Perhaps the most remarkable basketball court in North America is
on Route 100, a ribbon of two-lane highway that runs along the
coast of Newfoundland. Not near Route 100. On Route 100. The
hoop, outside Betty McGrath's house in Patrick's Cove (pop. 35),
stands on the gravelly shoulder of the road. The stanchion
consists of two wooden poles with a fishing net stretched taut
between them to prevent basketballs from rolling into the soggy
ditch that fronts the modest four-bedroom house. Attached to the
weathered backboard is a spring-action rim, nothing like the bicycle rims that Carl English, the 22-year-old nephew of Betty and her
late husband, Junior, once hung there. A dab of white paint before
the middle stripe of the highway marks the free throw line.
As a youngster Carl would practice shooting when it was calm
outside and work on ball handling--and later dunking--when the
wind howled. (Newfoundland can be quaint or forbidding, sometimes
on the same day.) Carl would hear cars coming around the blind
curve and skip to safety. Eventually locals learned to ease
around the corner because the boy was always there, even in
winter, wearing cotton fisherman's gloves, going one-on-one
against the elements. No one ever had to tell Carl to play in
The McGraths could get only two TV channels in their home, and
sports viewing was more or less confined to Hockey Night in
Canada. In its basketball worldliness the Newfoundland of 1990
might as well have been New Caledonia. But Junior and Betty's
sons would bring home tapes of NBA games from Ontario, and Carl
would study crossovers and jab steps and shake-and-bakes from
unwitting professors such as Michael Jordan and Dominique
Wilkins. Carl English, the road player, quickly became a street
He became so skilled that eventually he was invited to trade
islands: Newfoundland for Hawaii. English traveled 5,800 miles
and 6 1/2 time zones from the hoop in Patrick's Cove to the
raucous arena of the Rainbow Warriors. He's now the most dynamic
player in the Western Athletic Conference, a 6'5" junior guard
who at week's end was averaging a league-high 20.9 points per
game for Hawaii, a 13--5 team that could squeeze into the NCAA
tournament for the third straight year.
February 10, 2003
English creates offense with a blur of a first step and flings
three-pointers from unconscionable distances. He hit a
career-high eight treys and scored 28 points in Hawaii's 73--67
overtime victory against Tulsa last Saturday, extending the
Rainbow Warriors' winning streak at home to 24. English also
flicks step-back jumpers with a rotation he perfected in bed by
shooting a ball off the ceiling.
Like Newfoundland, English blows hot and cold. In an incandescent
38 seconds on Jan. 25 at Nevada he scored off an inbounds play,
drew a charge, drove for a three-point play, got a moving-pick
call with some deft acting...and then didn't take a shot for 12
minutes. In the classroom, however, he's more consistent.
English, who redshirted as a freshman because of an ankle injury,
has a 3.28 grade point average in sports management. He is taking
18 credits this semester in order to graduate on time, in four
That's the remarkable story of Carl English. The damn thing is,
it isn't the half of it.
In his 15th-floor dorm room English can, if he chooses to take
his eyes off textbooks or the TV, look out the window and see
downtown Honolulu and a sliver of ocean beyond Waikiki. His
bedroom has the usual college clutter of baseball caps, sneakers,
junk food and electronics. The only surprise is a stack of photo
English riffles through them, pointing to a snapshot that is
singed in one corner. It's of a smiling man with a thick black
beard, and an attractive woman, both of whom appear to be about
30. The photo was removed from the charred remains of Kevin and
Lavinia English's house, which caught fire on Good Friday in
1986. The fire may have been caused by Kevin's mistakenly using
boat fuel rather than oil in the stove.
Peter, the oldest of Kevin and Lavinia's five sons, was 11 at the
time and had gone downstairs for a drink. Seeing flames engulfing
the stove, he raced out of the house, but he heard his mother
screaming, "The kids, the kids!" Peter ran back inside and
rescued the two youngest boys: Carl, 4, and Michael, 2.
Eight-year-old Bradley jumped through a second-floor window and
landed in the yard unhurt, and six-year-old Kevin Jr., the middle
son, also escaped somehow. Kevin Sr. and Lavinia got out but
suffered severe burns.
Carl remembers little of the incident. He recalls that the family
had been "in town"--St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland--the
day before and that at the time of the fire he was playing with
some toys purchased on that trip. He also recalls talking to his
mother as she lay in a neighbor's tub, nursing her burns before
the ambulance arrived. A month later his parents were dead.
"The toughest part was not having them at my games and wondering
what they were like, wondering if I'm like them," Carl says.
"When you're young, you don't really understand. When you're
older, that's when it hurts you more." There is almost always a
half-smile, half-smirk on his lips, even on the court, but as he
speaks about his parents, it disappears.
A month and a half after the fire Carl arrived on the doorstep of
Betty and Junior's house in tears and pajamas. The five brothers
were being scattered among relatives, and Carl was folded into
what became a family of five children, sharing a room with two of
his McGrath cousins.
Peter English says basketball eventually became "a way for Carl
to lose himself" almost as much as find himself. The syncopation
of a bouncing ball became the rhythm of the McGrath home. Carl
and Uncle Junior put up his first basket on a single pole.
Whenever it collapsed--usually because of a storm, but once when
a speeding truck hooked the rim with its side-view mirror--it was
rebuilt better than before. Carl would also dribble on the gravel
driveway; like a shortstop from the rocky fields of the Dominican
Republic, he could handle any hop. Carl was a revelation in the
seventh grade, a dunking star in the 10th. People from all over
Newfoundland would arrive at Fatima Academy in St. Bride's, 20
minutes up Route 100 from Patrick's Cove, to watch him. Uncle
Junior never missed a game.
Carl moved to Ontario and lived with his cousin Howie for his
senior year but could not play basketball because a labor dispute
between teachers and the administration eliminated
extracurricular activities at his high school. He hooked up with
a prep all-star team, played eye-popping games in New York City
and Atlantic City and began getting recruited. He leaned toward
Syracuse until Hawaii, which had lost out on a New York point
guard, offered a scholarship to Carl in July 1999. Carl was no
point guard--wrong mentality--but he could play. As a redshirt
freshman he put up 25 points in the WAC championship game against
Tulsa, scoring with 1.8 seconds left to send the game into
overtime. He was soon bi-island, playing ball on Hawaii and
returning to Newfoundland each June to help Uncle Junior and
cousin Howie McGrath fish for cod and crab on their 27-foot boat.
One morning two summers ago Junior McGrath, who had suffered from
heart trouble for 15 years, was feeling poorly. He used to tease
the boys when they moaned about the cold, but he was feeling it
in his bones. Junior, Howie and Carl caught maybe 1,000 pounds of
cod that day, and as Junior stood on the wharf afterward he
suddenly collapsed, dead of a heart attack at age 52. His final,
hoarse word was, "Carl."
"What's the chance of that?" Peter English asks. "Losing two
fathers in one lifetime."
As Carl English, days from his 22nd birthday, worried a piece of
filet mignon at a Honolulu restaurant in late January, he looked
up and said, "I hate fishing. I hate it."
Jay Triano, Canada's national team coach, invited Carl English to
attend training camp for the world championships last summer. The
man who hates fishing declined, explaining that he had to go back
to Patrick's Cove and help Aunt Betty and Howie catch their
annual quota of 21,000 pounds of cod and 14,500 pounds of crab.
Sometimes life gets in the way.
Things change. Betty lives in town now but goes home to Patrick's
Cove in the summer and on long weekends. The basket doesn't get
much play, but with every stellar college game by Carl, the
little tower of wood and nails and iron has become, in the words
of Gord Pike, Carl's high school coach, "this great sacred
roadside wonder." Cars don't merely slow as they take that blind
curve on Route 100. Often they stop. Last summer some 500 people
got out to take pictures of the sacred hoop.
English has an unerring sense of the moment, which is why he is
hurrying to become the first member of his family to earn a
university degree. After graduation he probably will declare for
the NBA draft instead of returning to Hawaii for his final year
of eligibility. It will be hard to quit Honolulu, where, as
assistant coach Bob Burke has noted, "Carl's a rock star." But
the tattoo on his left shoulder, which shows him jumping through
a cloud to blue sky, is pregnant with ambition. The inscription:
the SKY'S THE LIMIT.
"My fan club," he says, "is upstairs."
Carl English is not the first elite basketball player to come out
of Canada. Here are five others with roots north of the border.
G Steve Nash The Mavericks' All-Star point guard (above), from
Victoria, B.C., is the best Canadian hoopster ever.
G Leo Rautins This Ontarian had a modest NBA career (1983--85)
but was a standout shooting guard at Syracuse.
F Rick Fox The former Celtics and current Lakers starter has a
Bahamian father and a Canadian mother who was an Olympic high
F Jamaal Magloire The sometimes dominating Hornets rebounder
played at Kentucky after graduating from a Toronto high school.
C Todd MacCulloch The Sixers' big man from Winnipeg is more
well-rounded than ex-Montrealer Bill Wennington.--M.F.