"So, I made some bad decisions, dropped out, and went into the Army. There is so much more you can do with a college degree."
And Russell Carter heard that message repeatedly from his dad growing up in the hard-working South Jersey town of Paulsboro. And the words came with credibility, particularly when the son traced the athletic career of the dad.
"I heard stories about my father as an athlete," Carter was saying on a recent afternoon at the Joyce Center, relaxing in the stands following a team function. "People told me that he was a star athlete, scoring a touchdown in a Bowl game. He always talked about how he'd go down to the (Philadelphia) Eagles camp and hold his own. Then he was inducted into the (Athletic) Hall of Fame at my high school, and I walked past his pictures. That's when I knew all the stories were true."
Russell Carter Sr. was one of the best prep players in New Jersey in the mid-70's, and was recruited by Jackie Sherrill to play at Pitt. He earned one letter with the Panthers, in 1978, and accompanied the team to Orlando to play North Carolina State in the Tangerine Bowl.
Carter, a fullback, scored a touchdown that night against a State team that featured Bill Cowher at linebacker. But the Panthers lost, 30-17, and soon Carter was off the team, out of school, and serving in the Army overseas. "I lost track of what was important," he said. "The Army helped turned things around for me, but I wish I could have done more in school."
Carter's namesake is now in his senior year at Notre Dame, and comfortably on track to get a degree in sociology (with minors in computer applications and Spanish). "And that degree will virtually guarantee him success, or at the very least, real opportunities, in life," Carter Sr. said. "I couldn't be happier."
It's only when that aspect of the story is told sufficiently, that dad speaks of basketball. His son has a real chance to be one of the top players in the Big East Conference this 2006-07 season, the type of slashing, versatile offensive player who can pull up and hit a 20-footer, or throw down a thunderous dunk. He averaged 17.7 points in his final eight conference games last year and looks physically and emotional ready for more this year.
And Notre Dame nearly didn't get him.
"He was all set at Penn," Carter Sr. remembered. "He was offered a spot, was in, and was going to the Ivy League. But then (former Irish assistant) Anthony Solomon came to the gym in Paulsboro during Russell's senior year. The first thing he asked was, ‘How are your grades?'
"That's when Russell knew all the hard work in the classroom was worth it. Now he was going to get a great education and play his dream sport at a high level."
Now Carter's dream is to get Notre Dame back to the NCAA Tournament. When he attended freshman orientation in August, 2003, Carter sat in the Joyce Center and looked at the banner noting Irish tourney appearances in 2001, 2002 and 2003, including a Sweet Sixteen effort that final year. It was logical to think he would be a major part of continuing that run.
But the Irish have stumbled in Carter's first three years, missing out on the Big Dance each season. There was not much he could do about it as a freshman or sophomore. Deep on the depth chart at guard behind Chris Thomas, Chris Quinn and Torrian Jones, Carter played just five Big East minutes his debut year, and a modest 75 his second as the Irish were a "just miss" bubble team.
"It was never a question of ability," said head coach Mike Brey. "With Russ, it's always been about consistency; finding that ability to be strong on both ends of the floor and to move on from play-to-play."
Thomas – the all-time Big East leader in minutes played by a guard – had graduated and was playing ball in Europe last winter, freeing up major time in the backcourt. Carter was Brey's first choice to take the minutes, and he responded nicely in the 2005-06 Big East opener, ironically at his dad's old school, Pittsburgh.
Carter scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds in 41 gritty minutes as the Irish lost a heartbreaker in double overtime. Three days later, he played 37 minutes in another close loss, at DePaul.
But then the consistency Brey referenced came into play. Carter struggled with his defense in a January 11 loss to Syracuse, dropping his minutes to 22. He was in the starting line-up for the next contest, at home on January 14 with Providence, but Brey yanked him after four minutes, and he never saw the floor again.
On January 20 at Marquette, Carter saw one minute of play in a last-second loss. The Irish took the bus back from Milwaukee in a snowstorm with a 1-4 Big East record and Carter had played a grand total of 20 minutes in the prior three games. It was gut check time.
"Sometimes in the heat of the season, you just don't have the time to deal with individual issues," said Brey. "In the Providence game, Russ was called for a charge early in the game, pouted about it, and I just thought ‘I'll deal with this later. Let's win this game first.' So he sat. After the Marquette loss, it was apparent we needed him in there. So he needed to get consistent emotionally on the floor."
Carter admits he "wears his heart on his sleeve" when he plays, but doesn't dwell on past mistakes. So it was easy for him to look past the reduced minutes.
"I just figured it was time for somebody else to play," he said. "Kyle (McAlarney) took my minutes in those games, played well, and deserved it. That's the way I looked at it."
Carter came off the bench on January 24 at home versus Georgetown and logged 34 strong minutes, scoring eight points and getting into the mix on both ends of the floor. The Irish lost again in double OT, but it was evident that night for the first time that Carter would be part of the long-term solution.
Sure enough, Carter started the final 10 Big East games, averaged 34 minutes per game, and showed flashes of Ray Allen (this reporter's observation) and Allen Ray (Carter's answer when asked to describe his style of play). He scored 24 points in 38 minutes at Louisville, had 17 points and eight boards in a key road win at Seton Hall, and notched 63 points in the final three games, as the Irish went 2-1 and salvaged a Big East Tournament spot.
"He showed he was capable," said Brey. "And now he's ready to take it to an even higher level."
(An expanded version of this story will be available in the Basketball Preview issue of IrishEyes Magazine, available in mid-November. For subscription information to IrishEyes Magazine please click here.)
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