COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s multi-million dollar basketball arena was mostly dark and empty, but enough light shined on the court for Michael Carrera to get what he needed so badly.
For the next hour, the sounds of a bouncing ball and two men speaking Spanish echoed through the arena. They comforted Carrera. This felt familiar, shooting hoops with his father, who taught him the game that brought him here, and made him an emotional player.
The previous night, on Valentine’s Day, Carrera struggled in USC’s loss to LSU. His parents were visiting from his native Venezuela for 10 days, and this was the first time his dad, Luis Carrera, ever saw him play in the United States. Frustrated by his game, Carrera told his dad he wanted to shoot. Luis played professionally in Venezuela, but never pushed the sport on his son. Carrera was 12 the first time he asked Luis to shoot. Years later, Luis told Carrera the request made him so excited, he almost cried.
Luis is divorced from Carrera’s mother, Katherine Gamboa, but maintained a strong bond with Carrera through basketball. An only child, Carrera calls his parents as “my best friends.”
Shooting in the dimly lit arena, Luis advised Carrera about his mentality, as always, and told him to remain focused. Carrera left the arena feeling better. USC’s next home game, against Mississippi, was the last Carrera’s parents would see before returning to Venezuela, where both are teachers.
“I have to win this game for my family,” Carrera thought.
Carrera played one of his best games this season — 13 points and 13 rebounds in a win. Afterward, he hugged his parents. They told him how proud they felt.
It was the pinnacle moment of Carrera’s freshman year, when he was a highlight on a team that is 14-17 entering tonight’s Southeastern Conference tournament opener against Mississippi State. Carrera is second on USC with 10 points per game and first with 7.3 rebounds. He has five double-doubles and made the SEC’s all-freshman team.
He did it despite missing valuable Christmas break practices because of a sore hip, which limited his understanding of coach Frank Martin’s schemes. Yet he rebounded consistently as a 6-5, 212-pound whirling dervish, against larger post players, because of his boundless zest.
During games, he screamed after making a shot, pumped his fist, waved his arms to rally fans and snatched towels from ball boys to wipe sweat off the court during breaks — valuable on-court energy that “is just something you can’t get from a coach,” said teammate Lakeem Jackson.
Carrera performed like this all year, starting with the preseason practice when he reached for a rebound and accidentally broke Damien Leonard’s nose with his elbow.
Carrera did it all while wearing shorts rolled up at the waistband, to honor his father, who played in short shorts. Back in Venezuela, when Carrera was 10, friends teased him because this son of a pro couldn’t play basketball.
“Now look at what I am,” he said.
Carrera’s family lived in an apartment in a rough urban neighborhood of the oil-producing Anzoátegui state, in northern Venezuela, which sits at the top of South America.
His father taught him basketball on an unpainted asphalt court with crummy rims. Luis demonstrated post moves, but more importantly, he passed on his intense approach.
“Mike, when you’re on the court, you don’t have any friends,” Carrera recalled his father saying. “You don’t say you’re sorry.”
Carrera joined Venezuela’s under-15 national team and shined at a tournament in Argentina. A friend who arranges for Venezuelans to play in America spoke to Greivis Vasquez, then a Venezuelan star at Maryland. Vasquez put in a good word with his old coaches at Montrose Christian School, a basketball powerhouse in Rockville, Md.
Montrose’s coaches watched some video of Carrera, but mainly, “we believed Greivis,” said assistant Dan Prete. When Carrera arrived as a 16-year-old in 2009, head coach Stu Vetter immediate noticed his rebounding potential.
“I knew he was a great player when I shook hands with him,” Vetter said. “He’s got enormous hands. Michael is one of the most natural rebounders I’ve ever coached.”
But coaching Carrera was tough at first, because he didn’t know English. He learned it through Rosetta Stone and living in adult-supervised housing with teammates, including Americans and a Japanese kid who Carrera communicated with through hand motions.
Partly to focus on academics, Carrera lived for his final year and a half at Montrose with Prete’s family. While Carrera helped one of Prete’s two sons with Spanish homework, the boys reciprocated with English advice.
Prete became a surrogate father. Carrera loved hiking and playing Monopoly with the Pretes –new experiences for him. They helped him buy clothes, and learned his physique posed challenges, because his seven-foot wingspan made finding dress shirts impossible.
On the court, it was an asset. When Montrose beat rival Oak Hill Academy in double overtime to win the 2011 National High School Invitational, Carrera had 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“He was just an animal,” said Montrose teammate Justin Anderson, who now plays at Virginia. “He was running down the court, sticking his tongue out, just showing the other team that he wasn’t going to back down.”
After the game, Carrera grabbed a Venezuelan flag that friends brought. He ran around the gym, waving it.
Soon after Carrera started playing basketball, his dad told him he wanted to send him to America, to chase greater things. For years, the soundtrack to Carrera’s youth games was Luis’s encouragement from the sidelines, loudly whistling with his fingers in his mouth.
Carrera always wondered about life in another land and thought, “How am I going to do?”
“It was really hard in the beginning, because I was always crying all the time because I missed my dad and my mom,” he said.
Before long, Carrera’s personality emerged, and Montrose’s coaches had to teach him about “controlling some of that passion, because he can just get carried away sometimes,” Prete said. “You don’t want to tame it too much, because that’s what makes him good.”
His next step at USC: develop a jump shot, because “he’s not going to have a lot of success being a post player in college when he’s got to post 6-10 guys on a consistent basis,” said Martin.
But Carrera’s progress to date has impressed, and he longed to show it last month to his parents. He hadn’t seen him since his Montrose graduation. Their first night in Columbia, Carrera stayed with them at a hotel. They told him about his friends back home and gave him the Venezuelan chocolates he loves so much.
He might get to hug his parents again this summer, if he plays for his national team. But he still wept when saw them off last month, determined as ever to make them proud.
“I’m going to keep doing it for them, because I always play hard for them,” he said. “I’ve always got something in my mind that the ball is my family, and I feel like nobody’s going to get the ball from me. That’s my family and I love my family. And I think that’s why I get so many rebounds.”