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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 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."
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."
WITH FIVE 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 Rutgers.
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."
The Scarlet 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 absurd."
Suddenly 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," she says.
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.