I went into the game saying I wasn’t going to fall for it.
Not again. It had happened too many times, Derrick Caracter pulling
the old con job and convincing me that he had changed his ways.
This time, no matter what UTEP coach Tony Barbee or Caracter
said, I was set to stick to my convictions.
Then Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel told me how he walked past the
fitness center at the Renaissance Hotel in Oklahoma City around 9
p.m. CT on Monday night and did a double-take when he saw Caracter
going hard on the treadmill.
An hour later, he walked past again and the former No. 1
player in America was still running with sweat pouring down his
Impressive, but I still wasn’t sold.
Caracter came off the elevators in the hotel, and we spoke
for about 10 minutes in the lobby before the team took the
four-block bus ride over to the arena.
He was back down to 275 pounds — from the 330 or
so he arrived in El Paso a little more than a year ago. He said his
relationship with Eddie Lau, who latched onto Caracter when he was
young and is regarded by many as a street agent, is history.
I began to waver a bit.
The now 21-year-old Caracter appeared sincere this time.
But it sounded eerily familiar. That’s when I flashed
back to the time I sat down with him at Notre Dame Prep in
Fitchburg, Mass., when he claimed he was a changed man.
Then-Notre Dame Prep coach Bill Barton sat Caracter for
nearly half of the team’s slate that entire season due to his
work ethic — or lack thereof.
“I’d be his biggest skeptic since he didn’t play
a single minute in 15 games,” Barton said. “I never thought he was
a bad kid, but he was just spoiled from an early age.”
“I’ve always given kids second and third
chances,” Barton added. “He hasn’t broken any laws;
he’s just wasted his talent and ability. But the only person
Derrick has hurt through it all is himself.”
Then I remembered a few more conversations while he was
playing for Rick Pitino at Louisville that took a similar path.
After being suspended countless times and forced to sign a
contract with numerous rules and stipulations, Caracter was sent
packing by Pitino after two lackluster seasons.
That’s when Caracter ended up sleeping on his
uncle’s couch and wound up debating whether to go to junior
college, head overseas or play for a ABA team in upstate New York.
His confidence was non-existent enough that he’d turned
down an offer to play at the NBA’s Pre-Draft Camp down in
Instead, after plenty of soul searching, Caracter opted to
transfer to UTEP, where most (including yours truly) figured
he’d last less than a month.
Caracter entered Monday night’s game against Oklahoma
coming off consecutive double-doubles, but the most recent was in a
60-point thrashing against lowly and winless Alcorn State.
You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Leopards
don’t change their spots.
Every one of those sayings went through my mind in an attempt
to thwart off my better judgment, which told me not to buy into
what Barbee and Caracter were selling.
But Caracter scored a minute into the game. Then came another
bucket 40 seconds later. He then knocked down a pretty 3-pointer
from the left side.
There were pretty passes, playing hard on both ends of the
court and the 11 rebounds in the Miners’
But something was different and it wasn’t just the
three times he threw his body on the floor after a loose ball or
the third straight double-double.
It was the smile.
I hadn’t seen that. Not at Notre Dame Prep, not at
Louisville and rarely — if ever — when he took the
court in the summer as the No. 1 player in the land.
“I’m loving it,” Caracter said. “I’m
enjoying every moment.”
Caracter said he has the freedom at UTEP — both on
and off the court — that Pitino didn’t permit.
“I love Coach P (Pitino),” Caracter said. “It just
didn’t work out. It was my fault.”
Caracter doesn’t have to live up to the expectations
out in El Paso, the ones he felt throughout his high school career
and even when he arrived at Louisville as a highly touted freshman.
“It was tough because I had juniors and seniors looking up to
me,” he said. “I was just a freshman. I wasn’t ready
Instead of two cell phones, there is now only one. No longer
is Lau hanging on his every move.
“Before the decisions were made for me,” Caracter said.
“Now I’m making my own decisions.”