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A Pillar of Strength

Nov. 19, 2007
Nov. 19, 2007

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Nov. 19, 2007

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A Pillar of Strength

During a stunning run to the finals and its painful aftermath, Rutgers forward Essence Carson became the voice of her embattled team

VIVIAN STRINGERhad heard about the 6-foot sophomore who got straight A's, played multipleinstruments and was so admired in her hometown of Paterson, N.J., that parentsof opposing players routinely asked for her autograph. She had seen the smoothathleticism, the dizzying elevation, the 6'4" wingspan. Standing beforefuture McDonald's All-American guard Essence Carson after a basketball camp inthe summer of 2002, the Rutgers women's basketball coach knew she'd have to dosomething extraordinary to land this prospect.

This is an article from the Nov. 19, 2007 issue

"I hear youplay the piano," said Stringer. "So do I. When you come for yourofficial visit next year, I'll play the first movement of Beethoven's MoonlightSonata for you. If I miss one note, you don't have to consider coming toRutgers. But if I play it perfectly, will you promise to be a ScarletKnight?"

Carson rememberschuckling; Stringer remembers hearing a yes. She ran out and bought ametronome, a CD and sheet music. Stringer had played an abridged version of thepiece for a fourth-grade recital decades earlier, but she had never tackled theoriginal. Out of an already bulging schedule she carved five hours each week topractice on the white baby grand in the living room of her Princeton, N.J.,house.

When Carsonarrived on campus for her official visit in November '03, Stringer played thepiece for her. She didn't miss a note. Carson acted nonchalant at the time, butshe now admits she was stunned. "I couldn't believe this busy, importantwoman wanted me that badly," she says.

In Stringer'sview Carson, who ultimately passed on Texas, Connecticut and Duke to sign withRutgers, has been worth every minute spent with Beethoven's lamentation. Atwo-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, the senior forward has been herteam's best defender and its most versatile offensive weapon, playing everyposition but center. Says sophomore forward Myia McCurdy, "When you want tolearn how to do a drill or run a play, you watch Essence."

But the fullrange of Carson's value wouldn't become apparent to the world until last April.After rebounding from a 2--4 start, the Scarlet Knights won the Big Easttournament and, with a series of upsets, battled all the way to the NCAAchampionship game, losing to Tennessee 59--46. They had little time to bask inthe glory of their run: The next morning radio host Don Imus, having glanced atthe title game, called the Rutgers players "a bunch of nappy-headedhos." His words came as a shock to the team, but their response wasadmirably measured. In a press conference that aired live on CNN, Carson servedas the team's de facto spokesperson, calmly and eloquently conveying herteammates' hurt, and condemning the racism and sexism in Imus's comments."I know that rap and other music has desensitized America to some of[those] words," she said. "But it doesn't make it right to say[them]."

"It wasappropriate that Essence spoke for all of us," says Stringer. "She isthoughtful, reflective and well-spoken. You would have thought she had beendoing this kind of thing for 20 or 30 years."

In truth, thenaturally shy Carson—who wrote out her statement and nervously read over itjust moments before the press conference—had been "terrified" of publicspeaking. But her high school coach, Ed Black, had told her, "No matterwhat the situation, present a calm, confident face."

Moreover, Carsonhas never been one to back down from a challenge. At the Rosa L. Parks Schoolfor the Fine and Performing Arts in Paterson, she had a rivalry with a fellowstudent that evolved into a multi-instrument epic of one-upsmanship. "We'dgo back and forth about who was better at piano," says Carson, who alsoplayed alto saxophone in the school jazz band. When the boy brought an electricguitar to school, Carson talked her grandmother into buying her one. When hetook up the bass, she taught herself to play that, too, eventually becoming thebassist for the jazz band. And when he let slip that he was playing the drumsin a band? Carson quickly became a percussionist for her church group."Essence's musicianship is a direct reflec tion of her personality,"says Vladimir Zaitsev, her piano instructor at Rosa Parks. "She wants to doit all."

Carson was eightwhen she was introduced to music by her paternal grand mother, Betty Cooper,who played an upright piano in the basement between loads of laundry. BecauseCarson's mom, Stacey Robinson, worked an early morning shift as a depot clerkat New Jersey Transit, Carson lived with Betty and her husband, Robert. It wasCarson's father, Joe, a schoolteacher and former forward at John C. SmithUniversity in Charlotte, who encouraged her to play hoops. The two spent hourson the Coopers' front porch developing her shooting form. "He must have hadme practice my follow-through 50 million times," she says.

Because RosaParks had no athletic program, Carson competed for Eastside High, earningall-state honors in volleyball, the state title in the 400 meters in track andthe attention of every elite college basketball program. Playing a differentposition every year because Black knew she would need perimeter skills incollege, she scored a school-record 1,808 career points while leading the LadyGhosts to three straight county titles and the New Jersey Tournament ofChampions final in her senior year.

Joe would neversee the fruit of his front-porch drills. He developed a progressive neurodegenerative disease and died when Essence was 11. Intensely private even then,she didn't cry at his funeral. She was also stoic when her paternalgrandfather, Joseph Carson, passed away in 2004 and when her beloved Betty diedsuddenly of an asthma attack in 2005. "The only time she shows her emotionsis when she plays the piano," says Robinson. "When her father passedaway, she would go downstairs and play for hours."

Carson wasconstrained on the court, too; she played so mechanically—"If you told herto take two steps and shoot, she'd take two steps and shoot, even if she neededthree," says assistant coach Carlene Mitchell—that her teammates called herRobo. "Essence is the only player I've ever wanted to break every rulethere is," says the 59-year-old Stringer. "I want her to pass the ballthrough her legs. I want her to make blind passes. I want her to just go off,loosen up and play."

WITH FIVEfreshmen and no seniors among her 10 players last season, Stringer neededleadership, scoring and—after losing junior Matee Ajavon for two months becauseof a stress fracture—a playmaker. Carson answered every call. She handled thepoint for the first four games, increased her scoring average from 8.3 to 12.3points and, despite her aversion to speaking up, became more vocal, giving theteam blessings before meals and answering the questions no one else wanted toat postgame press conferences. "I realized that in order to get thingsdone, you have to open your mouth," she says.

As the teamstruggled through a miserable start, Carson was a pillar of strength—even whileher own world was being rocked. On Dec. 3, the day before the game against Dukein the Jimmy V Classic, a cancer-research fund-raiser, she learned that hermother had breast cancer and needed a lumpectomy. Carson didn't tell herteammates, even as they donned pink shoelaces in support of those battling thedisease. Nor did she use it as an excuse when she had just two points in an85--45 loss to the Blue Devils, Stringer's worst defeat in her 12 years atRutgers.

Carson kept herworries to herself again weeks later when Robinson learned she'd have to have asecond surgery and when Stringer, frustrated by her team's poor defensiveeffort, banished the players from their locker room and took away theirpractice gear for a month. "I told myself that my mom was going to beO.K.," says Carson. "I wanted to stay strong for my team."

The ScarletKnights avenged a 26-point loss five weeks earlier by beating UConn for theirfirst Big East tournament title, then upset top-ranked Duke and No. 3 seedsArizona State and LSU during their magical NCAA tournament run. With the lossto Tennessee and another impending surgery for Robinson on her mind, Carson hadbarely had a chance to unpack her bags when she heard of Imus's remarks. "Ilaughed," she says. "Not at the joke, but because it was soabsurd."

Suddenlyreporters were staking out the players' classrooms, cameramen were chasing themand Al Sharpton was calling their cellphones. "Everything was happening atonce," says Carson. "I was just trying to maintain some balance."In the months since, her life has regained its equilibrium. Robinson had amastectomy in late April and is cancer-free. And Carson, empowered by her turnin the media glare—which taught her "how much things have changed and howmuch they haven't," she says—has learned to value her own opinion. Butdon't expect her to climb on a soapbox anytime soon: When the Imus episode cameup in discussion in one of Carson's summer classes, she found herself slouchingin her seat to avoid detection. "I still don't enjoy the spotlight,"she says.

On an Octoberafternoon in a nearly empty campus student center Carson sat at a baby grandand played from memory a bit of Stevie Wonder's Ribbon in the Sky, as well as asection from a show-tuney piece she recently composed but hasn't yet named. Shestopped playing to share a few thoughts on chord progression. "Some thingssound right together, some don't," she said, hitting a discordant clump ofkeys. "You know how you hear a piece you've never heard before but you humalong, knowing how it's going to end?"

Stringer has atheory about how Carson's college career will end. Like her music, it willfollow a natural, pleasing progression. "I want to see this great athleteexplode," she says. "And it would be nice if she dunked." No doubtCarson wouldn't mind the chance and the challenge. This is a woman who clearlyhas found her rhythm.

"I told myself my mom was going to be O.K.,"she says. "I wanted to STAY STRONG for my team."
PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/IDEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYLOCKED IN Carson led the Scarlet Knights to the title game—where Candace Parker (top) and Tennesee thwarted their upset bid—while coping with her mother's illness.PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Frakes[See caption above]PHOTOMIKE DERER/APTAKING A STAND Stringer and Carson were forced into the spotlight after Imus's comments started a media firestorm.PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYGRACE NOTES Introduced to music by her late grandmother, Carson found solace at the piano during tough times last year.