Louisville moves past Caracter issues to embrace Samuels
At the age of 14, Samardo Samuels packed a gym bag, left the tiny one-bedroom house he shared with his parents and sister and boarded a flight to discover his future.
He was 6-foot-7, a raw basketball talent whom no one had ever heard of, a Jamaican kid with a mentor who didn't know the first thing about the business of high school basketball but thought he could give Samuels a better life. No one really wanted him, but he wanted something better, so Samuels kissed his sobbing mother goodbye and headed out the door.
At the age of 14, Derrick Caracter packed his bags for Indianapolis, the first middle schooler invited to the prestigious Nike All-American Camp.
He was 6-8, the surest of sure things, a behemoth big man with crazy skills and a posse of adults who were well-versed in the business of basketball, happy to maneuver and manipulate to give him better exposure. Everyone wanted him, or at least a piece of him, and he enjoyed the easy street afforded to kids tabbed tops in their basketball class.
Today Samardo Samuels wears No. 24 for the University of Louisville, and his career is just beginning to take off.
Derrick Caracter is off the Louisville team and has vanished from the basketball consciousness, with his promising career in a perhaps permanent holding pattern.
The two are a microcosm of basketball today: one the throwback version from the pre-elementary school rankings days, a kid who works hard, plays harder and grows into his potential; the other, the nouveau-riche version of too much, too soon; a prodigy discovered, coddled and besieged before he could grow facial hair, with a bar set so high there was nowhere to go but down.
"There are four things that are killers of potential," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "One is drugs. Two is alcohol. Three is disrespecting women, and four is a lack of humility. You will never reach your potential if you think you've arrived before you have."
In the country less than a month, Samardo Samuels laced up his sneakers for his first American basketball game.
It was July 2004, and the summer-league circuit was in full swing.
"My first game was against Michael Beasley," Samuels said. "I didn't know who he was, but I remember he took it at me the whole game. The game felt so much faster. I'd be running down the court and they'd be going the other way."
It was like someone pulled a rug out from under him. Far away from his parents, dropped in a new and overwhelming country where people couldn't understand his thick Jamaican accent, Samuels counted on the basketball court to offer him sanctuary.
Instead, it only reminded him how far he was from home.
He had two choices: to quit or to work.
Four years later, Samuels was a national player of the year and the No. 2 prospect in the ESPN 150. In Samuels' last two seasons, St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.) went 48-2.
And he did it virtually by himself.
"It's the American dream, the American dream," said Stephen Johnston, Samuels' legal guardian and the man who first brought him from Jamaica to the U.S. "An immigrant who comes in from a disadvantaged country, works hard and is on the cusp of becoming a self-made millionaire. What more can you ask?"
Samuels didn't appear on any top-100 lists as a middle schooler because he wasn't here. He was home in Jamaica, excited about the NAIA school that promised to recruit him down the road. He probably would have followed that path were it not for Johnston, who first spied the "skinny beanpole" while scouting for the Jamaican Basketball Development Inc., a nonprofit that looks for college basketball opportunities for Jamaican players. Johnston convinced Samuels' parents that, with his height and the kind of solid skill development a United States high school could provide, Samuels could earn a Division I scholarship.
Far from a well-connected shyster, Johnston had no tapes of Samuels, wasn't even sure if the kid could dunk. It took him a year to find a taker -- Our Savior New American School on Long Island -- and two days to pry the weepy 14-year-old from his sobbing mother. Eventually, Samuels did what he thought was best for himself (and ultimately for his family) and boarded the plane.
Most of Jamaica isn't what Americans see in tourist brochures. It is, as Samuels rightly describes it, a third-world country. Samuels grew up in rural Trelawny, now famous for being home to Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt. Dissected by unpaved and jarringly bumpy roads, Trelawny gets by mostly on agriculture and sugar and rum production. Samuels shared a one-bedroom home with his parents, brother and sister, a home Pitino remembers for the ride it took to find it, a 20-minute rumble to cover a mere half-mile.
When Samuels first came to the U.S., he was amazed at the noise, the lights, the traffic and the bustle, but mostly he was stunned by the gluttony and entitlement. Samuels grew up searching for playable courts that yielded a true bounce instead of a tricky dribble off an uneven floor, yet here he found kids thumbing their noses at free sneakers.
"I never said anything because it's not my business, but people [in the United States] are so spoiled," said Samuels, who lived with Johnston, his wife and toddler son. "My friends would go looking for sneakers and say, 'I don't want those sneakers.' I was like, 'Man I'll take anything.'"
Samuels fended off homesickness, endured the wrath of teachers who insisted he was hard of hearing because they couldn't understand him, and steadily assimilated into the states. Every night, he spoke to his mother. Even though she was 1,600 miles away, she asked the same questions every mother asks her child when school is over: How was your day? What did you do?
After a year at Our Savior, he transferred to St. Benedict's in Newark. Coach Danny Hurley remembered Samuels from the year before. Our Savior New American played St. Benedict's, and though Hurley had two future Division I big men on his team -- Frank Tchuisi of Villanova and Dwight Burke of Marquette -- he thought the raw Samuels was the most powerful and physical player on the floor.
"He had never really been coached before. He had never been involved in a program before," Hurley said. "Sure, there were some bumps on the road. But he has a tremendous push to get better, a real passion."
Now a 100 percent Americanized basketball player, the skinny beanpole has filled out into a 6-9, 240-pound body, a body Pitino believes is already ready for the rigors of Big East play. Tabbed the conference's preseason co-rookie of the year with Georgetown's Greg Monroe, Samuels already has tongues wagging in Kentucky.
Two weeks ago, Samuels went for 36 points and 14 rebounds in an intrasquad scrimmage, and last weekend he led all scorers in an exhibition game with 20 points (adding 11 rebounds).
During the scrimmage, his older brother Leon was in the stands. Recently relocated to St. Louis, Leon is the first member of Samuels' family to see him play in person. Roan and Jacqueline followed their son's high school career through the Internet and Samuels' telephone reports. They're trying to fund a trip to the states this season but haven't worked out the details.
"Leaving that day was the hardest thing I ever did," Samuels said. "And when I go back to visit, I still hate leaving. But when I call my mom now she cries because she knows we're blessed. This has been a blessing."
When Derrick Caracter played at St. Patrick's High in Elizabeth, N.J., he always loved to hit the movie theatre in Westfield. So when St. Patrick's coach Kevin Boyle drove through the town recently, he wondered what Caracter was up to.
He's not alone.
Kenny Klein, Louisville's associate athletic director for media relations, said people ask him where Caracter is at least three times a day.
"If you find him, let me know," Klein said.
Declared academically ineligible in May, Caracter has since done the impossible: a 6-9, 265-pound man has disappeared.
He has not, as rumors in the summer had it, transferred to Southern Miss or NAIA Oklahoma City University. Sports information directors Jack Duggan at Southern Miss and Rich Tortorelli at OCU said Caracter was not currently enrolled and would not be joining their respective teams next semester.
He's not on the roster of the Rochester (N.Y.) RazorsSharks, as one hot tip out of Louisville suggested, nor is he on any D-League, ABA or CBA rosters.
Pitino thinks he's in New Jersey, but Caracter's mother Winnie Terry did not return messages left for her at work.
Boyle hasn't seen or talked to Caracter in more than a year.
Caracter was last spotted in Louisville in June, in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs after Curlin won the Stephen Foster Handicap. When asked what he was doing there, Caracter told Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich, "I hang around with winners, man."
It's hard to believe, really. For the better part of his life, Caracter's every move and quoted thought was recorded, blogged about, dissected and bisected. A basketball Paul Bunyan, Caracter was ranked ahead of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, stood 6-8, weighed 286 pounds and squatted 350 pounds; he had a personal trainer and a legion of fans who dreamed of him wearing their college colors, all while he was in the eighth grade. The kid nicknamed Baby Shaq seemed destined for the NBA.
"It's like being a child actor," Boyle said. "You're not treated normally. There's a community, a neighborhood expecting so much of you, it's hard to sustain it. I don't know how you live up to it."
David Stern changed Caracter's destination when he changed the NBA draft-age requirements, but by the time Caracter reached his senior year, that path seemed less likely anyway. After flip-flopping between his Scotch Plains (N.J.) high school and St. Patrick's, he left St. Pat's permanently in his senior season to get his grades in order. For those keeping score, he'd finish with three different high schools in four years (St. Pat's to Scotch Plains to St. Pat's to Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts).
But more than Caracter's academics were in trouble. He hadn't gotten better. By the time the class of 2006 rankings really mattered, Caracter had plummeted from No. 1 in middle school to No. 13 his senior season. The knock on Caracter was that he didn't work.
Caracter was still a huge get for Pitino, but when the prodigy came to college overweight, it was the beginning of a battle that Caracter couldn't win. Pitino doesn't have a lot of tolerance for people who don't work, nor does he have any interest in protecting them. In two years, Caracter was suspended for 16 games and twice signed and violated behavioral contracts Pitino drew up.
By the time his two-year tenure in Louisville was ending, Caracter was coming off the bench. In the Cardinals' Elite Eight game against North Carolina, a game in which Caracter could have helped against Tyler Hansbrough, he played just five minutes.
"I think he's misunderstood," Boyle said. "People look at what's happened and say automatically he's a bad guy. He's not. He's a good kid, but kids like that, everyone automatically thinks they love basketball and will work hard at it. Most kids are like the rest of us. Unless someone is on us, we take our coffee breaks a little longer, cut corners. Coach Pitino is an outstanding coach, a Hall of Fame coach, but Derrick's personality, I think he would have done better with someone who is a little more tolerant, who understands guys make mistakes."
Pitino wasn't really interested in talking about Caracter, except to say that his dramatics were a distraction to the team last season.
"Derrick Caracter isn't here any longer," Pitino said. "We've moved on from Derrick Caracter."
Samardo Samuels is the Cardinals' new direction. Pitino clearly likes the rookie. He says repeatedly that Samuels is a hard worker.
He never mentions Derrick Caracter by way of comparison. In fact, when asked to connect the two, Pitino refuses.
"[Samardo] has nothing to do with Derrick Caracter," he said. "There's no comparison."
But as he continues with his thought, it becomes impossible not to read his assessment of Caracter into his opinions of Samuels.
"Samardo is very hungry," he said. "He's a young man who wants to work hard and do well for his family."
To be fair, it's too early to declare Samuels a success story. He is just now beginning to dodge the land mine known as college basketball.
It's also too early to write off Caracter entirely.
The sports world is nothing if not a home for second, third and fourth chances, and Caracter remains a tantalizingly big body with a world of talent.
"I still think there's a spot for him," said Boyle. "I really like the kid and I'm rooting for him. Maybe this wakes him up; he realizes this is his last chance."
Maybe is a big word, kind of like potential.
It all depends on what you do with it.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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