When Terrance Farley checked in for David Padgett in the second half of what would ultimately be the final game of the 2007-2008 Louisville basketball season, I leaned over to my friends and said, "A fitting end to the Derrick Caracter era."
The statement has only grown truer in recent weeks.
Here was Caracter, still possessing the same otherworldly natural talent that had made him a prep sensation years before he hit high school, with the opportunity to go one-on-one with the national Player of the Year in an unopposed nationally televised game, and with a trip to the Final Four and an even bigger stage on the line. And there was Caracter, sulking about a no-call instead of running to the other end of the court, and watching with his hands on his hips as the man he was supposed to be guarding scored an unchallenged bucket 94 feet away.
He wouldn't see the floor again.
This is the Derrick Caracter story: extraordinary opportunities, extraordinary tools to seize adequate advantage of said opportunities, but an almost inexplicable reluctance to do so.
In two seasons at Louisville, Caracter has been suspended for a total of 17 games. He's struggled to control his weight, carried a lax attitude with him to practice, and taken advantage of the multiple lifelines thrown his way by Rick Pitino. With Padgett sidelined in December and his team relying on him to shoulder the load in the post, Caracter was caught breaking curfew twice...on the same night. On top of all this, he's taken inherited talent that just about anyone would kill for, and averaged just eight points and four rebounds at the college level.
The latest chapter in this mostly Raging Bull, rarely Rudy saga was written Wednesday when Pitino announced that the oft-discussed center was academically ineligible, and stressed that it would be better for all parties concerned if he took his game elsewhere. The news put to bed (at least momentarily) weeks of speculation over whether or not Caracter had played his final game in Cardinal red.
Assuming that this is, in fact, the end of the road for Derrick at U of L, his cautionary tale carries with it more sentimental weight than the majority of problem child stories prevalent in modern major college athletics.
Derrick Caracter is a likable person. Those who have met him in passing and those who consider him a close friend have stated with equal reverence that he's as amicable as anyone they've ever come in contact with. Even Pitino has been unable to mask his fondness for the thorn in his side's off-the-court personality.
Caracter has never been in any sort of trouble with the law, and in that regard, the comparisons to former Cardinal flameouts like Brandon Bender and Willie Williams are unfair. His problem isn't and never was that he's a bad seed, it's that he still maintains the attitude and mindset of the spoiled 14-year-old he still is in his head.
The sad story of Derrick Caracter won't be outlined in a D.A.R.E. booklet, and it's equally hard to envision the big man scaring kids straight in a prison suit. If he's going to be the poster boy for anything, it'll be for the dangers of the creepy culture of modern pre-college prep basketball, the one dominated by multitudes of sycophants and hangers-on.
When combined at the right age, the realization of talent and self-awareness can be a lethal mixture. At a time in life when most adolescents are just beginning to explore who they are, Derrick Caracter had achieved superstar status and was treated like an NBA All-Star by classmates, parents and teachers alike. At the age of 14, he became the first middle schooler to be invited to the elite Nike All-American camp. He entered high school as the number one player in his class (ahead of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant), and drew multiple comparisons to both Moses Malone and LeBron James.
The attention was not handled well.
In his freshman season at St. Patrick's High School, he missed 13 games due to academic suspension. Disciplinary problems and struggles to control his weight then forced him to leave the New Jersey private school for his sophomore season. Though he showed flashes of brilliance at exclusive summer camps, he was widely criticized for his lack of effort, and by his senior season had fallen out of the top 30 in nearly every list of recruiting rankings. And then just before he was set to begin his collegiate career at Louisville, news broke that Caracter had received improper benefits from agent/runner/adviser/family friend/toady Eddie Lau. He was suspended for the first three games of his freshman season by the NCAA.
It's unlikely that any of this ever weighed heavily on the mind of Derrick Caracter. It's almost certain that his thinking was that if he'd had everything when he was 14, surely he'd have it all again eventually. The countless number of people who'd told him he was a lock to make millions in the NBA some day couldn't have all been wrong.
And yet here he is, a man without a country.
This isn't meant to be a defense of Caracter - there's a limit to the amount of pity that can be bestowed upon an individual who repeatedly wasted an opportunity that almost all of us would/would have cut off our right ear for - but it is a reminder that he's a person. It's easy to put a basketball player out of mind, but it's far more difficult to discard a human being, especially one who, by most accounts, is pretty decent.
Louisville basketball will be fine without Derrick Caracter. His replacement is an equally sized, equally talented, equally hyped big man whose work ethic vaulted him from top 30 prospect to national player of the year. The bigger question is whether or not Derrick Caracter will be fine without Louisville basketball.