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A Pillar of Strength

During a stunning run to the finals and its painful aftermath, Rutgers forward Essence Carson became the voice of her embattled team

Posted: Wednesday November 14, 2007 10:29AM; Updated: Wednesday November 14, 2007 10:29AM
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Essence Carson.
Essence Carson.
Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography

Vivian Stringer had heard about the 6-foot sophomore who got straight A's, played multiple instruments and was so admired in her hometown of Paterson, N.J., that parents of opposing players routinely asked for her autograph. She had seen the smooth athleticism, the dizzying elevation, the 6' 4" wingspan. Standing before future McDonald's All-American guard Essence Carson after a basketball camp in the summer of 2002, the Rutgers women's basketball coach knew she'd have to do something extraordinary to land this prospect.

"I hear you play the piano," said Stringer. "So do I. When you come for your official visit next year, I'll play the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata for you. If I miss one note, you don't have to consider coming to Rutgers. But if I play it perfectly, will you promise to be a Scarlet Knight?"

Carson remembers chuckling; Stringer remembers hearing a yes. She ran out and bought a metronome, a CD and sheet music. Stringer had played an abridged version of the piece for a fourth-grade recital decades earlier, but she had never tackled the original. Out of an already bulging schedule she carved five hours each week to practice on the white baby grand in the living room of her Princeton, N.J., house.

When Carson arrived on campus for her official visit in November '03, Stringer played the piece for her. She didn't miss a note. Carson acted nonchalant at the time, but she now admits she was stunned. "I couldn't believe this busy, important woman wanted me that badly," she says.

In Stringer's view Carson, who ultimately passed on Texas, Connecticut and Duke to sign with Rutgers, has been worth every minute spent with Beethoven's lamentation. A two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, the senior forward has been her team's best defender and its most versatile offensive weapon, playing every position but center. Says sophomore forward Myia McCurdy, "When you want to learn how to do a drill or run a play, you watch Essence."

But the full range of Carson's value wouldn't become apparent to the world until last April. After rebounding from a 2-4 start, the Scarlet Knights won the Big East tournament and, with a series of upsets, battled all the way to the NCAA championship game, losing to Tennessee 59-46. They had little time to bask in the glory of their run: The next morning radio host Don Imus, having glanced at the title game, called the Rutgers players "a bunch of nappy-headed hos." His words came as a shock to the team, but their response was admirably measured. In a press conference that aired live on CNN, Carson served as the team's de facto spokesperson, calmly and eloquently conveying her teammates' hurt, and condemning the racism and sexism in Imus's comments. "I know that rap and other music has desensitized America to some of [those] words," she said. "But it doesn't make it right to say [them]."

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