DeMarre Carroll Has Overcome Lifetime of Turmoil in Crafting Unique NBA Role

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DeMarre Carroll Has Overcome Lifetime of Turmoil in Crafting Unique NBA Role
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DeMarre Carroll shouldn't be in the NBA right now, much less starting for the Atlanta Hawks.

But this isn't a story about a player who's not talented or is a troublemaker. See, this starting small forward traveled the kind of road to NBA success few have experienced. The personal challenges he's had to face still linger in his mind, from the pain of his oldest brother's passing to being shot to his diagnosis of a rare form of liver disease that might require a transplant years from now. And then there was the numbers game in the NBA that saw him waived several times while playing for five different teams in five seasons.

These are the moments that resonate in Carroll's energetic demeanor and aggressive defense on the court. With his long, free-flowing dreadlocks, Carroll, 28, is a portrait of perseverance that saw him craft a breakthrough with the Utah Jazz in 2012 before settling into the Hawks' starting lineup last season.

Speaking with Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling, Carroll discussed his past obstacles, his evolution in the NBA and what's next for him in his career. With his consent, his story is presented here from his perspective, edited for clarity and length.

 

I still hear people doubting me. "He had a breakout season." "I think they're going to upgrade at his position." I read all that, so I just take it with a grain of salt and keep grinding. A lot of people try to come up to me and say, "You're only making $2.5 million. You're underpaid. You're probably the only starting small forward in the league making that money."

But I can't worry about trying to live up to certain people's expectations. I know what got me here basketball-wise. It's playing defense and being the "Junkyard Dog," and I think if I can keep adding on to that, I can have a long, successful career.

My teammates—Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Shelvin Mack—and I recently have been playing one-on-one at the Hawks practice center, and I've been winning for two weeks straight. They tell me, "We really didn't think that your game would ever be like this." They're just realistic with me. And I tell them, "I've got a lot more in me."

It's crazy because just two years ago I wasn't getting any playing time in the NBA, yet again, with the Utah Jazz. After entering the league in 2009 with the Memphis Grizzlies and then spending time with the Dakota Wizards in the D-League, the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, I signed with the Jazz in February 2012. While I sat on the bench—which ended up being for more than a month—I kept thinking, "The NBA is never going to happen."

But if I hadn't been through everything I've been through in my life, I probably would have just called it quits. I stuck with it and made the most of my opportunity.

 


 

When I was five years old, my older brother, DeLonte, passed away from a brain tumor. He was only nine years old. I still think about him all the time. I've got a lot of pictures of him and we recently decorated his grave. I have a tattoo on my left arm of his face, with the words "R.I.P. DeLonte." Every time I check into a game, when I walk up to the scorer's table, I draw a heart on the floor for him and then I kiss it before I go into the game. He's very big in my life.

You can't take every breath you breathe for granted. So every game, I compete for him. He was a basketball player himself. I never want to leave that court and say, "I should have, I could have." I don't care how long it is—if it's two minutes or if it's 30 minutes—I'm just doing what he would expect me to do. That's also what my father and my mother instilled in me growing up—competing at a very high level and working as hard as you can.

Courtesy of DeMarre Carroll
DeMarre (right) and DeAndre (left) lost their oldest brother, DeLonte, to a brain tumor when he was nine years old.

Another moment I think about all the time is when I got shot in 2007 while I was in college. It was the early morning after the Fourth of July. Back then, I had a girlfriend and I didn't go out every night. We had just gotten through having dinner when one of my Missouri teammates texted me, "Can you come get us?" They were really intoxicated and it was at the end of the night. They were at Club Tropicana in downtown Columbia, Mo.

When I got there around 1:30 a.m., I saw a confrontation outside with some of my teammates and some other guys who had been in the club. In 2006, when my uncle Mike Anderson became our head coach, he brought in about three or four JUCO players to give them second chances, but they would get into confrontations. My uncle always told me, "You need to always try to help your teammates out because they don't understand the dangers they're putting themselves in."

They were about to fight and I grabbed one of my teammates, Stefhon Hannah, and I was trying to get him away. Then all of a sudden, when I was pulling him away, there were shots. I took a step and I just fell. I looked at my ankle and I was like, "Wow." It was a hair away from my Achilles tendon. While they weren't shooting at me, they've never been caught to this day.

Today, I tell younger players, "Try to fix things before they happen." You really can't control a guy's nightlife because they've got so much money, but I tell them to surround themselves around guys who are going to make the right decision.

Now I don't really go out as much. You'll never hear about me in the club. Most of these guys are popping bottles, having bottle wars, spending $10,000, $20,000 in one night. A lot of younger guys do it. I think the older you get, you kind of understand. Somebody who taught me that was Elton Brand. He was key for me this past year. That's why I really hope he comes back to our team.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
After starting his college career at Vanderbilt, DeMarre Carroll spent his last two seasons at Missouri, becoming the 27th pick in the 2009 NBA draft.

The incident also made me realize that you've got to take your time with serious injuries, because if you come back too soon, you'll hurt another part of your body. I did that after the shooting, and I had bad knees my whole junior season in 2007-08 because my injured leg was also putting more weight on my other knee. I thought I could've left for the NBA draft after my junior year, but not with the way my knees were feeling. So I always tell guys, especially my close friend Paul George, "Take your time. You don't want to rush back."

Then one year after the shooting, in July 2008, I started having this scratching feeling all down my legs. My girlfriend thought it was allergies because we had just gotten a dog. But I was scratching my skin off. It was hanging off and I was bleeding. I'm like, "This is not normal itching." About a month later, I did a blood test and it came back that my liver enzymes were really high. After some more tests it was discovered that I had a rare liver disease.

When the doctors first told me, I cried for like two weeks straight. I just felt it was the end of my career. But I prayed a lot, as I always do. My father and mother have their own church in Birmingham, Ala., and they always tell me to have faith no matter what. My uncle also really helped me out with great doctors and specialists.

There is still the possibility that I'll need a liver transplant in 20 to 25 years, but the doctors have told me the disease is something that won't affect me in my basketball career. I haven't had that itchy feeling in a long time, but when I do have it, I know that means I have to take certain medicines to calm it down. Right now, I just try to keep myself healthy, try to eat right, do the right things and don't worry about it.

 


 

My health was only part of what became a bumpy road to finding an NBA home in Atlanta.

John Amis/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Carroll made a strong impression during 2011 summer pickup games against All-Stars like Elton Brand (left), who is now a close mentor to the Hawks' starting small forward.

When I was drafted by Memphis in 2009, I was playing behind Rudy Gay. Lionel Hollins is a great coach, but he really didn't key a lot on the younger guys. And I got lost in the shuffle. Zach Randolph got hurt that first year, so they put me at the 4 because I played that at Mizzou. But I guess they didn't see big progress, so I went to the D-League in December 2010.

Then in February 2011, I was traded to Houston, but they didn't give me a shot and waived me two months later. I used that as motivation during pickup games that summer at the 360 Health Club in Reseda, Calif. Playing against All-Stars like Tyson Chandler, Elton Brand, Kevin Garnett, Paul George, Danny Granger and Paul Pierce, I was really locking up guys, playing great defense and shooting the ball pretty well.

That's when KG and Paul Pierce tried to get Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to bring me in because they thought I could replace Tony Allen, who signed with the Grizzlies the summer before. The Celtics got with my agent, Mark Bartelstein, but that didn't work out. To this day, Paul Pierce always tells Danny, "I told you DeMarre was going to be good."

The buzz I had going helped me sign with the Nuggets in December 2011, but I got lost in the numbers game once again and was waived in early February 2012. That's when the Jazz GM at the time, Kevin O'Connor, wanted to work me out. I remember it like it was yesterday. I hit like 15 or 20 threes in a row. He said, "You've really been working on your shot," so he signed me four days after I got waived.

But over the next 21 games, I only played three minutes in one of them. I thought the end of my NBA career was coming.

My fiance kept telling me, "Keep working, baby. It's going to happen. They see you working." Mark was very pivotal during that time. He told me, "Work before the game, let the team see you, let other teams see you, and work after the game. You're going to get your opportunity; you've just got to be ready." So many guys get an opportunity, but they're never ready.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Carroll (pictured here with the Utah Jazz) became a standout in college because of his defense and was called the "Junkyard Dog."

And then everything changed for me. It was April 8, 2012, and we were playing San Antonio, and already our starting small forward, Josh Howard, was likely out for the season with an injured left knee. Then during the game, C.J. Miles and Earl Watson both got hurt.

It was down to about one more guy off the bench, and Jamaal Tinsley got into foul trouble, so coach Tyrone Corbin put me in. I shot 3-of-4 from three-point range and I had 16 points in 18 minutes. That's when my career just hit a turn. Now that I'm thinking about it, that's when my current coach, Mike Budenholzer, who was an assistant with the Spurs at the time, probably liked me because I came in the game like that.

To this day, Mark and I talk about it. He tells me all the time, "Didn't I tell you this was going to happen? You're at the top of your game." All my coaches love me now. That's why I try to tell all the other guys who are going through the same thing, "You've just got to keep digging and it's going to eventually happen."

 


 

So what's next? I want to be the African-American Kyle Korver. That's what my teammates call me.

We do a lot of shooting competitions and I win all of them. Jeff Teague and all the guys play around with me, saying, "You can beat us, but you can't beat Kyle Korver." I've never gone head-to-head with Kyle in a shootout. I'm trying to beat these guys up first before I actually go to Kyle. When you shoot with him, he's only going to miss one, maybe two, shots.

Courtesy of DeMarre Carroll
Carroll working on his ball-handling this summer with NBA trainer DJ Sackmann.

I feel like this is going to be a big year for me. As I tell my coaches all the time, "I feel like I'm a rookie all over again," because Coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] has shown me so many different ways how to play real basketball—not just coming down and jacking up shots. He showed me a lot—that spacing is very big in the NBA, that cutting and slashing at the right time is very big, footwork is very big. He has kind of re-invented my career.

Coach Bud's communication skills are probably the best I've ever seen in the league. He really makes me feel that I'm just as important as Al, Paul and Jeff, or even more important. This is the first team I've been on when you see the coach coming down the hallway, you don't have to duck or hide just so you don't have to talk to him. You can have a cordial conversation with him. He's real hands-on with me and has motivated me. Now I don't mind playing the 4. Even with a bigger lineup, I can play the 2. I realize that the more positions you play, the more valuable you are to a team.

He's also really encouraged me to shoot the three. When you've got Jeff penetrating, and you've got guys who don't want to help off of Kyle, you're basically shooting wide-open shots. Coach tells me, "If you're open, shoot the shot. I'm not going to be mad if you miss."

But his biggest emphasis to me is about my off-the-court mentality. He tells me, "I don't worry about you getting better on the court. I want you to raise your level of discipline off the court." That's eating right, watching film and studying players—really understanding the things that he wants as a coach and the things that our team needs. During the nine games I sat out last season, he said I really hurt the team by not being able to play because I didn't keep my body right. I had some pulled hamstrings.

Courtesy of DeMarre Carroll
Carroll also trains with pro boxer Breon Smiley.

Inspired by Coach Bud and my uncle Mike Anderson and cousin T.J. Cleveland, who both coach at Arkansas, I was an assistant coach for our Las Vegas Summer League team. It was good for me because it allowed me to step out and become a vocal leader. We have guys like Al Horford and Paul Millsap, who are our stars, but we really don't have a guy who's in the locker room that's just going to say, "Pick it up a notch." In Vegas, I tried that with Dennis Schroder because he's young and a lot of my teammates kind of look at him as a guy who's not focused.

That sort of push is going to be key for us going into the season with more good teams in the East. It's going to be very competitive. I'm going to have to dig even deeper fighting through picks, which I learned from the Pacers playoff series last season. But the biggest thing for us as a team is we've just got to stay healthy.

Regardless of what happens in the future, nothing will be too rough for me. I don't try to have a pity party. That's why a lot of guys fall out of the league. I try to coach guys and tell them, "I was in your same position. I wasn't playing any minutes and I bounced around the league. Now I'm back on my feet and I'm the starting small forward for the Atlanta Hawks."

And I've got a newborn. Her name is Lailah and she's seven months old. And I've got a fiance. We're going to get married next summer after June. That's because she told me, "You're going to the playoffs again."

I'm happy in my life.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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