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A Pillar of Strength (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday November 14, 2007 10:29AM; Updated: Wednesday November 14, 2007 10:29AM
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Carson led the Scarlet Knights to the title game -- where Candace Parker (top) and Tennesee thwarted their upset bid -- while coping with her mother's illness.
Carson led the Scarlet Knights to the title game -- where Candace Parker (top) and Tennesee thwarted their upset bid -- while coping with her mother's illness.
Bill Frakes/SI
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"It was appropriate that Essence spoke for all of us," says Stringer. "She is thoughtful, reflective and well-spoken. You would have thought she had been doing this kind of thing for 20 or 30 years."

In truth, the naturally shy Carson -- who wrote out her statement and nervously read over it just moments before the press conference -- had been "terrified" of public speaking. But her high school coach, Ed Black, had told her, "No matter what the situation, present a calm, confident face."

Moreover, Carson has never been one to back down from a challenge. At the Rosa L. Parks School for the Fine and Performing Arts in Paterson, she had a rivalry with a fellow student that evolved into a multi-instrument epic of one-upsmanship. "We'd go back and forth about who was better at piano," says Carson, who also played alto saxophone in the school jazz band. When the boy brought an electric guitar to school, Carson talked her grandmother into buying her one. When he took up the bass, she taught herself to play that, too, eventually becoming the bassist for the jazz band. And when he let slip that he was playing the drums in a band? Carson quickly became a percussionist for her church group. "Essence's musicianship is a direct reflection of her personality," says Vladimir Zaitsev, her piano instructor at Rosa Parks. "She wants to do it all."

Carson was eight when she was introduced to music by her paternal grandmother, Betty Cooper, who played an upright piano in the basement between loads of laundry. Because Carson's mom, Stacey Robinson, worked an early morning shift as a depot clerk at New Jersey Transit, Carson lived with Betty and her husband, Robert. It was Carson's father, Joe, a schoolteacher and former forward at John C. Smith University in Charlotte, who encouraged her to play hoops. The two spent hours on the Coopers' front porch developing her shooting form. "He must have had me practice my follow-through 50 million times," she says.

Because Rosa Parks had no athletic program, Carson competed for Eastside High, earning all-state honors in volleyball, the state title in the 400 meters in track and the attention of every elite college basketball program. Playing a different position every year because Black knew she would need perimeter skills in college, she scored a school-record 1,808 career points while leading the Lady Ghosts to three straight county titles and the New Jersey Tournament of Champions final in her senior year.

Joe would never see the fruit of his front-porch drills. He developed a progressive neurodegenerative disease and died when Essence was 11. Intensely private even then, she didn't cry at his funeral. She was also stoic when her paternal grandfather, Joseph Carson, passed away in 2004 and when her beloved Betty died suddenly of an asthma attack in 2005. "The only time she shows her emotions is when she plays the piano," says Robinson. "When her father passed away, she would go downstairs and play for hours."

Carson was constrained on the court, too; she played so mechanically -- "If you told her to take two steps and shoot, she'd take two steps and shoot, even if she needed three," says assistant coach Carlene Mitchell -- that her teammates called her Robo. "Essence is the only player I've ever wanted to break every rule there is," says the 59-year-old Stringer. "I want her to pass the ball through her legs. I want her to make blind passes. I want her to just go off, loosen up and play."

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