- After growing up as an amateur phenom and surviving the NCAA system, Wendell Carter Jr. is ready for his biggest challenge yet: the NBA.
Wendell Carter Jr. ducks to squeeze his 6' 10" frame out of the elevator and into the SLAM magazine gifting suite on the top floor of a Midtown Manhattan building. It’s the Tuesday before the NBA draft, and dozens of rooms like this have been set up across the city. This suite is filled with so-hip-you-haven’t-heard-of-them-brand socks, sweatshirts, backpacks and shoes. Basketballs roll around the floor like afterthoughts. Photographers, videographers and agents step over them.
Carter is 19 years old, a one-and-done player and one of many teenagers now out of the clutches of the NCAA. But his future plans are up in the air, controlled by team executives and agents. The NBA draft is a bar mitzvah of sorts, except instead of becoming men one night and then going back to seventh grade the next day, these kids become adults when they get their million-dollar deals and then have to go be grown-ups. They uproot their lives for new cities, where they’ll either shoot to international fame or flame out in a blaze of mediocrity at best and disaster at worst.
Everything and everyone has been put into this room for Carter and the other members of the draft class. Carter was a student a month ago and will become, in two days, the hope of the Chicago Bulls, who will choose him seventh overall. After years of NCAA and high school rules that forbade him from accepting as much as a meal from anyone, Carter can take whatever he wants in here. It’s all free.
Well, kind of. He does have to hold up a bottle of Axe pomade and recite something about hair to a camera, and he does have to do a photo shoot holding a big S and a basketball (“Can you palm it for us? Give it a spin?”), and he does have to sign his name on multiple bags and photos. He obliges, looking comfortable and at ease in front of the cameras. The constant flashes run together, creating a strobe effect.
His promotional duties fulfilled, Carter walks up to a rack of clothes with a backpack he picked out at a different suite slung over his shoulder. It bears the classic Louis Vuitton checkered print, and stacks of dollar bills have been painted onto the leather. Carter grabs a pair of pink socks, a sweatshirt and another backpack. Someone hands him a Visa gift card with $800 on it. He’s not yet sure what he’ll use it for, he says. He has to think about it.
A kid who looks to be around Carter’s age approaches him. Carter—who usually looks studious, like he’s keeping mental notes of everything around him—lights up with a smile and embraces the guy. The two were both freshmen at Duke last year, and Carter’s friend is interning with a company involved in the suite. He’ll start his sophomore year in the fall. Carter will start his career as a professional basketball player.
“Wendell is the best,” the kid says, as Carter’s agent whisks his charge off to grab some food at the buffet. “We had a bunch of classes together. He was the only athlete who’d reach out about work. Like, he’d text me about when we were gonna do the group project. He’s just such a great guy.”
After the Great Guy hits the buffet, it’s time to head back to the hotel. A barber is going to meet him in his room to freshen up his cut before he goes to film a pre-taped appearance for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Carter has had the same barber his whole life in his hometown of Fairburn, Ga., about 30 minutes away from downtown Atlanta. He refused to get his hair cut in Durham during his year at Duke, preferring to wait to see his guy. Now he has to trust his hair to this stranger another players’ agent recommended.
As Carter makes his way out onto the hot New York City street, his three agents are each carrying two bags filled with stuff from the suite, the third one they’d visited that day. “It’s crazy man,” Carter says. He shakes his head. “I can’t even put it into words. It’s a blessing. It’s crazy.”
And he knows that after weeks of adolescent limbo and athletic purgatory, his life is only going to get crazier come Thursday night, whether he’s ready or not.
At 6' 5", Kylia Carter stands out in any crowd, but tonight she shines. She’s dripping in over $100,000 worth of diamonds at a party for her son the night before the draft. Her Gucci shoes are sparkly, too, even down to the laces, and her metallic pink Gucci vest shimmers in the light. She loves bling, so yesterday people from Vanguard, the agency representing Wendell Jr., brought her to a suite filled with jewels and told her choose whatever she wanted to borrow. Dapper Dan, the famous atelier who’s had a shop in Harlem since the 1980s, stands nearby wearing diamond encrusted spectacles. He’s partnered with Gucci and has made the all-black suit ensemble and scarf that Carter will wear tomorrow night as he learns his fate.
Basketball is in Carter’s blood. Kylia played at Ole Miss. Carter’s father, Wendell Sr., who’s an inch taller than his wife, played at Delta State and then professionally in the Dominican Republic. The two are giving a speech thanking their gathered family and friends who flew in from Atlanta, as well as Wendell’s agent Joby Branion, a few folks from Roc Nation, and people from corporations like Mercedes who are there to support the Carters’ initiative called Educate to Elevate. They hope to provide a support network for families navigating the path from AAU basketball to the NCAA to the NBA. Which has only gotten more complicated since the FBI started investigating schools for breaking rules that keep players from capitalizing on their talent. Kylia was a blog headline in every corner of the internet this spring when her name showed up in the expense report of an agent who purportedly took her to a lunch that was six dollars over the allotted amount that prospects and their families are allowed to receive. She denied accepting anything from the agent, Carter was cleared to play immediately and the news cycle moved on.
“All of the support that’s here tonight, y’all know who you are, you know what you mean to me, and I am so thankful that we have you,” Kylia says, her voice breaking a little. “I”—she pauses—“you just don’t know how much you mean. You don’t know the value that you have when it’s quiet, when we don’t know what we’re doing, when we don’t know what to say, when we don’t know how to be in a room with a whole bunch of millionaires. When that stuff happens we know there’s one place that we can go where none of that matters. And that means we come home.”
Everyone in the room nods and claps.
“And at the end of the day, we’re thankful for that,” Kylia continues. “And we told our son that. We told him, ‘You go, and you do you, and you be you. And we’re going to always have home.’ ”
Carter doesn’t hear any of his mother’s speech. He’s sitting in a different room, with his cousin, his best childhood friend and his girlfriend, like a kid hiding out in the basement until his parents’ dinner party is over. As an only child, Carter is good at being alone. He’s much quieter than both of his larger-than-life parents. Kylia also made headlines this spring when she compared the NCAA to slavery and the prison system for exploiting young black athletes for profits that go to older, rich white people. She was so disillusioned after her own career as a college athlete that she didn’t play basketball for three years after graduating.
“It was my mom, you know, everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” Carter says. “She doesn’t have a problem letting people know how she really feels. And, frankly, what she was saying I agree with a lot. Some people may have misunderstood her—which I think is their problem, not so much her problem.”
The Carters were reluctant at first to declare Wendell Jr. for the draft after one year of college. He’s always been a stellar student, at both Pace Academy, his high school, and in his one year at Duke. He was accepted to Harvard. He has other interests besides basketball—he starred in a play at Pace and could see himself going into acting someday (“Space Jam III, here I come.”) Kylia and Wendell Sr. originally wanted him to go for four years and get his degree. But getting out of the NCAA system is partly why the Carters decided it was time to enter the NBA.
“They treat you like a piece of property. Period. Point blank. They take things away from you, they talk bad to you, they’re disrespectful to you,” Kylia says at the party. “The act of getting paid is not what makes a difference, the difference is that in the NBA [players] are respected in the role that they’re in. Whatever it is they’re doing, they have a voice and they’re respected. In college, you have no voice. It’s a system set up that they drop you in and tell you what to do—you be a rebounder, shot-blocker, you take all the shots, nobody else can shoot. My child never got to show his full set of skills. He never got to do that.”
Duke’s offense wasn’t geared to Carter’s skill set, and with the addition of Marvin Bagley III to the team—who will be drafted second overall—Carter was always the team’s second-best big man. While Carter admits he was initially upset when Bagley committed to Duke after he did, the two are close now and loved playing together. “That’s my boy,” Carter says. Bagley’s room is down the hall from his in their Manhattan hotel. Being on a team with another lottery pick only made Carter work his 250-pound frame (the weight he’s maintained with strictly regimented workouts since he was 16) even harder.
Carter believes that he’s been underestimated. He considers himself the most competent and well-rounded big man in a draft that will see five of them go in the first seven selections. The sport is trending toward small ball, but this year will reverse that trend. Carter was stellar in the post, a highly effective defender and rebounder all season. His mid-range shot was almost automatic, and he’s been working on three-pointers since declaring for the draft.
“Of course I’m the best,” he says, “You gotta have that confidence coming into this league. You’ll get ate up if you think, ‘Ah man, I’m not that good.’ You gotta be on your game for sure.”
Carter says this with a laugh. Bravado isn’t his natural style; he sounds like he’s willing himself to believe it. He’s naturally humble, thoughtful. The night Pace won the state championship when Carter was on the team, everyone piled off the bus to celebrate. Carter’s coach Demetrius Smith was looking around the locker room at his jubilant players and realized Carter, the team’s undisputed star, wasn’t there. None of the other kids knew where he was. They eventually found him still on the bus, cleaning up the trash left behind so the driver wouldn’t have to the next day.
“We had this saying,” Smith says. “ ‘Leave the place better than you found it.’ So there’s Wendell, the night he wins a championship, cleaning the bus. The best player, and he’s on the bus picking up trash. That’s what he’s like.”
Carter thinks people often mistake his calmness, his unreadable expression, for a lack of caring. But he cares a lot—about his education (he’s promised Kylia he’s going to finish his finance degree eventually), about his friends, about his family. He doesn’t want his looming new life to alter who he really is.
“Something I take pride in recently is not changing,” he says. “Knowing where I come from and not changing up on people just because I have money. I just try to put myself in my family’s shoes, my friends’ shoes. Because if one of my boys was to grow up and become a millionaire and forget about me, forget where he came from, and start acting different? I would think he wasn’t ever my friend. So I want to make sure my folks know, ‘I’m not changing up on you.’ Know that I might not be talking to you as often because I’m going to be so busy, but just know that I’m not going to switch up on you ever.”
Kylia hopes this is true.
“That’s when we lose them,” she says. “When they lose the boundary. I guess some people call it character. Some people call it the inner voice. But I call it the boundary. It’s that thing that keeps you from stepping into distractions. It’s a protection. I pray he finds security in his boundaries, because if you find joy and security in your boundaries, you know when you’re outside of them. And you’ll know when you need to get back in.”
Carter has FEAR tattooed on the inside of his left bicep and NONE on the right. He got it with Duke teammate Gary Trent, who has GOD’S etched onto his left bicep and CHILD inscribed on his right. Carter feels slightly guilty, because he promised his mom any ink would always be related to God. He has BLESSED with a cross across his chest, and a proverb on his ribcage and wrist.
The FEAR tattoo is somewhat wishful thinking. Despite his insistences otherwise, Carter is afraid of some things. Snakes, for one. And the unknown. He hasn’t been nervous for a basketball game since AAU, but in a quiet moment in his hotel room three days before the draft, he admits he’s anxious about where he’ll end up. He loved his workouts with the Mavericks, who have the No. 5 pick. He’s hoping he’ll end up in Dallas. New York and Chicago are also likely options. Chicago would be fine, but he doesn’t like New York City much. It’s too big. It’s not Atlanta, which he loves because the city slopes gently into suburbs. Because it’s home.
As his parents’ party shows no sign of slowing down, Carter orders an Uber at 9:30 p.m. from his hideout in that back room; he’s going to go work out with one of his agents.
The court is the only place where everything is still on his terms. The ball is the one thing he can control as he waits to find out what the rest of his life will look like.
“I’m not nervous,” he lies. “I probably won’t sleep at all tonight. I’m going to the gym for at least an hour and a half.”
In the green room at the Barclays Center, Carter is stoic when Dallas passes him over.
His table goes silent. His parents don’t say anything. Carter’s doesn’t look at anyone. He stares straight ahead at the stage.
The Carters’ laugh and cry and hug and flash their megawatt smiles when Chicago takes their son with the seventh pick. Kylia and Wendell Sr—both decked out in sparkly Gucci with a tiger print that pays homage to the Marvel movie Black Panther—hold each other in front of the cameras. Carter, dressed in all black and draped in a scarf of the same pattern, looks truly at ease for the first time all week as he walks on stage. The confidence he seemed to will into existence a few days ago radiates off him naturally now. He finally knows where home will be, for the next few years at least. His parents will move with him.
Three days ago, in his hotel room in midtown, Carter said he did everything he could to enjoy being a student at Duke. To just be as much of a normal 18, 19-year-old as he could be. But he doesn’t feel like a kid anymore.
“Yeah, I feel like an adult,” he said, pausing. “Especially . . . especially knowing what . . . what my lifestyle is about to be, what I’m going into. You got bills and s---. It’s crazy.”
His mother disagrees.
“Well, he’s not grown,” Kylia said the night before the draft, after hearing what her son had said. “And he’s not about to be grown on Thursday. The difficult part for me has been him understanding that money doesn’t make you grown. Because that’s what society wants you to think. So what happens then? If he thinks he’s grown, if he thinks he knows how to make grown-man decisions with other grown men? You don’t, you don’t. I don’t care how many millions you got, you don’t know.
“In fact you’re a college dropout, man,” she says, laughing. “You don’t know.”
Carter has navigated the confines of AAU, of high school, of the NCAA. Now it’s up to him to remain within his own boundaries, his own system. To continue to grow up as the whole country—the whole world, maybe, if he’s lucky—watches. To remember that he can always go home.