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DURHAM, North Carolina – There is one thing you must know about Duke's freshman big man Wendell Carter Jr. – before you know about his importance to a Blue Devils team that's among the favorites to cut down the nets on April 2, before you know about how his versatile, fundamentally sound basketball talent will make him a top-10 pick in June, before you know about his tortured decision to pick Duke over Harvard of all places, before you know about his high school acting career (a role in a school production of the 1938 James Stewart movie "You Can't Take It With You").
You must know about Carter's parents. You must know the story of how they met back in the early 1990s.
"My husband loves to tell this story," laughed Kylia Carter, "so I'll let him."
"I knew Kylia's sister," Wendell Carter Sr. said. "They just moved to Atlanta. One day she said, 'I got someone I want you to meet.' And that particular day I was playing in a summer league, a pro-am league in Atlanta. Dominique Wilkins played in it, Spud Webb played in it, college and pro players."
Wendell was 20, about to transfer to Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., where the explosive 6-foot-6 forward would be on a basketball scholarship. Kylia was 19, a 6-5 basketball player for Ole Miss. Kylia's sister introduced them as Wendell was walking out the door of his apartment complex en route to the game, and he invited them to the game at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black private school.
"I thought he was cute, to be honest," Kylia said. "But, you know: Any excuse to go watch basketball."
At halftime there was a slam-dunk contest. Carter was one of the participants. He decided to do a windmill. ("Windmills were hard back then," he said.) He threw down the dunk, and the crowd went wild. He won and got a trophy. He marched that trophy into the stands and handed it to Kylia.
"And that's it," he said.
"That's exactly how it happened," Kylia said. "He won my heart."
Twenty-six years of marriage later, that trophy sits on the piano at the family's Atlanta home.
When Wendell Carter Jr. came out of the womb – 11 pounds, 8 ounces, and 26 inches long – you could say he was born to play basketball.
It should be no surprise given his parents' path that Carter has become one of the forces on a Duke team that has the most talent in college basketball. Carter is Duke's top shot-blocker and most effective rebounder. His 13.8 points per game rank only fourth on Duke, but he's incredibly efficient when he does shoot it; Carter has made 58.1 percent of his shots from inside the 3-point arc and 46.3 percent of his attempts from outside of it. When he's running in transition or manning the post, it's always with a fluidity and efficiency of body movement. If there's an NBA comparison that makes sense, it's Al Horford: A lack of flash but an abundance of fundamentals. The type of player you want on a winning squad.
And if this were just a basketball story, we would stop right here.
But this is not just a basketball story.
This is a story about how two parents poured themselves into their only child. At times it seemed to others that they went too far, almost obsessed with his upbringing: "People can call it what they want to," Kylia said. "We call it love. Other people call it spoiled. But we participated in everything he did."
They raised him in church: World Changers Church International, the nondenominational suburban Atlanta megachurch led by the famous prosperity gospel preacher Creflo Dollar. When Wendell Sr. was playing in the church basketball league, little Wendell, age 3 or 4, would run up and down the floor when his dad was playing, mimicking everything his dad did. He consumed books from a young age, and basketball too. By the time he was playing in basketball leagues, his parents made a rule: Straight A's or you don't play.
Wendell knew his upbringing was structured, but he didn't know why. Then, when he was around 8 or 9, he started asking his dad a question over and over again: Where's your family, dad? Where's my grandma and grandpa on your side, my aunts and uncles?
That's when Wendell Sr. knew it was time to tell his son about his own upbringing and how that inspired him to be such an involved father.
The father and son drove to the graveyard in Atlanta and walked up to a gravestone. It was Wendell's adoptive mother's gravestone. When he walked up to it, he immediately broke down. So did his son.
Every story is derived from an older story. And this is when Wendell Carter Jr. learned his own origin story.
His father was born to a convicted felon. Having a child out of wedlock was a violation of her parole, so after Wendell Sr. was born, she abandoned him in an apartment. Police broke in and found a baby alone, his diapers soiled. He got sent to an orphanage. He was there until age five or six. "It was the worst experience of my life, like a jail," he said. He transitioned into group homes, and then around age eight was adopted along with another boy by a lovely older couple. Life, for the first time, was good: No drama. His own bedroom. Parents who bought him stuff. But when Wendell Sr. was 11, his adoptive father died of lung cancer. At age 14, his adoptive mother died of pancreatic cancer.
Alone in life.
"When she passed away I was on my own," he said. "Living in a house by myself. I should have fallen through the cracks. I should be dead. I'm making grown-man decisions as a kid. I could have easily ran with the wrong crowd. But I was so focused on basketball. That was the only thing that kept me going. I'd just go play basketball all day to keep my mind from going somewhere. Could have been in a gang or had babies everywhere. But God had his hand on me."
Basketball took him to college, to a professional career in the Dominican Republic, to his wife – the woman who got the slam-dunk contest trophy on their first date – and eventually to Duke University, where this past summer Wendell and Kylia Carter dropped their only child off with Coach K.
"I watch him in the games now, and I think back to the driveway: This is all the stuff we worked on!" said Wendell Carter Sr. "But I also tell him, 'Look, man. This is gonna run out. Anything can happen.' I'm always giving him examples of players who got into the league but never got that second contract. You gotta focus on Plan B. I don't think I fulfilled my destiny, but I wanted my son to do the best he can, inside of basketball and outside of basketball."
His parents moved to Durham with him. They hang out with their son a lot, come to practices, take their son to go to "Black Panther" on an odd weeknight. They are intensely proud of their son's accomplishments so far. They can't wait to see what he can be in the NBA. But all through it, they pound into his head, again and again, that basketball isn't everything.
"They tell me so many stories of people who only had the option of playing basketball in their lives but their opportunity never came," Wendell Jr. said. "And all they have is being a great basketball player. There's much more to your life than just basketball. My mom and dad taught me that: Be in the gym, but don't just blow off academics, don't blow off relationships."
"In a way," Wendell Jr. continued, "I'm playing for him. All the opportunities he had, he should have been in the NBA, he could have done something special. It just motivates me. It keeps me aware that there's going to be roadblocks in life, and I gotta find ways to get around them or over them. That's what my dad taught me."