Baltimore’s Aquille Carr, the country’s most dynamic and exciting high school player, continues to burnish his growing legend while fighting crime in his spare time.
His YouTube mixtape highlights, with well over three million collective hits and counting, make you seriously wonder if your eyes have the capacity to lie. If you don’t already know, Aquille Carr, whose name means strong as an eagle in Latin and intelligent and wise in Arabic, is a 5-7 rising junior athletic marvel with a 48-inch vertical leap at Baltimore’s Patterson High School.
He is, without question, the country’s most electrifying high school player. Some say, pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, he’s the nation’s best. With astounding athleticism, speed, courageousness and a scoring arsenal that is reminiscent of a young Allen Iverson, coupled with the night-goggle floor vision of Steve Nash, Baltimore’s rugged streets can no longer contain Carr’s mushrooming legend, which now stretches across the pond to Europe and afar.
It’s also a legend that came perilously close to never happening at all.
*** *** ***
The orthopedic hand specialist who performed the emergency surgery delivered the bad news to Tammy and Allen Carr almost 11 years ago.
Earlier that day, before he had the chance to blow out candles on his sixth birthday, the boundless bundle of energy was in the back-alley, playing a spirited game of touch football in the rain.
Aquille caught a pass on the run when he was pushed from behind. As the rubber soles of his sneakers slid across the wet pavement, his momentum propelled him toward a crash meeting with the rear of a brick row house. Struggling to maintain his balance, he extended a lefty Heisman stiff-arm to lessen the collision’s impact.
“My arm went right through the basement window,” says Aquille. “If somebody had banged out the rest of the glass before I pulled it out, it wouldn’t have been that bad. But by me being in shock, I just ripped my arm back out.”
In doing so, he severed numerous nerves, flexor and extensor tendons: the crucial inner infrastructure of the wrist and hand that allow you to control things like finger movement, squeezing, motor skills and the ability to open and close a fist.
“The doctor said Aquille would never use that hand regularly again,” says his father, Allen. “But he wasn’t having that.”
Within days, he could no longer contain his frustration with the cumbersome, itchy cast that engulfed his skinny wrist and hand.
“Instead of using a hanger to scratch at it, I just ripped it off,” says Aquille. “I kept pulling at it until it became loose and slid it right off.”
He took it upon himself to strengthen his left hand during every waking moment, constantly squeezing a therapeutic rubber ball, day and night.
“That’s when I knew that, physically, he was a little bit different,” says Aquille’s older brother, Allen Jr. “If I had a basketball, he’d grab it and dribble with his left hand to make it stronger.”
The youngest of five brothers who all played serious ball, Allen Sr. blossomed into a 6-2 shooting guard with abnormal hops and a sweet jumper in the early ’80s.
“Al was a tough guard who had the ability to get to the basket, could hit the shot and he had a nice little handle,” says Muggsy Bogues, the 5-3 revolutionary talent from Baltimore’s Dunbar High School who did most of his NBA damage with the then Charlotte Hornets. “He was an Allan Houston type of guard.”
Despite receiving recruiting mail from schools like Boston College, Allen began his career at Baltimore’s Essex Community College to strengthen his grades. Despite a stellar freshman year, Allen was troubled by the fact that Tammy â€“ who gave birth to Allen Jr. right after they both graduated from Patterson â€“ was struggling to provide for their infant child.
“Stuff was getting tight at home, and it just got to the point where I needed to take care of my family,” says Allen.
He got a job as a delivery helper on a Baltimore Gas and Electric truck, lugging and installing washing machines, air conditioners and refrigerators. The young couple, which could now afford a small apartment, got married and went about raising a family.
Although no longer a ticket out of the struggling neighborhood, competing in local basketball tournaments nourished him after arduous, back-breaking days on the job.
“Every time I had a game, I’d walk into the gym with Aquille sitting on my shoulders and Allen Jr. and my daughter Ashlie walking right beside me,” says Allen.
“I remember that my father could jump for real,” adds Aquille. “I saw how aggressive he was going to the basket. Watching him, I couldn’t wait to play under the whistle.”
Allen put little Aquille on teams in the eight-and-under age bracket at the age of five while he and Allen Jr. trained him at home.
“When I took him to play in games, people would be laughing and ask, ‘Why is that little boy out there?'” says Allen. “But after the game, they’d come up to me and say, “Shorty’s gonna be alright.'”
At home, Allen Jr., who is 10 years older, marked a small square on the kitchen’s linoleum floor, demonstrating moves for his little brother to replicate.
“If the ball went out of the square, that meant it was a turnover,” says Allen Jr. “After each move that he mastered, he’d add his own little flair to it. He’d do something extremely difficult in a game, in traffic, and he’d look at me as if to say, ‘Is that right?’ That would amaze me.”
Once, at Baltimore’s famed playground venue known as “The Dome” when he was 10, Aquille zoomed down court with a defender squatting at the three-point line to halt his momentum. He never broke stride, dribbled the ball between his opponent’s legs, caught it off the bounce and swished the game-winning jumper. Grown folks sprinted on the court screaming in a state of delirium.
“He was the talk of the town way before he got to high school,” says Genelle McCoy, one of his former recreation league coaches and a current mentor.
“He never played against kids his own age,” says James Johnson, a family friend who played against Allen Sr. in high school. “Aquille always had the heart of a lion. He was an asset on the court, even back then against grown men, because of his ability to handle the ball, penetrate, and dish off.”
“Aquille was so competitive from the beginning that his desire to win would get the better of him,” adds Allen Jr. “We said things to get him upset and pushed him around on purpose, so he could perform under pressure when he was angry.”
But while his skills were drawing rave reviews on the court, his periodic, irate outbursts made many parents and competing coaches snicker. If he disagreed with something, he’d sometimes scream profanities at referees â€“ and even some of his coaches â€“ during games.
“He had a bit of an attitude problem when he was a little kid,” says Gerald Stokes, one of Aquille’s former recreation league coaches who still mentors and trains him. “A lot of people didn’t understand him as a kid. He just needed to learn how to control his emotions.”
Stokes provided a stern hand, when others might’ve looked the other way due to Carr’s talent.
“Whenever we had an attitude situation, I would sit him on the bench and call his father, telling him, ‘Come and get your kid,'” says Stokes. “I was tough on him because I wanted him to get better as a person.”
The basketball court was not the sole province of Aquille’s budding local celebrity.
“Aquille was like Deion Sanders, Reggie Bush, Michael Vick and Devin Hester all rolled into one on the football field,” says Theodoric Bell, one of Carr’s former Pop Warner coaches, who has known him since he was six. Bell has also coached him with the Team Melo AAU hoops program and is his current assistant varsity basketball coach at Patterson.
In one regional championship football game, with the opposing team winning by a few points, Carr was inserted at nose guard. Late in the fourth quarter, backed up against their goal line, Carr slid up to Bell and calmly said, “I’m gonna sack the quarterback and cause a fumble.”
On the ensuing play, the littlest guy on the field sliced into the backfield, sacked the quarterback, caused and recovered the fumble. His team proceeded to drive the length of the field in less than a minute to win the game.
“How’d you know you were going to do that?” asked Bell.
“The center’s forearm would tense up right before he snapped the ball,” said Aquille. “I was studying him and timed it.”
As he crossed the bridge into adolescence, Carr was faced with some daunting choices as the lure of the streets began calling some of his friends.
“We always preached to him about the legends that came through this town that made the wrong choices and never made it,” says Johnson. “He knew that he didn’t just want to be some street legend, having people just talk about what he could have done or who he could have been.”
Says Aquille: “I knew that I had something good going for me and I didn’t want to blow it.”
Before meeting his ballyhooed incoming freshman, Patterson head coach Harry Martin had heard all of the accolades. He also heard that Aquille Carr had a bad attitude and was an academic liability.
“I told him when he got here, ‘I don’t care what happened in the past,'” says Martin. “The only thing I’m going to grade you on is what happens here at Patterson. And he’s proven himself to be a great kid with a positive attitude.”
En route to being named the Max Preps National Basketball Freshman of the Year in 2010, Aquille punctuated one of the most brilliant ninth grade seasons in Baltimore history with his dazzling 39-point, 19-assist masterpiece against Lake Clifton and their elite, 6-3 senior guard Josh Selby.
“Aquille was relentless against Josh,” says Lake Clifton coach Herman Harried. “He’s a little warrior that doesn’t get rattled and runs his team very well, a complete player who competes with conviction.”
The moment that crystallized his astonishing freshman campaign was the dunk he caught earlier in the season over City College High’s fantastic 6-5 shooting guard Nick Faust.
“When he got the steal and started zooming towards the rim, I saw that Nick was gonna go up and try to block the shot,” says Allen Jr. “When I saw Aquille’s approach, I was like, ‘Aw man! He’s getting ready to try and dunk it!'”
Not only did he ram it, but he threw it down with such force that the game had to be halted due to the ensuing spill-out of fans onto the court.
After the dunk, Carr’s box office appeal skyrocketed. Policemen in East Baltimore began noticing a sharp negative spike in area crime statistics during the times that Patterson played. Hence, one of the most delicious nicknames and organic marketing slogans in recent hoops memory was born: “The Crime Stopper.”
“The Crime Stopper nickname came directly from law enforcement,” says friend Dyrell Garrett. “The police noticed that all of the corners were empty at certain times, and they would be wondering, ‘Where did everybody go?'”
“From a police standpoint, it’s a good thing when Aquille is in the gym,” says Rodney Coffield, a city police officer who’s also the head coach at Douglass High School. “He’s a pretty nifty player, and everybody in East Baltimore wants to see him play, including the guys involved with the drugs, the guns and the violence. The crime goes down, and everybody wins when he’s playing, including the Eastern and Southeastern Police Districts.”
Off the court, away from the packed gyms and a fawning local media, Carr was also making some less publicized strides.
“Coming out of middle school, he didn’t know how to study properly, how to take notes and those types of things,” says Martin. “We told him it was a four-year marathon. He’s sitting there with a 2.5 GPA, attends all of his classes and he’s putting forth the effort because there’s a willingness to succeed.”
During his majestic sophomore campaign, Carr averaged 31 points, six assists, five rebounds and five steals in leading Patterson to a 25-2 record. On December 29th, he dropped 57 dizzying points on a very good Forest Park High School team, breaking the individual-game scoring record that stood at Patterson for over 50 years.
In front of a raucous crowd at Coppin State University on Feb. 11 that included Washington Wizards rookie point guard John Wall, Carr scored 29 points, despite playing sparingly in the fourth quarter while battling severe leg cramps, propelling Patterson into the city’s Division I championship game.
With the lathered crowd on their feet and the score knotted at 67, Carr gathered the ball at half court with 10 seconds left in the game. He jab-stepped, took two hard dribbles right, executed a razor-sharp, step-back crossover and launched a three that softly swished through the net.
“When John Wall showed up to watch him play, he wasn’t hyped-up, real excited or anything,” says Allen. “When we talked about it, he was calm. He just looked at me and said, ‘I must be doing good.'”
A few days later, Wall reached out, asking if Aquille would be interested in working out with his little brother.
“It’s cool because I get to talk to John Wall and spend some time with him,” says Carr. “He’s just a regular dude, so it ain’t that big a deal.”
Carr is fortunate to have others in his ear, local role models of similar stature who’ve defied the odds.
“In speaking to Aquille, he says that he patterned his game after me and Shawnta Rogers,” says Bogues. “And I guess we’re good guys to look up to because we were successful small guards, guys who understood what it took to get to the next level and keep climbing.”
“I’ve been around Aquille for a long time,” adds Rogers, the 5-4 overseas pro and Baltimore legend from Lake Clifton who was named the Atlantic 10’s Player of the Year at George Washington University in 1999. “He was always a tough kid with a lot of heart and an advanced understanding of the game. And he can finish at the rim with the best of them.”
*** *** ***
It’s February 24th on a frigid, wintry evening, and the Hill Field House on the campus of Morgan State University is packed to the gizzards. There are 500 people braving the bitter temperatures who can’t get in to the sold-out city championship game.
During warm-ups, Aquille walks delicately on his tippy toes with his slightly bow-legged gate. He rolls his head, smiling, nodding and lip-synching the Jay-Z and Yo Gotti lyrics coming out of the overhead speakers. He swings and loosens up the slim-corded muscles in his arms like Floyd Mayweather during Michael Buffer‘s “Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrumble!”
He grabs an early steal with the hand speed of a lizard’s tongue, zooms down court, elevates, floats with the balance of a ninja, and lays the ball softly through the net. Hampered with early foul trouble, he concentrates on his floor game, zipping passes at angles that only he can see.
After scoring seven first-half points, he takes over in the third quarter and finishes with 32. He strips the ball at will, flies through the air, contorting his body mid-flight to convert astonishing layups as well as draining 25-foot jumpers. Dribbling and weaving through traffic like a human blur, he delivers implausible passes that force the crowd out of their seats.
“He lets the game come to him and he’s tenacious on defense,” says Mike Daniel, the head coach at City College High School. “He’s savvy, intelligent and has an unbelievable will to win at all costs. That kid’s got a Sixth Sense, and only the great ones have that.”
After Carr’s scorching 43 points help deliver Patterson its first ever 4A regional championship, Urbana High School head coach John Cooper was at a loss.
“We tried to prepare for him, but we weren’t prepared,” said a red-faced Cooper. “You go zone and he hits threes, you play up on him and he goes around you. He’s just a freak of a player who can just make you look ridiculous.”
Early in the game, Carr strolls over to Urbana’s point guard, who, thus far, has looked as conflicted as a vegetarian dope fiend while trying to guard him. He stares him directly in the eyes, inches from his face, but not in a menacing or hurtful way. It’s innocent, almost as if he’s looking into the competition’s soul. Flustered, his opponent fearfully averts his gaze, resting his eyes on the floor.
“A real guard, he’s gonna look right back at me and say, ‘What’s up?'” says Aquille. “But when he looked down, I smiled because I already knew that I’d won the battle.”
Two days before the state semifinals, while Baltimore is blanketed by a thick fog and intense rainstorm, Carr is sweating profusely at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center. In the midst of an intense workout with Coach Bell and two other coaches and mentors, Kendrix Gibson and Darrick Oliver of the Team Melo program, Carr toils as if he’s fighting for his team’s last roster spot.
With a parachute attached to his waist, then resistance bands as Gibson trails behind, he sprints up and down the court, dribbling a heavy ball with his right, then left, then back to two balls at a time.
Carr backpedals from the baseline to half court at full speed, sprints forward, catches bullet passes and pulls up for long-range jumpers. “Use your legs,” says Oliver. “Shoot over the top, soft,” says Gibson. “Raise up!” says Bell. At various intervals, all of the coaches scream, “Good posture! Be consistent! Legs! LEGS!”
“We’re always in the gym,” says Gibson. “By him having a jump shot, he knows there’s no way that anybody can play him, so he’s working on it every day. He calls me all the time, at night and on the weekends and says the same thing, ‘Open the gym and let’s go work out.'”
At the University of Maryland’s sparkling Comcast Center, right before tip-off of the state championship game against North Point High School, big John Thompson â€“ the legendary former Georgetown coach â€“ saunters slowly into the media seating section. Before sitting, he bellows to an old acquaintance, “I came to see Aquille!”
Carr scores seven first-half points, but it is easily not his best performance. North Point’s talented, quick guards are being extremely physical with him. Missing shots that he normally makes, he continues to drive tenaciously toward the rim as the refs seem hesitant to use their whistles.
Late in the first quarter, the North Point fans yell in unison, “HOW OLD ARE YOU? HOW OLD ARE YOU?” and Carr unleashes his mega-watt smile.
“I repeated the first grade after being home schooled, so I’m a year behind my normal class,” says an amused Aquille. “I think it’s funny when people in the crowd say that, like it’s supposed to make me upset. They act like I’m a 21-year-old sophomore. I’ll be 18 years old when I start my senior year of high school.”
In the second half, he scores 20, fights ferociously against 6-6 opponents for rebounds and zips delectable passes to his teammates, but it’s not enough to deliver Patterson’s first state title.
“I heard this was his worst game of the season, but I’m looking up at the scoreboard and he has 27 points,” says University of Maryland guard and interested courtside observer Pe’Shon Howard. “His effort is incredible. At his size, to carry a team on his back the way he does is special.”
“His courage is the biggest thing that impressed me,” adds Thompson. “Any time you have a kid that young, who’s that aggressive and skilled, you can project that he’s going to be a great, great player.”
As the final horn sounds, Carr looks shocked, hurt and confused. He crumples to the hardwood and pulls his jersey over his head. He lies on the floor, his body convulsing, tears cascading down his face. Coaxed toward the bench for the trophy ceremony, he rests his head on folded arms, his chest heaving.
In the postgame press conference, with deep, sad crimson eyes, he answers every reporter’s question thoughtfully, sincerely and respectfully.
“They’re a good, physical, defensive team and they send a lot of defenders at you to double,” says Carr about the victorious North Point squad. “I played my hardest, but I didn’t play my best, and you have to give credit to their defense for that.”
What he neglects to mention, a fact unknown to anyone outside of his teammates, coaches and family, is that he played the game on one good leg, suffering a severe calf strain days before.
He exits the press conference, surrounded by his coaches and teammates, stepping gingerly through the arena’s bowels. There is no noise, other than the whir of the overhead ventilation system. He walks with a slight, pained limp on the plush carpet outside of the Maryland locker room. He never lifts his eyes to admire the framed NBA jerseys of former Terps like Steve Francis, Greivis Vasquez, Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox, and Joe Smith.
Carr has had a busy spring and summer. In late April, as the only sophomore on the team, he averaged over 30 points at the Junior International Tournament in Milan, Italy, leading the U.S. squad to a gold medal.
Fans hoisted him on their shoulders after one 40-point game. The Italian pro club, Lottomatica Virtus Roma, Brandon Jennings‘ old team, reportedly offered him an open-ended, $750,000 per year contract.
“They didn’t talk to me directly, but they told my coach over there that whenever I wanted to come back, there was a spot waiting for me on a pro team,” says Carr. “That just showed me the possibilities of what playing this game can do.”
He’s also added to his prodigious reputation with his play in the Carmelo Anthony Pro-Am this summer, where people are still abuzz over a game in July when he dropped his defender and attacked the Sacramento Kings’ 6-11 DeMarcus Cousins in the paint.
With Cousins trying to block his shot, Carr floated at high altitude from one side of the rim to the other, kissing the ball gently off the glass with cue-ball English at an indescribable angle. He finished with 18 points and six assists, played only half the game and was the only high school athlete on the floor. Smiling from ear to ear, Cousins lifted him in the air with a playful bear hug at the game’s conclusion.
When the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets fled to Washington, D.C. in 1973, and with no major college program in town, rabid hoops fans directed all of their passions toward the city’s top prep players and programs. Remnants of the existing vacuum are still evident today. This winter’s elementary school championships drew a crowd to a high school gym that far exceeded the fire marshall’s limit.
In Baltimore, basketball is not some mere diversion or extra-curricular activity. It’s woven into the daily fabric of being.
For people that suggest that Carr should pack his bags to attend a national prep hoops factory like Oak Hill Academy or Findlay Prep, they simply don’t understand what he means to the city, and what the city means to him.
People struggling through financial distress, unemployment, frightening crime and homicide rates and a deepening recession leave the gym after a Patterson game feeling better about their own lives, encouraged by the vitality of this burgeoning talent displaying his originality and rare ingenuity. His connection with crowds has moved beyond the entertainment sphere and into a spiritual one.
In early August, within the heart of East Baltimore at the photo shoot for this story, speeding motorists screech to a crawl while passing by, some enthusiastically yelling through open windows. “We see you shining boy! Keep making us proud, son!”
Carr smiles, nods his head and cheerfully resumes taking directions from the photographer.