SMALL-TOWN BIG MAN

SMALL-TOWN BIG MAN

Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback

Published on March 9, 2016

Under the glow of a streetlight, Robert Carter Jr. hoisted shot after shot toward the roadside hoop across from his home in Thomasville, Georgia.
Sometimes a few neighborhood kids would join him. Other times, Carter was out there by himself, crossing over imaginary defenders late into the night.

His father, Robert Carter Sr., would have to walk out onto the driveway and plead for his son to come in and go to bed. Carter Jr. would beg for 10 more minutes. Then 20.

The shooting sessions ran so long that the Carters’ next-door neighbor, a now-93-year-old woman, had trouble falling asleep. But she never complained to Carter Jr.’s parents.

“She wouldn’t say anything,” said Linda Carter, his mother. “She knew he was going somewhere.”

Sure enough, Carter Jr. began garnering attention from college coaches once he joined the AAU circuit. Soon after, the scholarship offers started rolling in.

After playing two seasons for Georgia Tech, the 6-foot-9 forward left his home state to suit up for the Terrapins men’s basketball team, bringing his country roots and a tireless work ethic from his father with him to College Park.

“I just love the sport,” Carter Jr. said. “I didn’t have much. That was my passion. My joy to just go out and be able to shoot the basketball and just get really good at it.”

‘TWO PEAS IN A POD’

ABOVE: Robert Carter Jr. takes a shot for the Terps in their game against Illinois on March 3 at Xfinity Center. (Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

The Carters didn’t have cable when Carter Jr. was growing up. He had a ball and a hoop — the one across the street his parents bought for him when he was about 5.

They didn’t bother buying a miniature hoop for the kindergartner. Carter Jr. has always been tall — 6-foot-2 in fifth grade, he said, 5 inches taller than current Terps guard Varun Ram — and he started playing on a 10-foot hoop soon after he learned to walk.

Carter Jr. had a lot to live up to on the court. His dad, who grew up on Sinkola Plantation in Thomasville, still holds basketball records at the county high school.

“Everybody where I’m from knows who he is,” Carter Jr. said.

Despite having seven siblings, Carter Jr. grew up like an only child. The youngest of the bunch, Carter Jr. was 14 years apart from his next-youngest sibling. Plus, he’s his father’s only biological child.

Carter Sr. always wanted a son of his own to be just like him, so he put a basketball in Carter Jr.’s hands at the age of 3.

Father and son developed a special bond on the blacktop outside the home. While Carter Jr. perfected his game on the streetside basket, his father watched from a stool on the driveway.

“They were like two peas in a pod,” Linda said.

Sometimes Carter Sr. would take a few shots or grab a rebound, but most of the time he sat and critiqued his son’s game. The former lefty guard urged Carter Jr. to work on his hook shot, the one that has his son averaging 12.6 points per game for the Terps.

Often, the sound of the ball smacking against the blacktop was interspersed with stories of Carter Sr.’s own playing days, which were cut short by knee injuries.

“Growing up listening to that, it just made me want to be better than him,” Carter Jr. said. “And he always told me I would be.

Robert Carter Jr. (in black) puts up a shot in an AAU game at a YMCA in Thomasville, Georgia. (Courtesy of Linda Carter)

“But at the time, I was just hungry to be better than him. He just motivated me.”

So before he’d strap his backpack over his shoulders for school, he’d head to the hoop. Hours later, he’d throw off the backpack and go right back to the street.

Neighbors flocked to the Carters’ in hopes of a challenge. Even when Carter Jr. battled kids in high school as a preteen, it wasn’t a fair match. He towered over most of them.

“Nobody wanted to play me,” Carter Jr. said. “I beat everybody.”

But it took a while for Carter Jr. to recognize his potential, even as he dominated rec leagues with his dad coaching him. It didn’t happen until Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton spotted Carter Jr., a middle schooler at the time, “balling” at a high school camp in Tallahassee, Florida.

The Seminoles didn’t want Carter Jr. to compete for an AAU team. They wanted to keep him a secret. But soon, the national attention came.

The kind his dad had been telling him was coming his way for years from the stool in the driveway.

“He would always be shy,” Carter Sr. said. “He would think he wasn’t that good. And I would tell him, ‘You good, you good. You keep beating these boys that are older than you now, you going to be a good player one day.’”

‘A COUNTRY BOY’

ABOVE: Robert Carter Jr. dodges a defender when the Terps played the Fighting Illini at Xfinity Center on March 3. (Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

When Carter Jr. wasn’t challenging neighbors to one-on-one — or sometimes two- or three-on-ones — in the street, he was often on the plantation where his dad’s family grew up.

He’d fish for bass, brown trout and bluegill. He’d tag along with his dad and uncle, who still lives on the plantation, when they went hunting for quail or ducks.

“I grew up as a country boy,” Carter Jr. said.

It would’ve been easy for Carter Jr., who grew up on the more urban side of Thomasville, to end up running with the wrong crowd.

But aside from a few confrontations outside his home after beating neighborhood kids in pickup games, Carter Jr. never caused any problems, his parents said.

His Southern roots — and time spent in the woods with family — kept him grounded.

“Taught him not to get in trouble,” Carter Sr. said. “I know that taught him a lot. He had an uncle that was a troublemaker.”

Thomasville, a place Carter Jr. said you’ll miss if you blink, was all he knew. When he visited Georgia Tech in Atlanta, about a four-hour drive from Thomasville, it was the longest he’d ever been in a car.

So it was a “culture shock” when he arrived on the Yellow Jackets’ campus as a freshman in 2012.

“I thought Atlanta was the farthest place in the world,” Carter Jr. said.

Everyone dressed differently. They talked differently. Businesses were open later than 9 p.m.

Carter Jr. wasn’t in Southern Georgia anymore.

“I had to put him up on swagger,” said Marcus Georges-Hunt, his freshman-year roommate, who leads Georgia Tech in scoring this season.

Back in Thomasville, everything arrived late. They heard the newest music months after it had become popular. The same went for fashion.

But Carter Jr. learned. The boy who grew up playing AAU in the same pair of Air Jordans he went to school in suddenly had a collection of the sneakers.

One morning, Carter Jr. and Georges-Hunt woke up 10 minutes before an early workout on the other side of the campus was scheduled to begin. Carter Jr. jumped out of bed and slid on his new pair of Jordans. He and Georges-Hunt, who was wearing flip flops, took off across the campus.

They came upon a mud puddle on their route, and Georges-Hunt insisted Carter Jr. just run through it. Showing up late would’ve entailed more running. So Carter Jr. dashed through the muddy water, ruining his sneakers in the process.

The country boy couldn’t let it go.

“He was mad at me for a couple days about that,” Georges-Hunt said. “He was salty about that.”

‘AN OLD SOUL’

ABOVE: Robert Carter Jr. posts up a Wisconsin player at Xfinity Center on February 13. (Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

Carter Jr. hasn’t always been the lean bruiser in the post who can also step out and knock down 3-pointers.

Despite his dad insisting he be a ball handler growing up, Linda said Carter Jr. weighed about 260 pounds coming out of high school.

“He was always sort of chunky,” Linda said.

Maybe it was all the fried food his mom made him when he was younger. But it certainly wasn’t from a lack of working out.

Since Carter Jr. was little, his dad always told him, “If you ever want to be good in something, you have to work extremely hard.” It was especially important because he was from Thomasville, Carter Jr. said.

Scouts weren’t going to come for no reason. He had to give them one.

So after spending his early years hooping in the street, he lived in the gym.

“He was the first one there and the last one to leave,” Linda said.

When Carter Jr. arrived at Georgia Tech, he couldn’t sit still in his dorm room. He was constantly asking Georges-Hunt if he wanted to go lift weights or go shoot around.

They’d play one-on-one until 2 or 3 a.m. some nights, Georges-Hunt said, only to turn around and be in the gym a few hours later to lift weights with the team.

“He didn’t want to fail. He didn’t want to fail at all,” Georges-Hunt said. “If he was going to do something, he wanted to be great at it.”

Carter Jr. slimmed down in his two years with the Yellow Jackets, but the biggest transformation came in College Park. Per NCAA transfer rules, Carter Jr. had to sit out last season, leaving ample time for him to work with Kyle Tarp, the Terps’ strength coach.

In the offseason, the Baltimore Sun reported Carter Jr. had lost about 20 pounds and had trimmed his body fat from 18 percent to 12 percent.

“Not many kids like to get up early and work out at 6 a.m. and things like that,” Terps coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s just kind of an old soul.”

When Carter Jr., who’s listed at 235 pounds, returns to Thomasville to visit his parents, he’ll go out for runs. He can’t stay away from the gym either, so he’ll bring a ball to the YMCA.

But Tarp prefers to keep Carter Jr. under his watch in College Park.

“He said I gain like 2 percent body fat when I cross the Georgia line,” Carter Jr. joked.

While his trips back to Thomasville have been rare as he tries to help the No. 18 Terps live up to national title expectations, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

Amid a trying time for the Terps, who lost four of their final six regular-season games, Carter Jr. sprawled out his lanky legs on a chair inside Xfinity Center wearing a red-brimmed hat etched with a white Atlanta Braves “A.”

The Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament were on the horizon, providing a chance for him to compete at a level Georgia Tech didn’t. But before any of that, he reminisced about the games he grew up watching, the ones he mimicked in the street in Thomasville.

“I never thought I’d actually be there,” Carter Jr. said. “It seemed like it was just so far. It was so far away. But I got here.

“My dad told me I would.”

Ryan Baillargeon is the sports editor at The Diamondback. He can be reached at sportsdbk@gmail.com and at @RyanBaillargeon on Twitter.

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