Caracter seeking redemption at UTEP

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

face.

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.

Hmmm.

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

Orlando.

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

for that.”

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.”

Me, too.

I’m giving him one more chance.