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
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.,
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.
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
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."
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 reflec tion of her personality,"
says Vladimir Zaitsev, her piano instructor at Rosa Parks. "She wants to do
Carson was eight
when she was introduced to music by her paternal grand mother, 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.