Aquille Carr strode into the gym two hours before Baltimore's Patterson High School took the floor for a fall league game at St. Frances Academy. All 5'6" of him. Patterson's point-guard phenom smiled as he climbed the bleachers, grabbing a seat beside Coach Harry Martin. Carr sits at #26 on the influential Rivals150 prospect rankings, and when asked about the recruiting process, he rattled off scholarship offers nonchalantly, like memorized moons of Jupiter for a quiz. The University of Maryland. Baylor. Kentucky. Out they came.
"I started playing basketball when I was four years old," Carr says. "When I was seven or eight, that's when I realized I had to take it seriously."
So much for a learning curve. Carr exudes an extraordinary charisma. His ego's been bolstered by a city fawning over his talent, and he's still very much a teenager, prone to immaturity and outbursts. But he's magnetic, whether dressed in Patterson blues or a plain black tee and slacks. Always smiling, his body continually exhibits a lightness, a positivity. It's no wonder the gym, relatively empty when I arrived, begins to fill up an hour before Patterson takes the floor.
In the fall league game—just an exhibition, though that didn't stop organizers from selling "courtside seats" for $15—Carr got off to a rough shooting start. But he flashed scintillating bursts of ability, both in his capacity to weave through the lane as well as bolt downcourt so quickly that expectant defenders couldn't react quickly enough to defend the basket. The only thing I can compare it to is watching shifty New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles, then a senior at my high school's conference rival Olathe North High, when he'd slalom into a secondary that knew he was coming, but couldn't twist their hips fast enough to drag him down. (Sproles has made a habit of this in the NFL, too.) Carr, who typically glides into the lane, head down and fearlessly flying into the trees, is rarely blocked—his shot was swatted just twice last year, by Coach Martin's estimation.
"He has a phenomenal way of angling his body and getting his shots up without anybody blocking him," Martin says. I can see what he means almost immediately. Defending is all about anticipation and reaction, and when you can't anticipate what someone is going to do, there's not much chance you'll be able to react to it.
Given that this was a fall league game, the refereeing was lackadaisical, more attentive to ensuring the game ran on schedule than to calling every violation, and Carr, a player who relies on getting to the stripe, didn't get many breaks. A staunch competitor with an impetuous streak, Carr became frustrated, which manifested in his play—scattered and reckless. Relaying this story to Oklahoma City Thunder superstar small forward Kevin Durant, whose Facebook fan page is where I first discovered Carr, he regarded it a familiar struggle, something you have to learn to cope with.
"You wanna win so much, but you don't want to look like you're not coachable or you don't respect the game," says Durant, who's considered one of the NBA's calmest players. "It happens, you lose your cool. Everything isn't going to go the right way."
Carr's learning about the right way this year. His team will play a national schedule, traveling up and down the East Coast to face some of the nation's top prep competition. Patterson is fully outfitted by Under Armour, and the night before I arrived in Baltimore, the Minnesota Timberwolves' newly drafted forward Derrick Williams and Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings shot a commercial for the brand at Patterson. (Jennings, apparently, paid a local barber hundreds of dollars to hang out in case he needed a touchup, a quirk that had the Patterson coaches snickering). This year's Patterson team includes Shakir Brown, a budding star who transferred to link up with Carr, and Leonard Livingston, an athletic 6'10'' prospect. Patterson, after years of non-contention, is now expected to make a run at the historic trifecta: a City Championship, a Regional Championship, and a State Championship. During a recent visit to Baltimore, a fall league game revealed a team just beginning to gel, hustling to prepare for a demanding travel schedule and high expectations, as well as the scrutiny that comes with increased exposure.
But amidst great expectations for its season, Patterson was taking a beating at the hands of rival St. Frances. Carr fumed. A whistle blew, and Carr, already frayed thanks to a number of no-calls on the other end, stomped back toward the foul stripe from under the basket, leering at the official. A family friend walked onto the floor to escort Carr to the locker room. It's unclear if he was officially ejected, but he was certainly asked to leave the game. Carr eventually returned to the bench, but not to the game, his head hung low, a towel draped over his neck, obscuring his face. After the game, a sullen-looking Patterson squad sat in a darkened hallway, still in their uniforms, looking a little lost, adrift as the team's coaches berated them.
"I let y'all do today your way," said Coach Darrick Oliver, father of backup point guard Dereck. "And look what happened. Now we're gonna do it my way." Theodoric Bell, one of Patterson's assistants during the regular season, followed Oliver. "Y'all are playing a national schedule this season! A national schedule."
The Patterson players sat together in silence, Aquille drooped over in a chair looking at his feet. It was the look of a team acknowledging just how much pressure was on them, and simultaneously realizing the potent, real threat of failure.
No one in Baltimore is quite sure when Aquille Carr became known as "The Crime Stopper."
Maybe it was during his freshman season, when he scored 39 points and dished 19 assists against powerhouse Lake Clifton and Josh Selby, the nation's top recruit.
Maybe it was that same season, when Carr dunked over Baltimore City College High's Nick Faust on a play that Baltimore Sun beatwriter Glenn Graham christened "The dunk heard 'round Baltimore." At the time, Faust was 6'3''. Carr was 5'5".
"He had very little help around him that first year," says Graham, a 20-year veteran at the Sun who's been on the basketball beat for the last four. "You were just thinking he was going to lay it up strong off of the backboard, but he just kept going and going. Before you know it, he slammed it. And it was just about the most incredible thing I've ever seen, as far as anything I've ever covered."
Maybe it was the 57 points he hung on Forest Park, the 11th-ranked team in the city last year, breaking a Patterson record that stood for 50 years. Carr hit seven threes in that game.
Or maybe it wasn't even on the basketball court. When Bell coached Carr in Pop Warner, Carr missed the first two games. But like Allen Iverson, another diminutive basketball talent with surprising football skills, missing a couple games didn't stop him from scoring 33 touchdowns that season.
Or, maybe it was the time a regional All-Star game was called with a minute and a half left after a spectacular play by Carr.
"He takes the ball down the right side and is getting a little physical with the guy who's guarding him, and he just crosses him over—the most ridiculous crossover I've ever seen—and the kid literally falls on the floor. [Carr] steps back and drains a long-range jumper," says Sun writer Matt Bracken, who runs the sports section's web site. "The place just erupts. And the guy at the scorer's table stands up and is like, 'That's it! I'm calling it.' There's time on the clock left and he was like, 'There's no topping that.'"
In the third season of HBO's byzantine crime drama The Wire, police officers accuse Police Chief Ervin Burrell of "juking the stats," essentially finding ways to manufacture statistics that would make crime appear to be decrease in the city to help crooked Mayor Royce get re-elected. Burrell could have used Aquille Carr. His singular nickname, The Crime Stopper, stems from the notion that so many people are coming out to the phenom's games that illegal activity in America's most infamously crime-ridden city pauses. It's a weighty name for an 18-year-old, but even Aquille's father, Alan, acknowledges that some of his son's biggest fans are, in fact, criminals.
"I know a lot of guys, a lot of guys that sell drugs," the elder Carr, 49, says. "A lot of them stop for two hours just to go see him play. There's a lot of guys that do that—that's why they named him that. He's just a well-liked kid."
While Aquille's dazzling floor game demands a kind of reverence — envision a small, agile guard pinballing around the floor on both ends, finishing drives with a jaw-dropping leap—he's already put together a staggering resumé for a player entering his junior year. After a freshman year that re-established dormant Patterson as a player in city hoops, Carr led the school to a City Championship, and then the state title game against North Point, where they lost 76–72. In a recent All-Star game, the Boost Mobile Elite 24 played in Venice, CA, a game he almost didn't play in due to some waffling from the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, Carr posted a 21-point, 10-assist, 7-rebound performance that further established his big-game prowess.
You don't have to stay in Baltimore to hear a good Aquille Carr story. As the starting point guard for U.S.A. Basketball's U-19 team in an international tournament, Carr went for 45 points—he averaged an even 40 for the tourney in a gold-medal effort—and was carried off the court by Italian supporters, who like their heroes diminutive and fiery. Lottomatica Virtus Roma, the same team that signed Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings to a million-dollar deal out of high school, was rumored to have offered Carr a contract worth $750,000 this spring, when he was still a sophomore. (According to the Carrs, Lottomatica Virtus Roma's $750,000 offer is still on the table. Virtus Roma's manager, Bogdan Tanjevic, has denied this claim.)
But in a city that stakes its civic pride on its impressive roster of basketball stars, Aquille Carr isn't built physically like previous metro-area hoops legends Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. He weighs 140 pounds. Though he's listed at 5'8'', locals know he measures in at least two inches shorter. His small stature has been an advantage at times; it's branded him an unlikely hero, a role Carr seems to relish.
"Whatever you say he can't do, he does," his father says. "He blocks it out. That's how Aquille takes a lot of stuff. He likes to be the underdog."
It's easy for both purists and casual fans to get behind Carr's game, which consists of blinding slashes to the bucket and deft, patient dribble breakdowns of a defense's weaknesses. He's a Wow player. Though many more in College Park or Lexington or Waco will be singing the Crime Stopper's praises, Baltimore has stood behind him as long as he's been playing, including men's league games where a not-yet-teenage Carr held his own against his father and his friends.
"When someone rises to the level that Carr has, [Baltimore's] basketball community, which is extremely tight-knit, completely rallies and gets behind that person," Bracken says. "I think certainly he's had a lot of support in that regard."
In fact, Carr has already won over many of the same players he looks up to—some dote on the pride of Baltimore.
"I first heard about him on Twitter, someone sent me a link about Carr and how good he was," says Brandon Jennings, who got to know from workouts at St. Frances Academy. "The things he does on the court are amazing for a player his size."
Durant, a long, rangy player, already sees the advantages—tangible and not—of Carr's size.
"When we were growing up we were surrounded by five projects," Bogues says. "It was a grind, it was tough. Everybody had that swagger going on in that city. Even as a kid, being my size, I had to just be among the rest of the guys. And that's where my attitude and my confidence and my ability to learn the game came from. In Baltimore, you gotta have that swagger. And that's what Aquille has."
Though Carr, as one might expect from a teenager fish-hooked from Phys Ed to talk to a reporter, was somewhat short with his responses when we talked, he was still cheerful and direct.
"People overlook me because I'm little," Carr says. "They'll be like, you can't do this, you can't do that. I just prove 'em wrong."
He comes from a tight family, which includes his older brother Alan Jr., a former football star at Lake Clifton, his sister Ashley, who just graduated from Towson University, and his parents, Alan Sr. and mother, Tammy. In an environment consisting of so many broken homes, the Carrs routinely hang together, hitting the movies, bowling, and dining out together on special occasions.
"Family means everything to him," Alan Sr. says. "All we got is us."
It's no coincidence that Baltimore has been a breeding ground for Division I basketball players—according to Martin, approximately 20 D-I players come out of the Baltimore metro area each year.
But it's not all love; since all players in Baltimore play with an edge hardened by the environment and high competitive level of city hoops, people in the community can also grow to resent Aquille's successes.
"Just coming out of that city prepares you for a lot of levels," Bogues says. "A kid walking around in that city, they think they're better than Aquille. That's the crazy thing about it. That's just how the attitude is around there."
In a sense, Carr is a sheltered player; while his family makes the final decision, all things recruitment or press-related are routed through Coach Martin. Though he coexists in this famously rough environment, he's built a functional mechanism around him that increases his odds of success. Given that trouble teems in many corners of Baltimore, common knowledge suggests that if you just keep your head down and focus on basketball, like so many others have done, you'll be able to break out of the city limits. Staying in Baltimore is still a risk, however; many top-tier recruits elect to spend a year or two at basketball prep-school powerhouses like New Hampshire's Brewster Academy (Baltimore's Will Barton, Selby's cousin, elected for this path and now stars at Memphis) or Virginia's Oak Hill Academy.
"A lot of people leaving the city altogether and going to prep school," Bracken says. "It's so extraordinarily rare for someone of his level to not only stay in Baltimore, but to stay at a public school that was completely off the radar before he got there."
The day after being tossed from the exhibition game, I met a photographer for a photo shoot on an outdoor court in Carr's neighborhood in East Baltimore—where it quickly became clear that the 18-year-old casts a long shadow. While preparing the lighting, a neighborhood kid approached and asked what was happening. When told about an Aquille Carr photo shoot, the kid's eyes went wide and he bolted home.
An hour later, in front of half the neighborhood, Carr showed up with a cluster of friends in a pair of Elite 24 shorts, smiling. Some of his friends sported matching "Most Wanted" tattoos. He immediately apologized for the kerfuffle at last night's game.
"I'm sorry that was the one you had to come to," he said, smiling.
The yard that day was packed with ballplayers on two freshly paved courts, thick triple rims adorning ivory squares of plaster that created a glare. A man holding a can of Steel Reserve walked down and commented on how great it was that these courts were here. "Think about what else these kids would be doing if there weren't these courts here," he said, before sauntering off.
Three Under Armour reps showed up with Patterson's new practice apparel, including custom gear printed up with "Crime Stopper" emblazoned on the front. His brother's attempts at merchandising—a gray hoodie with "Crime Stopper" on the front and a reproduction of one of Aquille's tattoos on the back—hung on a nearby chain-link fence. When Alan told him to put it on, Aquille feigned disgust. A few older guys from the neighborhood leaned on a fence near an embankment 10 feet above the courts; one yelled, "Don't forget where you came up, Aquille!" as Carr repeated crossover after crossover in front of the camera.
That unseasonably warm afternoon drove neighborhood teens across two full courts, and as the throngs packed the playground, the crowd grew restless. On the other court, a five-on-five game bounded up and down, the roster ranging from middle school might-bes to middle-aged never-was-es. One baller took a pull off a Swisher Sweet while receiving passes with his other hand, effortlessly balancing both.
Baltimore's legacy as a hoops city is permanently defined by a long line of undersized, supernaturally tough guards. Before Aquille came Juan Dixon, who took the University of Maryland to a national title. Before Dixon came Sam Cassell. Before Cassell came Muggsy Bogues, and before Bogues came Skip Wise, maybe the best of them all. But right now, Aquille Carr is the one who makes the city stop when he moves with the ball, a focal point in a town banking on his every move.
"He can break you down," says Durant. "He's small, but he can score on anybody. He has amazing athletic ability and he has heart. You gotta respect a player like that, no matter how small he is."
Though recently drafted Memphis Grizzlies guard and former Kansas star Josh Selby refuted the fact that Carr outscored him in their famous matchup—Selby should probably revisit that box score—he sees big things for a player that he refers to as his little brother.
"The first time I met Aquille he was probably 12. I said, that's a small version of me!" Selby says. "So I fell in love with the kid's game from there. He has the talent to play in the NBA. As long as he continues to grow I can't see how he's not lottery."
Muggsy Bogues, the beloved Baltimore-bred 5'3'' former Charlotte Hornets guard that Carr regularly cites as a player he looks up to, relates to the young player's circumstances.