Ken Carter Biography
Set Records on Court, Redwood Forests Led Trips to Offices, Players Went on to College
Basketball coach, motivational speaker, entrepreneur
Coach Ken Carter's 1999 lockout of his Richmond (California) High School basketball team seemed like a story made for the movies. And indeed, when the story was brought to life by actor Samuel L. Jackson in the 2005 hit film Coach Carter, a fresh new round of publicity came to the man whose daring form of discipline had set a group of young people on course to positive futures. Coach Carter's own story, it turned out, exemplified the values of dedication and accomplishment that he tried to instill in his players.
Born in tiny Fernwood, Mississippi (near McComb) around 1959, Carter grew up in a close-knit family and community. He had seven sisters and one brother. "When you hear that statement it takes a whole village to raise a child, I am that child," he told Christianity Today. "My family is extremely close." Having grown up with both parents in the home, Carter often pointed out to interviewers that only seven of the 45 students in his basketball program at Richmond could say the same. His life was stable enough that he could dream big dreams. "When I was a little boy …," he was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times, "I was in the kitchen with my mama, and I took this big wooden spoon she was using to stir some cake batter and talked into it like it was a microphone and said 'Someday they're going to make my life into a movie.'"
Carter's small-town roots stuck with him. One educator who worked with Carter later described him to San Francisco Chronicle writer Chip Johnson as "a little country bumpkin who has a lot of stories and a unique way of telling them." But his family later moved to the troubled city of Richmond, north of Oakland, California. When he was a teenager, he recalled, his classmates might try to steal sodas from a neighborhood shop, but he was more likely to find the store's owner and ask whether he could sweep the floor or do something else to earn the soda.
Set Records on Court
A gifted athlete himself, Carter played basketball for the Richmond High School Oilers from 1973 to 1977. He set all-time school records for scoring, assists, and steals, all of which remained standing when he took over as Richmond's coach 20 years after graduating. (His son Damien later broke the assists and steals records.) He was a high school All-American on not only the basketball court but also the baseball diamond, where he played shortstop.
Carter attended George Fox University in Oregon on a scholarship. He later returned to Richmond and took further courses at San Francisco State University. A born entrepreneur who realized the power of the Internet early on, he also took e-commerce courses at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California, near Richmond. Carter invested in his home community, opening a sporting-goods store, a barbershop, and a hair salon in a block of downtown buildings that he eventually purchased. Married and with a son coming up on high school and college, Carter was proud of these accomplishments but looked to wider horizons. Even before the Richmond lockout put him much in demand as a motivational speaker, he had begun taking seminars and giving talks on the path to success.
In 1997, Carter accepted an offer to coach the high school boys' basketball team at his alma mater. The school and the community had both deteriorated since his days as a Richmond star. Drug abuse and high unemployment plagued the town, and Richmond High had a graduation rate of only around 50 percent. "The fact is this, sir," Carter said in an interview quoted in the Seattle Times. "A kid in Richmond is 80 percent more likely to go to jail than to college." Carter agreed to take the Richmond coaching post only on the condition that he be given full control over the basketball program.
Redwood Forests Led Trips to Offices
When he took the reins, the school's basketball team wasn't in much better shape than its student achievement record, which ranked in the bottom ten percent of California high schools. The two decades since Carter's glory days had been marked mostly by losing seasons. Carter turned things around in a hurry. Part of his success was due to the interest he took in his players off the court. He took them on field trips to the offices of high-tech firms in the Silicon Valley, across San Francisco Bay 60 miles from Richmond, trying to impress on them that despite all the headlines that came with sports stardom, education was a surer route to success. "There's less than 5,000 jobs in all of professional sports that you can make a living," Carter pointed out to Christianity Today. "But one company, Microsoft, has over 10,000 millionaires in that one company." His students, he added, "do the math real quick." Carter also took his students, some of whom didn't realize that there were forests in California, on a trip to one of the state's preserves of giant redwood trees.
With educational goals in mind, Carter had all his players sign a contract in which they promised to maintain a 2.3 grade-point average, higher than the state-required minimum of 2.0. They also pledged to keep perfect class attendance records, sitting in the front row at all times, to address men and women as "sir" and "madam," to study for ten hours a week, to turn in homework on time, and to wear shirts and ties on days when games were scheduled. The new level of discipline Carter demanded worked wonders on the court. By January of 1999, perennial loser Richmond had amassed a 13-0 record and was regarded as a contender for the state championship. "Go Oilers!" signs sprouted in the windows of businesses in the economically hard-hit town.
But all was not well from Carter's point of view. Fifteen of the 45 players in the program had failed to meet the terms of the contract, falling short in various ways. So, in early January, he padlocked the doors of Richmond's gymnasium, locking out not only members of the varsity squad but also the likewise undefeated junior varsity and freshman players, including his 16-year-old son. He marched the players down to the school library, where tutors were waiting. Carter chose to punish the entire team rather than just the offending players because, he reasoned, that was the only way to make peer pressure work in favor of academic accomplishment rather than against it. "At that point," he told Dixie Reid of the Sacramento Bee, "I was prepared to forfeit the whole season."
Carter's action, which the Richmond High student body termed the Great Lockout, gained widespread publicity. Praise for Carter crossed the liberal-conservative divide, with both Democratic California governor Gray Davis and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh weighing in with commendations for his stance. In Richmond, however, opinions were much more mixed as two games were forfeited and the team's undefeated season evaporated. A brick was thrown through the window of Carter's sporting-goods shop, and a passer-by spat on his car. The Richmond school board questioned whether he had the right to unilaterally lock the gym facility and reopened it at one point. The players, however, after talking to Carter, honored the lockout. "I give them three minutes" to talk, Carter explained to Suzanne Espinosa Solis of the San Francisco Chronicle. "They can say anything they like. Being the coach I am, I cut them short at two."
Players Went on to College
After a week, Carter relented, although several players were once again benched later in the season. The team finished with a 19-5 record and lost in the state playoffs—something Carter insisted be accurately represented in Coach Carter, over the objections of studio executives who wanted to give the film a storybook ending. The ultimate outcome of Carter's crusade, however, was inspiring enough to carry the film on its own: half the players on Carter's 1998-99 Richmond squad were admitted to college, as compared with only two dozen of the school's 200-member graduating class in 2000. Several attended big-name schools such as the University of California and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Carter's son Damien enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
Lynne Oliver, mother of Richmond player Wayne Oliver, credited Carter with her son's success after he enrolled at California's West Hills College and played on a team that reached the state junior college tournament. "At first I was upset [about the lockout]," she told the Chronicle's David Steele. "But when I understood what the coach was doing, I was happy. And now look at my baby." Carter once again demonstrated his commitment to education in 2000 when he rode a human-powered kick scooter 90 miles from Richmond to Sacramento during a state school funding debate.
The Great Lockout made Carter famous. Lucrative lecture opportunities came his way, and he was paid a consulting fee for Coach Carter, personally approving the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as himself and spending four months on the set of the film. In 2002, Carter became the head coach of the Rumble, a SlamBall team in Los Angeles; SlamBall was a new team sport that combined basketball, football, and gymnastics, being fought out on a floor-level trampoline surface. Carter founded a publishing company, Prime Time Publishing, and authored several motivational print and audio products including 101 Ways to Earn a Higher GPA. Among his many awards was his selection as torchbearer in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Some charged Carter with opportunism, but he plowed many of the profits from his new enterprises back into the Richmond community. In 2002 he established the Coach Ken Carter Foundation, a nonprofit that provided educational opportunities for minority youth, promoting projects designed to further student achievement in math, science, and technology. In 2005 he announced plans to return to coaching in Richmond—this time at the junior high school level. "I want to catch them a bit earlier," he explained to Christa Turner of the Columbus, Alabama Ledger-Enquirer. "We're noticing the kids now need influence earlier and earlier. By the time they get to high school, they're already set in their ways." Richmond's young basketballers would have a famous coach—the film Coach Carter grossed over $29 million in its first week of release in 2005 and topped American box-office lists—but it didn't seem likely that his tough philosophy would change. As he had told the Chronicle's Steele several years earlier, "Raise the standards, and the kids will meet them."
Coach Carter, 2005.
Jet, January 17, 2005, p. 54.
Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, AL), June 15, 2005.
Sacramento Bee, January 20, 2005, p. E1.
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 13, 2005, p. E1.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 8, 1999, p. A19; March 1, 2000, p. E1; July 14, 2001, p. A15.
Seattle Times, February 2, 2005, p. F5.
Sports Illustrated, January 24, 2005, p. 29.
Coach Carter, www.coachcarter.com (June 18, 2005). "Just Call Him 'Sir,'" Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/interviews/kencarter.htm. (June 18, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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