There’s usually a process to how things are done.
Follow a recipe to make the best dish. Listen to your coach to perfect your shot. Abide by the syllabus to get an A. (Ideally.)
For Eli Carter, his entire playing career has followed a process—a fairly simple one at that. It takes only a couple of steps to sum up how he has gotten to this point.
Care. Comeback. Conquer.
He doesn’t use those words, per se. But those steps have created a three-part symphony that symbolizes the guard whose travels have taken him along the Eastern Seaboard. They compose the perfect harmony, beautifully humming to glimmer into the ear. Boston College men’s basketball head coach Jim Christian brought in Carter, a fifth-year transfer, first from Rutgers and then from the University of Florida, to teach those same lessons to his crop of seven green freshmen.
But if Carter follows that scheme himself, he can become the missing piece on the court for an Eagles team that will largely spend the 2015-16 season looking for answers for their future.
Hell, why not? That blueprint has gotten Carter this far in his basketball career. Especially when it probably shouldn’t have gotten very far at all.
CHAPTER ONE: CARE
Quick, what comes to mind when I say: New Jersey? Perhaps it’s a thick accent screaming at a Giants game in the Meadowlands. Or the mindless hours you’ve spent watching Snooki galavant on a beach under an orange-tinted sky with a bunch of shirtless men. Or the fact that the state ranks as the country’s third-richest, with a per capita income of $36,027, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That’s the place I remember, the one where I spent my childhood summers wading in the cool Atlantic Ocean water of Spring Lake and Long Beach Island—two of the state’s prime shoreside destinations. But it’s far from the New Jersey where Eli Carter grew up.
Carter grew up in Paterson, N.J., a city of almost 150,000 that sits only 40 minutes outside of New York. Paterson citizens have a per capita income of less than half the state average, $15,876, while its poverty rate is almost triple (29.1 vs. 10.4), making it one of New Jersey’s most financially disadvantaged areas.
There wasn’t a lot to do in his neighborhood, but a kid has to get out of the house. So he chose to focus on sports. “We had nothing else to do,” Carter said with a shrug.
On the streets, he first turned to football, a sport he admits he was pretty good at. In fact, everyone from his neighborhood knew him best as a dangerous and speedy wide receiver.
But it was in basketball where he really shined. It wasn’t a family member who introduced it to him or anything. His dad, Dale Sterling—with whom he lived in nearby Willingboro, N.J., after the age of 12 when his mom, Valarie, passed away—was a star soccer player. Carter simply had that natural feel for the game.
Unfortunately for Carter, that natural talent didn’t help him when the games got organized. He enrolled in the Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J., as a freshman, with the goal of playing basketball. Yet he spent two frustrating years on the junior varsity squad, failing to impress his coaches or college scouts.
Instead of blaming others for his inability to make the jump to the varsity lights, Carter searched for that fatal flaw. But it wasn’t a lack of ability. It was just a lack of effort. He now laments the fact that he didn’t care enough back then to make a bigger impact for the sake of his team.
Nevertheless, he remembers the moment when his attitude changed, and is forever grateful that it did. “Once I really noticed I was kinda good at it, I could maybe make some money from it,” Carter said. “Get out of the neighborhood, stuff like that.”
So began the care stage of the process.
Carter opted for a fresh start, transferring to St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, N.J., to play under Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame head coach Bob Hurley. The 27-time state champion wasn’t going to give his newest player the easy route into getting his name called—it took Carter until the end of his junior campaign to crack the starting five. But once he did, he made sure Hurley wouldn’t regret it.
In his senior season, Carter averaged 15.2 points, six assists, and five rebounds, earning All-Hudson County honors and leading the Friars to the NJSIAA Non-Public North B championship. He signed a letter of intent with St. Bonaventure University in Western New York, making that dream of getting out of the neighborhood a reality.
But Carter wanted more. And he felt he had the responsibility to stay home so his family could see him shine.
Ironically, he did that by spending a prep year at New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy. There, he helped the Bobcats—one of New England’s best basketball programs—to a 31-3 record. He earned several offers from prime programs: Penn State, Creighton, Cincinnati, Oregon, and Texas A&M (where current BC assistant Scott Spinelli recruited him) to name a few.
None was more important than the call he got from Mike Rice to join his Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
CHAPTER TWO: COMEBACK
Everything was going smoothly down in New Brunswick.
Carter broke onto the scene as an impact freshman in the Big East. He led Rutgers in scoring with 13.8 points per game, finishing 19th in the conference and fourth among freshmen, behind only St. John’s duo of newcomers, D’Angelo Harrison and Mo Harkless, and Providence’s LaDontae Henton. The shooting guard even emerged as a leader on his own team, pacing the Scarlet Knights in minutes played.
And he made highlight reel plays. Not the type that might make the SportsCenter Top 10, but the ones they’ll show when they recap Rutgers’ wins.
Though the success wasn’t all the way there for the Scarlet Knights—they finished just 14-18, 6-12 in the Big East—the potential clearly showed.
Then came the 2012-13 season, a year that will go down as the most infamous in Rutgers history, and one that nearly broke Carter’s will.
It began on Feb. 16, 2013, with an actual break.
While going up for a rebound late in a 75-69 loss to rival DePaul, Carter—again Rutgers’ leading scorer with 14.9 PPG, 11th best in-conference—fell hard on his right fibula. The bone fractured, which was enough to keep him sidelined for the rest of the season. Carter still has no idea exactly how it broke. All he knew was the pain.
But that grew into emotional pain after ESPN’s Outside the Lines investigated Rice, his head coach, the man who Carter credits with teaching him how to play basketball, about claims of bullying.
The beleaguered head coach had already gotten suspended three games earlier in the season and fined $50,000 for alleged abusive behavior. In April, however, videos obtained by ESPN that were sent to Rutgers Director of Athletics Tim Pernetti revealed that the cases of abuse far exceeded what was originally thought. Rice hurled racial and homophobic slurs at his players, not to mention hurling basketballs at their heads. It resulted in his immediate removal from the head coaching position.
To this day, Carter defends Rice. Despite the video evidence, he believes a lot of the talk was exaggerated. “That’s not his reputation with me,” Carter said in response to his relationship with Rice. “What anyone else says is their opinion.”
But Carter was forced into phase two of the process: the comeback.
Because of the circumstances regarding the firing, members of the Scarlet Knights were free to transfer to whichever school would take them without being forced to sit out a year. Between that and Rutgers’ departure from the crumbling Big East to the less prestigious American Athletic Conference, Carter took that opportunity.
Although Spinelli again tried to recruit him, this time at Maryland, Carter headed to Florida to join Billy Donovan, whose Gators were coming off their 15th consecutive 20-win season. Instead of stepping into an active role in Donovan’s offense, Carter’s lingering leg injury sidelined him for the year after only seven games.
That turned out to be the best thing for him.
With starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin set to depart after the 2013-14 season, Donovan worked tirelessly with Carter to switch from the two to the one. Each day during his rehab, Carter focused on bringing the ball up and acing his passing skills.
Carter also began to understand what it took to be on a winning team at the NCAA level. During the Gators’ march to the Final Four, they lacked that one-man show, something Carter had been both at Rutgers and in his high school days. Though Wilbekin won SEC Player of the Year, he didn’t dominate the court without help the way BC’s Olivier Hanlan did last season—Florida had four players average between 11 and 13.8 points per game. Carter then realized perhaps the most crucial skill to playing the point: trusting your teammates and covering for their mistakes. And most importantly, how not to be the primary scoring option.
Once Carter returned to full health, the results were … average, to say the least.
Finally ready to play after almost 18 months, Carter averaged a respectable 8.8 points per game but only two assists. SB Nation’s Andy Hutchins described him as “a square peg in a round hole” because of the combination of his physical limitations and his fit in Donovan’s system. And after a trying 2015-16 season, Donovan bolted for the Oklahoma City Thunder coaching position.
So once again, despite his reformation, Carter needed a fresh start.
CHAPTER THREE: CONQUER
Thus we arrive to today, where Carter sits at the final stage of his career-long process: conquer. This is the point where your hard work and ability to care translates into the reward. You can extrapolate that into wins on the court—he has had plenty of them in his high school and college careers. But Carter prefers to turn that into the effect he can bring to the next generation.
That’s why he was finally sold by Spinelli’s long-standing recruiting process. Several schools made the push to claim the highly coveted graduate transfer. Georgetown, UNLV, and Seton Hall—the latter a school 20 minutes south of his childhood home—to name a few. But this time, Spinelli wouldn’t be denied. “He tells me every day that I should’ve been stuck with him before,” Carter said.
Carter loved the idea of his role in Christian and Spinelli’s second year of the grand master plan to rebuild BC basketball to a respectable level—it’s really one where he can’t lose. For his own career, Carter will have an opportunity to shine in the country’s most competitive conference, the ACC, while running an offense that, according to Christian, is perfectly suited to his style of play.
In that sense, Christian sees him playing a Hanlan-esque role. Despite his transition to the point, Carter’s new head coach understands that he will likely be the team’s primary scorer. He’ll also be the team’s lead facilitator, trying to get into the lane as fast as possible and dishing out to the 3-point line to give guys good, open shots.
“Not good shots,” Carter corrected himself, “but great shots.”
Excuse me, great shots.
But for Carter and Christian, his bigger role will be in helping BC’s seven freshmen learn that patented process—care, comeback, conquer.
He has already begun to do that with the Eagles’ promising young stars: A.J. Turner and Jerome Robinson. Though Turner will likely play small forward this year, the two crave Carter’s attention to detail and style of play. He works well with the young players, showing them everything he has learned from his many travels. And they appreciate the fact that he could’ve stayed at a school with a lot of recent success and the pieces to win now, but instead chose to come to BC.
“Eli had to know the situation he was coming into, so it shows that he was comfortable coming here and playing with us,” Turner said. “It shows that he trusts in the system.”
Whether that translates into wins remains to be seen. But Carter has already showed both his teammates and the sparse crowd at Conte Forum his ceiling from BC’s scrimmage against Division-II Bentley University.
Carter demonstrated his shortcomings in the beginning of the first half, not pressing on defense and making several turnovers that looked forced and were without conscious decision-making. Similar to the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, who often gets criticized for lack of hustle on defense despite his natural abilities, Carter makes passes and shots that are difficult look easy. Because his dribbling skills aren’t as sharp as they could be, that equates to a player that can look clumsy and lazy.
But then he got into the flow of the game. Carter began to drain shot after shot, often from beyond the 3-point line. He has no fear in driving to the net and will put up (and make) heavily contested shots. At one point, following a timeout, Carter showed off his more fun side, knocking down a turnaround 3-point jumper from deep. The shot was so impressive that Steven Daniels and John Johnson, two of BC football’s defensive stalwarts in attendance, got up immediately and started screaming and hollering in support.
He finished the day with 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting. If he can do that in the way he did it—with hands in his face and quickness to the rim—Carter will have no problem adjusting to ACC play.
It wouldn’t even be close to the hardest thing he has faced. And even if he struggles, chances are he’ll come out on top. He always has.
Featured Image by: Daniella Fasciano / Heights Editor