MINNEAPOLIS – During his junior year at Coronado High School in Lubbock, Texas, Jarrett Culver partially tore the labrum in his shoulder. This was terrible timing. Up to that point, Culver had been underrecruited by high-major college coaches.
Mid-major schools like University of Texas at Arlington were recruiting him, but Culver had heard nothing but crickets from the big schools.
He had never been the biggest player on his basketball teams, had never been the strongest or the fastest, but he prided himself on working harder than everyone else. So the summer after his junior year was the time when he really was going to get to prove himself on the summer basketball circuit.
At that point, he didn't know that his labrum was torn, just that his shoulder hurt. So he kept playing. The pain was constant. He had to adjust his game to accommodate his shoulder. He didn't dunk nearly as much. He backed off in the weight room. His coach noticed him wince when he hit the floor diving for loose balls. But that summer, torn labrum notwithstanding, Culver blew up on the recruiting circuit. College coaches took notice, and he committed to his hometown school of Texas Tech and the Red Raiders' brand-new coach, Chris Beard.
Before his senior year of high school began, he went to a doctor, and the doctor diagnosed him with the torn labrum. It would have been perfectly sensible for Culver to opt for surgery then, which would mean missing months of basketball – likely his entire senior year – but would have him at full strength by the time he was a freshman in college.
This is not what Culver chose.
"He was told by the doctor, 'You can have surgery now, and you might be able to come back and play in January, or you can wait until after season,' " recalled his high school coach, Randy Dean. "Jarrett made the decision he was going to play his senior year. And why he made decision was his friendships with his teammates. He'd played with them since junior high. He had to be true to his friendships. There was certainly some risk to it – his injury could have gotten worse. But that speaks to the character of Jarrett."
Culver is now the leading scorer for a Texas Tech team that on Saturday will play in its first Final Four game in school history. The sophomore wing hasn't just become an elite college player by averaging 18.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while being named Big 12 Player of the Year and ranking No. 1 in the KenPom.com national player of the year standings. He's also a certain lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft who could go as high as the top five. His favorite players growing up were Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, but perhaps more illustrative of his game is that one of the NBA players he studies most now is Jamal Crawford and his excellent handle.
But it's things like this about Culver – how he dealt with his high school injury – that illustrate all you need to know about how he has helped this school that's never been known for its basketball turn into a national power. Like Texas Tech and its historically good defense – the Red Raiders' defensive rating of 84.0 points per 100 possessions is the best defensive rating in the history of KenPom.com, going back nearly two decades – Culver is a dogged worker, a player who is focused on the team over the individual, and someone whose quiet demeanor belies a confidence in this underrecruited player and this underrated team. Culver and Texas Tech know they belong right up there with the heavy hitters of college basketball.
Culver is the youngest of three boys in an athletically gifted family. His older brother, Trey, was a high jumper at Texas Tech, and has the fourth-best high jump in NCAA history (7 feet 7 ¾ inches). Trey has twice won the NCAA high jump title and is currently training for the 2020 Summer Olympics. The middle brother, JJ, plays basketball for Wayland Baptist University, an NAIA school in Plainview, Texas. As a child, Jarrett was always playing catchup with his older brothers. They invented contact games on the trampoline in the backyard. They took a tennis ball and tried to see who could hit it further with a baseball bat.
"Other parents told me first: 'He's special, man,' " said his father, Hiawatha Culver. "He has always had that 'it.' It's a God-given talent. I can't even explain it.
The brothers played soccer together, and Jarrett was a natural – his favorite player is Lionel Messi. When Jarrett started playing T-ball, he was already far more advanced than the other 6-year-olds. He'd get so frustrated when these boys weren't as skilled as his older brothers – they couldn't even catch his throws – that he'd just field every single ball himself and sprint over to first base with the ball in hand.
"His brothers pushed him to be excellent," Hiawatha Culver said. "It always was, 'Who are you compared with my brothers?' Because they brought it. Basketball, kickball – no matter what it was, they brought it."
Until his basketball career started to take off in high school, Culver's first love was soccer. He was preternaturally talented at it – so good that when the basketball team lost earlier than expected in the playoffs during Culver's junior year, the high school coach, Alistar Caldwell, called Jarrett and his middle brother and asked if they'd play the final few games of the soccer season with them. Caldwell hadn't known what to expect from Culver, but other boys on the team told him how good he was all through middle school.
In his first practice with the soccer team, he was nutmegging players all over the pitch. In his first soccer game after losing in the basketball playoffs, Jarrett took the soccer field with the varsity team and scored three goals.
Did you know Jarrett Culver of @TexasTechMBB is also an incredibly talented soccer player? That his coach said Culver scored best goal he’s ever seen, compares him to Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Story tomorrow @CBSSportsCBB. But here’s a sneak peek: video of that goal. pic.twitter.com/CCDv8AytDS— Reid Forgrave (@ReidForgrave) April 4, 2019
"He's kind of like Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he played – he'd just do something amazing out of nowhere," Caldwell said, referring to one of the best soccer players in the world. "He scored one best goals I've ever seen at the high school level. It was his junior year. Jarrett and JJ had just finished basketball, and if we won, we'd make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. We ended up beating the defending district champs 4-0. They both started for me.
"And in the first round of the playoffs we came up against the 13th-ranked team in state," Caldwell continued. "Jarrett scored this goal from the 25-yard-line. It was like a rocket, went up to the top right-hand corner. If the U.S. men's national team coach sees that, he'd be wishing he found him first. It was one of those. Just like Zlatan. Every time he got the ball it was something special to watch."
If there's one thing you hear when you talk to people around Culver – whether it's current coaches or old friends or NBA executives – it's usually not about those athletic gifts. It's about the quiet humility that comes from being the son of a Baptist preacher.
Julie Goodloe was Culver's English teacher his sophomore year of high school. They read works like William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," like John Steinbeck's "The Pearl," like "Night" by Elie Wiesel. Culver stood out not just because he was a talented writer but because he never held himself with any sort of the bravado that Goodloe has often seen from star athletes. He was attentive and friendly, Goodloe said, and never looked down on anyone else.
"When I saw him in the hall his senior year, I'd ask him how he was doing, how his shoulder was doing," Goodloe recalled. "He was so polite, so respectful, no complaining, but always so friendly and willing to take the time to talk with me. Seniors usually forget their sophomore English teacher!"
On Friday, before Culver's Texas Tech team was to face Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, Goodloe dug into the scrapbook collection she keeps to remember each class by. She found the seating chart from Culver's sophomore year, highlighted his class picture and projected it from her computer to the smartboard at the front of the class. "Is that Jarrett?" students asked. She nodded.
"This is a picture of Jarrett as a sophomore, sitting right here in this room where you're sitting right now," she told her students. "So: What am I going to watch you do in four years? Because that's what I'm excited for."
Culver's fame has shot up this season. He's played against Zion Williamson and Duke at Madison Square Garden. He's dominated NCAA Tournament games. That fame will only increase in June when he is presumably selected as an NBA lottery pick. It's difficult to imagine a young man who could be more prepared to shrug off that hype and hoopla.
"Jarrett doesn't focus on that stuff," his father said. "He's just being Jarrett. The other day he went to Cane's restaurant (Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers.) He went through the drive-through, got the box he always gets from Cane's. When the guy gets his card, he says, 'You're Jarrett Culver!' Everyone stuck their head out of the drive-through window, and they started clapping for him. And he just said, 'Thank you very much – but I just really want my food!'
"There's a lot of hoopla around him, but I promise you Jarrett is not concerned about none of that," his father said. "He's just focused on the moment."