Alex Caruso Is 'Not Hollywood,' but He's a Star

The NBA's viral sensation can disappear into almost any crowd, but as he embarks on his second season playing alongside LeBron, there's no hiding how important he may be to the Lakers' future.
photo of Leo SepkowitzLeo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorSeptember 20, 2019

Alex Caruso goes by many names: The Insurance Salesman, The Accountant, The Bald Eagle, The Bald Mamba, The CaruShow. New ones pour in every day, even now, during the sleepiest part of the NBA calendar.

"It hasn't stopped," he says. "I get a couple tweets a day, where it's like, 'You're the GOAT!' Or, 'Carus-god,' or something crazy."

If people aren't tweeting at Caruso, they're tweeting about him. He's inspired multiple Twitter Stan accounts, constantly churning Caruso-happy content, comparing him to Wilt Chamberlain and plugging him into iconic NBA moments.

Meanwhile, on Instagram, a photoshopped image of Caruso working out recently caught fire. (He was drug tested shortly thereafter.) His Reddit page is an electric display of devotion. His mixtape went viral on every platform. There are even images of Caruso jamming on Michael Jordan.

It's a fun surprise for Caruso, who's about to begin his third year in the NBA and his second alongside the much more conventionally famous LeBron James. Though he's only appeared in 62 career games so far and carries with him a self-effacing, relaxed manner, he's become an underground legend on the league's most glamorous team, playing in the country's most glamorous city.

"I'm not Hollywood," Caruso says, seated for lunch in Manhattan Beach, wearing workout clothes and a trucker hat. He lives down the street and picked this neighborhood because "it's the opposite of L.A.: quiet, easygoing."

He notes that nobody recognizes him around here, and that makes good sense. Caruso might be the most inconspicuous athlete in the NBA. He stands 6'5", though it doesn't feel that way; he's thin at about 185 pounds; he's balding; he wears a goatee that doesn't fully connect; he basically looks like a guy off the street.

"I think I fit a market like San Antonio or Charlotte or Milwaukee, where it's a little more low-key," he says. "It's just funny that this is where I am. It's funny that it's L.A."

What's funnier still is his ascent to cult hero in Los Angeles. Perhaps few recognize him in person, but on social media—and especially Twitter—he has become a star befitting Hollywood.

The Caruso craze has entertained the 25-year-old, and at times he's fed into it online. In March, when LeBron moved into fourth place all-time in scoring, The Ringer tweeted a video in which Caruso (via voiceover) meekly introduces himself to James on the court, saying: "Hey, what's up, man? I'm Alex." Caruso retweeted the video, much to the delight of his rabid fanbase. ("My girlfriend still jokes about that now and then," he says of the clip. "She'll be like, 'Hey, I'm Alex.'")

In April, Caruso's putback jam against the Warriors sent James, JaVale McGee and the social media sphere into a tizzy. The next night, he hung 32 on the Clippers, which helped spawn a meme about how Caruso's scoring prowess spooked noted Clippers defensive bulldog Patrick Beverley. (Beverley responded on Twitter.) Seldom can anyone tweet anything about Caruso without receiving a steady stream of zany replies: GOAT GIFs, janky photoshop jobs and declarations of the guard's historic greatness.

Why, of all players, Alex Caruso? He has a two-pronged theory.

"I think it's the way I play—every game I go out there and play as hard as I can, and I think people appreciate that," he says. "Then it's the fact I look like I could be a common person walking on the street. They all want to hold onto like, 'Hey, that's one of us out there doing it,' which is funny because I feel like I'm a normal person. I walk around and I don't feel like I'm 6'5", I don't feel like I'm this guy that plays for the Lakers. But it's the reality of it."


ALEX CARUSO HAD LEBRON SHOOK 😱 #LakeShow https://t.co/SMCULdlfcp

Yes, Caruso is a sort of NBA everyman for any fan whose hair is thinning or seems out of place. His style is rec league-ish, heavy on open threes and the old cliche of heady basketball. "He may not look the part," his old teammate, Larry Nance Jr., once said. "But that is an NBA player."

After the All-Star break last season, as the Lakers folded, Caruso appeared in 20 games, playing 25.6 minutes per night. He averaged 11.2 points per game and shot a staggering 46.9 percent from deep.

This summer, three years after going undrafted, he inked a two-year, $5.5 million contract to stay in Los Angeles. He knows how absurd it must look to the untrained NBA eye—he sees it too. "You think of the Lakers, it's LeBron, Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, guys who are bona fide NBA players," he says, in deep admiration. "And then there's me."

The first time you ever noticed Caruso was probably March 20, 2016. His Texas A&M Aggies were down 12 points with 44 seconds remaining in their second-round NCAA tournament game against Northern Iowa. After a blur of wayward inbounds passes and overtime buckets, A&M won 92-88. Caruso led the team with 25. "Greatest comeback of all time," Caruso says. It was also the final win of his four-year career at Texas A&M.

When the NBA draft swung around in June, Caruso was on the fringes as a possible second-round pick. On draft night, he hosted some friends at his parents' home in College Station, Texas. (His parents both worked at Texas A&M—his father in the athletic department, his mother in human resources.) "Anxious" is how Caruso's father, Mike, remembers that night.

In the second round, as teams went on the clock, his parents would ask: "How'd you relate to that team?" "Did you work out with them?" No matter the answer, the result was the same. Each team passed.

He spent his first year out of school in the G League, playing for the Thunder affiliate, the Blue. The following summer, he shined at a G League showcase, where Lakers management noticed him. "We saw the potential of a legit 6'5", true size point guard," says Nick Mazzella, the Lakers' director of pro personnel. He liked Caruso's athleticism, his control of the floor and the promise of his jumper.

Caruso earned an invite with the Lakers' summer-league team, where an 18-point, nine-assist, four-steal outing against De'Aaron Fox helped spark his rise as a social media star.

In July 2017, he inked a two-year, two-way deal with the Lakers, the first of its kind. He could spend up to 45 days with the Lakers and the rest of the year in the G League. The contract would test his game and his mental fortitude. "The whole concept of being on a two-way contract is such a psychological experiment," Mazzella says.

"It's hard. You have two different 'families,' two homes, two coaches, two roles on a team—one team you're the leader, the other team you're trying to fit in and find your spot. We had other players really struggle with the two-way."

Caruso, however, wasn't bothered by the travel gymnastics. "They could call Alex at 10:30 at night and say, 'You're not going on this Lakers trip, you're going to stay here with South Bay,'" Mazzella says. "He'd say, 'Sounds good, got it.'"

By the end of the season, Caruso found himself in the Lakers' starting lineup and showed he deserved the spot. In the finale, he scored 15 points with seven rebounds against the Clippers.

Alex Caruso's 2017 summer-league performance not only won over the Lakers' front office but also the basketball Twitter community.
Alex Caruso's 2017 summer-league performance not only won over the Lakers' front office but also the basketball Twitter community.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

He returned last year on the same deal and once again made his mark late in the season, on both ends of the floor.

"There's not many players who are an A-plus defensively, and Alex is an A, definitely," Mazzella says. When Caruso guarded pick-and-roll ball-handlers, he graded out between stingy veterans Chris Paul and Mike Conley in points per possession, per Synergy Sports. "That's half the game," Mazzella says. On the other half, Caruso made 53.1 percent of his open threes, leading all NBA guards. (Yes, even Steph Curry.)

Caruso is quick to downplay that stat. "There's a couple in there that were heat-check moments," he says, "but most were good shots you take when people double LeBron or you're open in transition."

This summer, Caruso hit restricted free agency, granting him negotiating power for the first time in his pro career. About a dozen teams showed interest in him, including the Warriors and Grizzlies, but he chose to wait as the Lakers maneuvered the cap and the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes. Caruso followed along closely—where else?—on Twitter.

When Leonard signed with the Clippers, the Lakers moved quickly on Caruso, signing him for two more years. "The feeling of signing a guaranteed deal—NBA money—that was surreal," he says.

"Especially from where I come from, the path to get there. It hit me in little waves, little shocks here and there, where I'd be talking to my mom or dad or sisters or my buddies back home, and like, having to type out, Yeah, I signed a two-year, 5.5 with the Lakers. To actually say that out loud is a pretty cool feeling."

Naturally, social media erupted with excitement. On Reddit, the post announcing his signing became the second-most upvoted Caruso post ever—a decidedly high bar. "Weakest move I've ever seen from a superstar," wrote one commenter. "Kawhi tried his best, but Lakers' superteam still arrives," added another.

Still, nothing connected the facts and frenzy surrounding Caruso quite like one post on Twitter. It shows a photo of Caruso mimicking Lance Stephenson's famous air guitar celebration—a meme within a meme already—alongside a most fitting caption: "Bald Man Gets Paid."


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