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 neuro
degenerative 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."
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."
freshmen and no seniors among her 10 players last season, Stringer needed
leadership, scoring and—after losing junior Matee Ajavon for two months because
of a stress fracture—a playmaker. Carson answered every call. She handled the
point for the first four games, increased her scoring average from 8.3 to 12.3
points and, despite her aversion to speaking up, became more vocal, giving the
team blessings before meals and answering the questions no one else wanted to
at postgame press conferences. "I realized that in order to get things
done, you have to open your mouth," she says.
As the team
struggled through a miserable start, Carson was a pillar of strength—even while
her own world was being rocked. On Dec. 3, the day before the game against Duke
in the Jimmy V Classic, a cancer-research fund-raiser, she learned that her
mother had breast cancer and needed a lumpectomy. Carson didn't tell her
teammates, even as they donned pink shoelaces in support of those battling the
disease. Nor did she use it as an excuse when she had just two points in an
85--45 loss to the Blue Devils, Stringer's worst defeat in her 12 years at
Carson kept her
worries to herself again weeks later when Robinson learned she'd have to have a
second surgery and when Stringer, frustrated by her team's poor defensive
effort, banished the players from their locker room and took away their
practice gear for a month. "I told myself that my mom was going to be
O.K.," says Carson. "I wanted to stay strong for my team."
Knights avenged a 26-point loss five weeks earlier by beating UConn for their
first Big East tournament title, then upset top-ranked Duke and No. 3 seeds
Arizona State and LSU during their magical NCAA tournament run. With the loss
to Tennessee and another impending surgery for Robinson on her mind, Carson had
barely had a chance to unpack her bags when she heard of Imus's remarks. "I
laughed," she says. "Not at the joke, but because it was so
reporters were staking out the players' classrooms, cameramen were chasing them
and Al Sharpton was calling their cellphones. "Everything was happening at
once," says Carson. "I was just trying to maintain some balance."
In the months since, her life has regained its equilibrium. Robinson had a
mastectomy in late April and is cancer-free. And Carson, empowered by her turn
in the media glare—which taught her "how much things have changed and how
much they haven't," she says—has learned to value her own opinion. But
don't expect her to climb on a soapbox anytime soon: When the Imus episode came
up in discussion in one of Carson's summer classes, she found herself slouching
in her seat to avoid detection. "I still don't enjoy the spotlight,"
On an October
afternoon in a nearly empty campus student center Carson sat at a baby grand
and played from memory a bit of Stevie Wonder's Ribbon in the Sky, as well as a
section from a show-tuney piece she recently composed but hasn't yet named. She
stopped playing to share a few thoughts on chord progression. "Some things
sound right together, some don't," she said, hitting a discordant clump of
keys. "You know how you hear a piece you've never heard before but you hum
along, knowing how it's going to end?"
Stringer has a
theory about how Carson's college career will end. Like her music, it will
follow a natural, pleasing progression. "I want to see this great athlete
explode," she says. "And it would be nice if she dunked." No doubt
Carson wouldn't mind the chance and the challenge. This is a woman who clearly
has found her rhythm.