criticism of his game by fellow students.
"Being so big carries a lot of expectations," he said.
McCarthy became an instant starter when junior center Jarrod Smith was academically ineligible. He struggled early, but recently has shown signs of regaining the form he displayed in high school, where he averaged 22.0 points and a state-high 17.8 rebounds as a senior.
In Morgan's trip to Florida last month for games against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rivals Florida A&M; and Bethune-Cookman, he scored 36 points, hitting 16 of 18 shots, and exhibited strong inside moves and a delicate outside jumper up to three-point range.
"I wasn't playing with any confidence the start of the season," he said. "I was timid and wondering if I could play at this level. But I kept working hard and Coach [Michael] Holmes has stuck with me."
How McCarthy found his way to Morgan State is an improbable tale.
In 1991, Walt Watkins, a Baltimore native who now owns a print shop in Mount Carmel, was delivering media guides to Morgan sports information director Joe McIver. During their conversation, Watkins advised McIver that there was a 6-11 kid sitting back home, just itching to play college ball after a sour experience at St. Francis.
"He's a likable kid who had a rough home life and was kind of riding the fence," said Watkins. "He could have gone either way. I was trying to push him in the right direction. We're proud as heck of him."
Knowing Morgan desperately needed a big man, McIver passedWatkins' tip to assistant Lynn Ramage, who informed Holmes.
"Ramage said to me, 'Coach, this kid is white,' " Holmes said. "And, I said, 'So what? He's big, and if he can play, he's got to help us.' "
After visiting with McCarthy and his mother, Katherine Miller, Holmes was impressed and began calling his prospect every week until getting a firm commitment.
"Truthfully, I thought my college days were over," said McCarthy. "I was filled with self-doubt, and I didn't know what I was going to do before Coach Holmes called."
He had been disillusioned by his brief experience at St. Francis.
"After graduating high school, I actually got more scholarship offers to play football at places like N.C. State and West Virginia than I did to play basketball," said McCarthy, who played offensive and defensive tackle for Mount Carmel's perennial football powerhouse.
Basketball scholarship offers came from Loyola and St. Francis, and McCarthy chose the latter.
"That's something I still regret," he said. "I needed ankle surgery and went to St. Francis with the idea I'd be redshirted. But they had their own doctors who said I was fit to play. I was in no shape, mentally or physically. I'd ballooned to 325. I just dropped out of school after a few months and went home."
Now, along with promising 6-11 sophomore forward Gerald Jordan and freshman guard Scott Deas, McCarthy represents Morgan's basketball future. "McCarthy and Jordan call themselves 'Salt and Pepper' and really go at each other in practice," said Holmes. "But they respect each other.
"I've never looked at Chris as being a white player. To me, he's just Chris, and he knows I love him like a son. Chris is learning a lot about life being at Morgan, but he's also making Morgan a better place. He's seeing the best and worst of both worlds, and it's given him a lot of maturity.
"He told me that when he went home the first time, the guys in the pool hall bet him he wouldn't last a week at Morgan. I told him, 'Go for it all. Bet them on all four years, and you'll wind up a millionaire.' "
Said McCarthy: "Right now, I believe I can become a dominant player in the MEAC. I've come too far to give up, and no one, racist or otherwise, is going to stop me from playing basketball again."