Photo by Rod Stears Photography

The Crimestopper: Aquille Carr and the Burden of Baltimore's Basketball Hero

Already a legend in his native Baltimore, the question on everyone's mind is if that's as far as Aquille Carr's legend will ever spread.

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Dec 17 2014, 12:47pm

Photo by Rod Stears Photography

In high school, Aquille Carr was dubbed the "Crimestopper." The 5-foot-6 point guard with the 48-inch vertical was so captivating to watch that crime rates in East Baltimore reportedly fell when he was on the court. On game days, fellow students would go straight to the gym at the end of the school day, lining up hours ahead of time to assure a seat for the 5 p.m. tip-off.

Carr's athleticism was freakish, unsettling, relentless. While in high school, CBS and ESPN marvelled at his explosiveness. Sports Illustrated likened his ball-handling and court vision to Steve Nash. His high school coach said, "I haven't seen anyone who can stay with him. Pound for pound, inch for inch, he's the best player in the country."

He became an internet sensation, his legend growing via YouTube mixtapes that went beyond Baltimore and onto computer screens around the world. At 17, Carr travelled to Milan, where he led Team USA to gold at the Junior International Tournament. In one game, after scoring 45 points, Italian fans hoisted him above their heads and carried him off the court, a newly crowned king.

Afterwards, Italian club Virtus Roma, the same team that signed Brandon Jennings out of high school, reportedly offered him a $750,000 contract to stay and play basketball.

Carr passed on the offer and returned to Baltimore, returned to his family, and returned to an even bigger spotlight. It paid off in its own way. He earned an endorsement deal from Under Armour and in January 2012, he verbally committed to Seton Hall. But he never actually signed. He played for a spell in China with some over-the-hill NBA vets, then spent less than two weeks in the D-League. He went undrafted by the NBA.

And now, just a couple years after the Crimestopper was an international phenomenon, Aquille Carr has just been released from the Saint John Mill Rats of Canada's National Basketball League. He is trying to push forward, to rewrite his story, but he keeps getting pulled back to the past. His final weeks with the Mill Rats summed up a career that is perpetually trapped in its own shadow.

Photo by Rod Stears Photography

On the night of November 20, Carr was in the backseat of Ian McCarthy's SUV, president and GM of the Mill Rats, on the way to a game in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, when he got the call.

"I looked up in the rearview and saw him say 'What? Say that again' and then he just lost it," McCarthy says.

One of Carr's cousins had been shot and killed back in Baltimore. Carr was a wreck, but McCarthy decided to let him play that night anyway, thinking the game might be something of a release. Carr scored 17 points, but after the game, with his emotions roiling, he confronted the referees, shouting at them in anger.

The next afternoon, the Mill Rats played in Brampton, Ontario in front of a crowd of 4,500 students. Tickets were provided by the the local school board, the game part of an anti-bullying campaign. It was the arena's largest-ever crowd for a basketball game. And Carr was back on the court.

The kids in attendance saw Carr at his best and his worst. They saw him attack the basket and push the ball through the open court, his strides alternating between long and easy, short and quick. One hesitation dribble, one head fake, and he's past the first defender, then the second, then the third, and then he's at the hoop.

They saw him fly to the rim, again and again, like a moth to a porchlight. The saw him launch himself upwards once he neared the basket, his preposterous vertical leap granting him enough time to make his next decision in the air. Sometimes they saw him opt for the pass, wrapping the ball around a defender's back and into the hands of a teammate. Other times, they saw him lay the ball high and soft off the glass and into the net. They even saw him, when occasion permitted, dunk; his hands catching the rim and the rim catching him, absorbing all that speed and ferocity as he dangled just long enough to give a sense of how much space there was between his feet and the floor.

On other plays, though, there was no emphatic slam, no acrobatic layup, no unfolding of brilliance midair; there was only Carr careening to the rim before being met by defenders who outweigh him by more than a hundred pounds. The crowd saw that, too, and they saw another side of Carr.

On one play, after driving towards the net, he was whacked out of the air and his body thudded down onto the court. He flipped onto his stomach, frustrated a foul wasn't called, and took a swing at an advertisement propped up along the baseline. In moments like those, his talent is buried under the weight of his anger. His skill is swallowed up by self-defeat. Carr is so charismatic that his emotional swings can change the entire atmosphere of an arena. Watching him in those moments is to watch something spectacular burn.

After the game, Carr was back in McCarthy's SUV, driving back to St. John, New Brunswick on Canada's East Coast. The next day, Saturday, the rest of the Mill Rats would fly back commercial, folding their giant frames into tiny airplane seats. And Carr, their smallest player, would be suspended for one game by the league.

Photo by Rod Stears Photography

On March 8, 2012, Aquille Carr led his high school team to victory in the state semifinals, scoring 24 points and collecting four steals in a 70-46 win. The next morning, his good fortune continued, and his partner gave birth to their daughter, who they named Averi.

The following August he was arrested on domestic assault charges after pushing the mother of his child to the ground in front of a trade school in Southeast Baltimore and kicking and punching her. The altercation was later deemed a "mutual affray," and Carr's charges were dismissed after he completed a 22-week counseling program at the House of Ruth, a domestic violence center near Baltimore.

With his future in doubt, more questions popped up when the fall signing period arrived and Carr still hadn't committed to Seton Hall. Finally, in March, 2013, he tweeted out to his followers that he was heading overseas to play professionally.

For a short time, he traveled through China with a roving band of former NBA stars, including Gary Payton, Tracy McGrady, and Bonzi Wells. Once again, electrifying fans with his play, Carr was offered a pro contract, this time with Qingdao Double Star of the Chinese Basketball Association. Once again he declined.

Next, he went to the D-League, playing 10 games for the Delaware 87ers before, frustrated with his lack of a role and limited playing time, he asked to be released.

Adrian Wojnarowski, the omnipresent source presiding over all matters basketball related, tweeted out the news, calling it another cautionary tale, implying that this was the end of Carr's journey.

The following April, Carr was passed over in the NBA Draft. Then, this past September, he signed a one-year deal with the Mill Rats. Soon after, he turned 21.

"He wasn't really allowed to grow up and just be an ordinary kid," McCarthy says. "My son is 17 and we took a road trip together and the two of them sat in the back and played video games. I realized then they're only like three and a half years apart. In a lot of ways he's still a kid. He's still got some growing to do."

The NBL is not as minor league as it might seem, said Jabs Newby, who was a teammate of Carr's with the Mill Rats. Players are big and strong and fast—in other words, they are real pros.

"Everyone's as fast as you or faster, as big as you or bigger," Newby said. "It's not like college. This league is underrated. People don't know."

But they're starting to notice. Now in its fourth year, the league's momentum is increasing, it's becoming more familiar in its adopted cities, and the talent level is rising. Each team carries four Canadians, but the rest of the rosters are mostly filled with American players. In total, there's 64 roster spots available to Americans. The ones that end up making it here are elite players.

McCarthy assembles the roster for the Mill Rats, and he first saw Carr play this summer, at a tournament in Philadelphia.

"I was curious to see him play," he said. "My opinion was he's like an And1 player, but he was more of a point guard, he was getting guys involved, he wasn't hot dogging. He makes amazing plays now and again but he isn't trying to get extra points for flair."

Carr's agent told McCarthy there might be some interest, but his plan was to enter the NBA Draft. After going unselected, McCarthy met with Carr and his agent again in New York, and then with Carr's family in Baltimore.

"It wasn't like coming in that we thought it was going to be all roses and he was going to be a mature, polished pro," said McCarthy, before Carr was cut. "He's someone that needs time to develop. He's an emotional person and growing up with all the stardom on him early, he was prevented from dealing with things."

Carr's teammates said the same thing. He has growing to do, said veteran teammate Kenny Jones, a forward who is averaging 20 points per game.

"Aquille's definitely a talent. Sometimes I find myself watching him. I can't believe how much handles he has inside the paint with all those trees down there."

Jones, like other veterans on the team, plays a mentorship role for Carr. "You gotta," said teammate Tyrone Levett. "That's part of it, no one starts out on the top-end knowing everything there is to know about basketball or the life of a professional athlete." So you mentor the rookies, he says, show them the right way to do things. "It's easier on them if they just listen and pay attention and follow until they get it."

Photo by Rod Stears Photography

Carr's suspension began Sunday. He was not in the arena as the Mill Rats lost 113-99 to the Island Storm. But that evening, I caught up with Carr in a hotel lobby in St. John as he prepared for a flight to Baltimore to be with his family. Carr stepped into the lobby dressed in a dark hoodie and dark jeans, the only color in his outfit a Vancouver Grizzlies cap that sat crookedly on his head. "My boy Josh Selby gave me this," he said later, a toothy grin filling his face as he tugged at the teal brim.

Selby, another Baltimore basketball product, another athlete filled with potential, was selected by the Grizzlies in the second round of the 2011 NBA draft, and is now playing in the Israeli Basketball Premier League. They've stayed in touch, after matching up against each other as stars of their respective high school teams, bearing the weight of being teenage prodigies. There was pride in Carr's voice as he mentioned Selby, their friendship tethered by familiarity, the shared hardship of searching for a more permanent kind of success while already in the spotlight.

Carr leaned into the couch, his body bouncing with restless energy. Asked if he'd gotten any sleep the last few days, he pushed himself deeper into the cushions, his chest heaving with a sigh.

"None. The whole weekend. From the hour I got the call before the game, the whole week just went downhill. I wasn't even thinking about basketball." He swallows and looks out through the window and into the empty street. "It just messed everything up."

Carr returned to the Mill Rats six days later for a game against their New Brunswick rivals, the Moncton Miracles. He struggled, playing only five minutes and going 0-4 from the field. He was emotional after the funeral, upset about his lack of playing time, and he showed it, arguing with his teammates and coaches.

Afterwards, the team announced that he was once again suspended, this time indefinitely for "conduct detrimental to the team." But a couple of days later, Carr had won back the trust of the organization. The Mill Rats announced that they were giving him a second chance on a "zero-tolerance basis."

In pro sports, the window of opportunity closes fast. One sequence of events can erase years of forward momentum. Carr played three games after the suspension, and struggled in limited playing time. Then, over the weekend, Carr received news of his release, which he posted on his Twitter account. McCarthy later told VICE Sports that the decision was not for behavioral reasons—that Carr had "maintained his composure" since returning to the team.

For now, Carr remains frozen in the public imagination: he is still the YouTube star, the Crimestopper, the high school legend. There is a billboard on the edge of St. John with Carr on it, holding a basketball, a gleaming smile filling his face. He's not wearing a Mill Rats jersey, but his Patterson High School one. His fame, he said, came a little too fast. He's never quite caught up to it.

"Sometimes I still watch the mixtapes," he said, settling back into the couch in the hotel lobby. "Sometimes I wish I could rewind the time."