Alonzo Carter pulled up to McClymonds High School in his burgundy and peanut-butter-colored drop-top '87 Corvette. As he stepped out, wearing black knee-high leather boots, a leather jacket, and no shirt, a group of teenagers in baggy jeans standing in front the building looked at him and asked, "Who the hell is this guy?"
"I'm like ya'll," Carter responded. "I'm one of y'all."
"Naw," one said. "We don't wear that, you're not one of us."
"I went to school here, I graduated from here, I played here," Carter insisted.
Then, suddenly, one of the kids recognized him. "That's the MC Hammer dude! He's the one in the video!"
The year was 1992, and at the time, Carter was 25 years old and had just ended his career as the lead dancer and head choreographer for Oakland's MC Hammer, the multiplatinum-selling hip-hop artist and dancer. Carter toured with Hammer and starred in many of his videos, including "U Can't Touch This," one of the most famous dance music videos of all time. Carter's unique style of dance, which mixed hip-hop with fraternity step dancing, created a new global dance sensation. But after several years in the limelight, Carter wanted to come home to West Oakland. He didn't know what to do next and had decided to volunteer coach at his old high school while he figured it out.
Within months, Carter had traded in his leather boots for sneakers and gotten a full-time coaching job at McClymonds. Over the next fifteen years, he worked his way up to become one of the top football coaches in California. His teams won game after game, taking McClymonds to the championships almost every year.
But what makes Carter unique among his peers is not how many touchdowns his teams scored, but the number of his players who have received scholarships to four-year colleges and universities — so far, around eighty kids. Getting his players an education is Carter's utmost priority. "It isn't just about winning games," he said in an interview. "I tell kids, I can go out and buy you a ribbon, a trophy, or a medal, but you can't replace the value of an education."
How does Carter get teenage athletes, many struggling to barely pass their classes, to buy into his vision? It goes back to the discipline he applied to his dancing.
Alonzo Carter grew up in the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland, a neighborhood featuring brightly colored but dilapidated Victorians, where people sit out on their porches watching the kids play, and drugs and crime are rampant. Once a relatively safe, black middle-class neighborhood, the Lower Bottoms was split in two in 1971 by the West Oakland BART line. By the 1980s, businesses had closed and many folks had moved away while crack cocaine and widespread violence moved in. Carter lived in the Campbell Village Court housing projects. His father was in and out of jail his entire life, so his single mother raised him and his three siblings alone. By the time Carter was a senior at McClymonds, he had never traveled farther than the Eastmont Mall but already had a newborn son.
During his senior year, while also running track, playing football, and studying, Carter worked the night shift at McDonald's to support his child. His workaholic nature earned him a scholarship to the Mills College Upward Bound Program, which gives high-school students from low-income families the skills to go to college. Carter graduated at the age of seventeen, and Upward Bound helped him get into Cal State University, Hayward.
Being in Hayward was a culture shock. Although it's only twenty miles from West Oakland, it was a totally different world. "When I rolled out to Hayward, I saw nicer houses," Carter said. "Even apartments out there were nice. It was also a different thing as far as culture: I was from a predominantly all-black school, and it was the first time I intertwined with people outside my race."
Being exposed to different people, diving into his studies, and being a key member of the track and football teams at Hayward helped Carter become more secure with who he was. With this newfound security, he actively pursued his favorite hobby — dancing.
As a kid, he had idolized Michael Jackson. He grew a big Jackson 5 Afro and emulated the artist's dance moves. His mom made him and his two brothers do the robot dance for her friends at parties to earn a few extra dollars. By high school he had formed a dance crew with some friends; they practiced together and went to talent shows.
"I used to do all the James Brown type of stuff," he recalled. "Then my senior year dancing changed and everyone did that preppy kind of dance stuff and I got pushed to the back." He's talking about when people cut their hair into hi-top fades, wore argyle patterns, penny-loafer shoes and Guess, Jordache, and Sergio Valente jeans. Carter couldn't afford these expensive brand-name clothes and didn't care much for the unorganized dance moves associated with that look. This is when he began following MC Hammer, who was just coming onto the scene. Hammer had his own style of dressing and dancing. "I remember seeing MC Hammer, and I was like, 'Wow, there goes James Brown again,'" Carter said.
During his freshman year at Hayward, Carter formed a dance crew called Club Nu-Ho — for them, the word "ho" meant party, and the name was a reference to the band Club Nouveau. He meant for the crew to serve as a social club and fraternity alternative where members were not hazed and everyone was accepted. Each member had a nickname: There was Frosty Ho, Jamma Ho, Tally Ho, and Heavy Ho. Carter's name was King Ho after Run DMC's King of Rock. The crew started with a handful of members and grew to sixty or seventy guys. "We used to always hang out at this club called the Palladium in San Francisco," said Keir Abrams, one of Carter's oldest friends. "That was the hot spot, 'cause it was the only eighteen-and-over club." They'd show up to the club dressed in matching outfits: tight black biker shorts, red tops, and baseball hats that had their nicknames and "respect me" embroidered on them.
"Back then it was all about battling," or winning dance-offs against other dance crews, Carter recalled. "You would battle for your respect. I was always in the circle, going off, dancing and sweating." Dancing took his mind off the stresses in his life: being an eighteen-year-old dad, working to get good grades and earn an income. "When I'd go to the club, all that would disappear. I got to be the man for those three or four hours."
Carter also attended all the live hip-hop and R&B shows that toured through the Bay Area. At the time, most rappers just got on stage and prowled back and forth, but Carter's favorites were the acts that mixed dancing and rap, like Whodini and Salt-N-Pepa. New Edition was his ultimate favorite because the performers fully choreographed their shows and videos. "I would visualize myself up there and I would just enjoy the flow of the concert," Carter said.
New Edition, and particularly member Bobby Brown, proved influential on Carter's growing interest in a performing career. "A lot of what you see in Hammer came from that direct influence of Bobby Brown," Carter said. "Like, Bobby Brown was the first one to wear diaper pants," the peg-legged billowy baggy pants with a low crotch that MC Hammer made famous.
By then, Carter idolized MC Hammer. He began following the emcee wherever he performed. His devotion was soon rewarded; when MC Hammer signed his major record deal with Capitol Records, he chose Carter and two other Club Nu-Ho members to be extras in his video shoots. During one of the shoots, while waiting in the parking lot, Carter and his two partners began battling two other dance extras. When the music ended, one of the guys came over to talk to Carter. "You guys in a frat?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" asked Carter.
"You guys are doing Omega step," he said. "I'm a Kappa."
Even though they weren't in a fraternity, the Kappa liked that they were mixing fraternity step dancing into their routines. Traditionally done by black fraternities and sororities, step is a type of movement in which dancers use their entire bodies to generate tempo and sound, usually with loud stomping in rhythmic unison and handclaps. That night, out at the club, instead of battling against each other, they joined forces to become the dance crew that would back MC Hammer onstage for the next five years, Ho Frat Ho. The crew would create the dance style that epitomized the beginning of the 1990s.
Looking back at Alonzo Carter's early dancing days, it's clear to see he was already honing the skills that he now passes on to Oakland's young athletes: discipline, perseverance, and an appreciation for college culture. Very early in his coaching career, he realized that young players needed to have other skills to fall back on if their athletic careers fizzle out — which most do.
A few months after starting as a volunteer coach at McClymonds High School, Carter was offered an additional paid position as the track coach. A year later, by 1994, the school offered to pay him as football coach, too. He fully threw himself into coaching; his track team went from last to first in their league, and his football team went to the championships. But even as his kids excelled athletically, Carter felt like it wasn't enough. "Nobody had signed scholarships, and it bothered me," he said.
Although other schools' runners and players were getting signed to university teams, his equally talented kids weren't being recruited. When he'd ask other coaches why, he just got the same answer: "Well, you're McClymonds."
"And I was like, 'What the hell does that mean?'"
McClymonds deserved its reputation as a tough school. During and after games, players would pick fights against competing teams. "The theory was, we might lose the game, but we're gonna win the fight," Carter recalled. But it was also an athletic school. Its official motto is "School of Champions," and indeed, among McClymonds' alumni are professional basketball players Bill Russell and Paul Silas of the Boston Celtics, professional baseball player Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, and Olympic runner and gold medalist Jim Hines. When Carter started coaching he told his players, "Let's win the game; forget the fight."
More important, Carter was beginning to realize that as much as his kids needed athletic training, they also needed him to get involved in their lives off the field. While working in the music industry, Carter had made plenty of contacts, many of whom were also involved in sports because those two industries often intersect. One of those connections was Kelly Skipper, then a new football coach at Fresno State and now the running backs coach for the Oakland Raiders. Skipper told Carter that if he wanted to get kids into college, their academic records needed to be on point.
Carter took his advice and began focusing on his students' academic performance in 1995. He started by creating "course sheets" listing the players' grades for each class every semester. He laid out the numbers in a grid format so they could visually track their progress. "When you put it in black and white like that, the kids understand," he said. "Kids latch onto visuals."
The coach constantly monitored his player's grades and met with teachers and parents, all the while holding what he calls the "athletic carrot" over their heads. Under school district standards, kids who score below a 2.0 grade point average are no longer eligible to play. But Carter requires a 2.5. If players drop below that level, they have to give him daily progress reports on their grades. His mantra has become "If you can't give me the academics, we've got nothing to discuss athletically."
The first kid Carter helped win a full scholarship to play football graduated in 1996 and went to the University of Pennsylvania. "I was getting kids from West Oakland going to the Ivy League," he crowed. In 2000, Carter became head football coach, and by 2001, his football team had won its first league championship. But even more astonishing, seven of his players signed Division I scholarships that year — more than from any other school in Northern California. "That 2001 team put us on the map," he said. "And I became known as the guy who was selling hope."
Between 2000 and 2005, Carter had more than forty kids sign Division I scholarships. Just a few years earlier, college coaches wouldn't set foot in West Oakland because of their negative perceptions of the school. Now, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Miami, and other premier football schools began sending recruiters to McClymonds. This was unprecedented for a school with just 600 students.
It was the increase in his players' grades that brought in the university coaches. Over and over, Carter has seen kids with GPAs below 2.0 bring them up enough to get onto the honor roll. Sometimes it can be a tug-of-war between him and his players, but when teammates see each other excelling, it usually creates competition among them to get good grades. Carter calls this "positive peer pressure."
At first, players like Kyle Reed thought the focus on academics was annoying. Reed, a quarterback who graduated from McClymonds in 2005, has the physique one associates with football but an unexpectedly quiet demeanor. Before Reed started training with Carter, he recalls, he never took his education seriously and didn't think about going to college. "Coach Carter sat me down and said I had to choose either to go down the road where I'd be looking for a job and someone to employ me, or I'd take another road where I took my education seriously and tried to pursue bigger things," he said. Reed ended up on the honor roll in his junior and senior years, earned the elite All-American player status, and signed a scholarship to play at UC Berkeley — although he later transferred to San Jose State, where he started as quarterback last season.
Reed said Carter guided him through the process, making sure his grades were up and he was physically prepared for college recruiting and play. "It was really a key stepping stone into my future," Reed said. "I appreciate him for that, and he is one of the reasons of why I am who I am today." Now a sociology major, Reed also wants to work with kids in Oakland. "It's time for my generation to step up to the plate and try to make a difference," Reed said. "People who aren't as fortunate to have a Coach Carter in their lives. If there was more opportunity and more people magnifying the importance of education, we'd have less problems in the streets."
Carter also helps train his players for the NFL. This is how he met Nnamdi Asomugha, who he calls the "shut-down man." Asomugha was the roommate of one of Carter's former track runners while studying at UC Berkeley and is now a cornerback for the Oakland Raiders, the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history. "So many kids respond to him because he has a father-figure presence," Asomugha said. "He gets guys ready for the next level and is passionate about doing it. He doesn't do it for any notoriety. He helped me out of college get into the NFL and he did it out of the kindness of his own heart."
In the inner city, Carter believes that a lot of the young men have "tunnel vision" or "blinders," making it difficult for them to see their lives past high school. "It's my responsibility to take off the blinders and get them to see as big as they can," he said. If they follow his rules, go to practice, and study hard, he makes the recruiting process simple for them. "I send the coaches films, transcripts, and test scores," he said. "I'm using the power of my entertainment background. With visuals and videos you sell something. Well, my sell is academics."
When Ho Frat Ho arrived at the parking lot of the Anaheim concert arena at 10 a.m. one day in 1988, the dancers got ready for their first big performance with MC Hammer. Throughout the day as they practiced their routine in the parking lot — coordinating steps, working to move in perfect unison — the desolate lot began to fill with people coming to watch the show. Hammer had promised that they could dance the last two verses of "Let's Get It Started," but even he didn't know what their routine was going to be. Carter had bought black-and-white striped referee shirts, baggy black pants, and whistles from the Hayward campus store; he knew this was their one big chance to show MC Hammer and all of his fans who they were.
On their cue, the line Now, a lot of B-boys make 'em dance, Ho Frat Ho rushed onstage. "We came out blowin' whistles, stepping, we had on white gloves" Carter said. "We would do stuff hard, then on the hooks we would mix stuff that was catchy." Their style was energetic, heavy on the jumping and stomping, with exaggerated hand movements coordinated to a T. "We had a standing ovation from the crowd, and even Hammer paused and was like, 'What the hell?'" Carter recalled.
After the group served as extras during Carter's junior year of college, MC Hammer promoted them to dancers on his 1988 summer tour. By the end of that summer, Carter had dropped out of school to become MC Hammer's lead dancer and head choreographer. He danced in twelve music videos and was in the dance movie Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em: The Movie. As a group, Ho Frat Ho added to MC Hammer's dancing legacy by making everything as visual as possible, with the white gloves and exaggerated dance steps. Their most famous MC Hammer video was for "U Can't Touch This" — it marked the debut of the heel-to-toe sliding "Hammer Dance" (officially known as the "Chinese Typewriter").
This style of dancing required extreme conditioning and practice. Carter worked hard with his crew, acting as a fitness coach. But Ho Frat Ho wasn't ready for the strain of its first tour. "We practically almost died because of the stress of having to go out onstage and dance again every night," said Steve Reamer, formerly known as X Ho. When the tour ended, he recalled, "We said we really are going to have to take our cardio to a whole 'nother level." Which they did: They would wake up every morning at four o'clock, run six miles, and weight train. They practiced in the studio all day and performed at night.
Still, even with enhanced fitness, being stage dancers was a really tough gig. "Onstage, lights are 120 to 135 degrees, making the stage 85 to 90 degrees," Reamer said. "Fog machines prevent the intake of oxygen, and then you have the smoke machines." Performing their routine nearly 300 times a year took its toll on Ho Frat Ho. "Dancing at a perfect rate night after night and being onstage was difficult," Reamer said.
Nevertheless, Carter was determined to have the best dance group in the industry. "This all came out of Alonzo pushing us," Reamer said. "This guy's work ethic was unbelievable. ... We never lost any battles, we never lost any freestyles." Their success was all the more remarkable because Hammer's pop contemporaries — Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul — all used traditionally trained professional dancers. Yet MC Hammer was getting nominated for the same choreography awards. "We were guys coming from West Oakland and literally showing them up," Reamer said.
The group toured around the world and performed at the Grammys, at the American Music Awards, and on talk shows like Arsenio Hall and Oprah. The 1991 Grammys were the last show they performed with MC Hammer. That year, the members of Ho Frat Ho decided to become their own rap group. They signed a deal with Hammer's record label, but after they recorded a couple of singles, their contract wasn't renewed. In 1992, Carter decided it was time to go home.
"The music industry is a hard business — you're hot today, you're not hot tomorrow," Abrams said of his friend's decision. "I think he came to a point when he said, 'This music thing, this dancing thing, I had my ride, it was good, now I got to do something else. What am I gonna do?'"
Back in Oakland, Carter's mom was going through a tough time. His younger brother had been arrested, his older brother had joined the Army, and his sister was married and had her own children to deal with. It was on Carter's shoulders to take care of his mom and little brother while also being a father to his son.
Since Carter had dropped out of college to dance, he didn't have many career choices. After some soul-searching, he decided he wanted to work with kids. When he first started as a volunteer coach at McClymonds, Carter had a hard time being taken seriously; it was all MC Hammer jokes. "He was kinda phasing out 'cause gangsta rap was kicking in, and Dr. Dre and NWA were taking over," Carter recalled. He had to shake off the jokes and start getting the kids in gear to compete. He applied to coaching the same mentality he had with dancing — to be the best.
But that first year, his track team came in dead last. "We were the laughingstocks, cause everyone was like, 'That's the dude that danced with MC Hammer,'" he said. Carter got fed up with the constant teasing. "I was like, 'Know what? If I'm gonna be a coach, I'm gonna be the best coach. I don't want no reference to MC Hammer. I'm gonna be Coach Carter,'" he recalls. He wholeheartedly decided to leave his past as a backup dancer off the field. If anyone did start joking, Carter would say he didn't want to hear anything negative about Hammer, who Carter considered one of their own as an Oakland native and McClymonds grad.
Abrams saw him go through this struggle. "Watching him make that transition, humbling himself, starting at the bottom again," he said. "I'm sure it was hard for him, but he never cried about it." Carter just forged ahead — starting his own life over taught him how to help students think about their futures, too. He'd tell his players their situations couldn't be worse than his: "My mom was on drugs, my brother sold drugs, I'm a teenage dad, from the 'hood, from the streets, and I'm still here to tell you about it," Carter would tell them. "You can't sell me a boo-hoo sob story that I'm gonna go, 'Awww, poor so-and-so.' No, I don't wanna hear that."
Carter knew from his own history as a dancer that careers based on physical achievement can be short-lived — another of the many things the sports and entertainment industries have in common. His focus on academics stemmed from his conviction that young athletes should have something else to fall back on when their playing days are over.
These lessons stuck with players like Derrick Hill. A big guy who wears a diamond earring and has a kind smile, Hill graduated from McClymonds in 2006. He is the first and only kid from Oakland to play in the US Army All-American Bowl, a nationwide all-star high-school football game that selects players who excel in both playing football and academics. Like Reed, he also signed a scholarship to UC Berkeley. Even though his parents stressed the importance of academics, he says it helped to have the extra push from Carter. "Normally, when you associate academics with football, you think of players just doing enough to get by, but Coach Carter takes that academic thing more seriously," Hill said. "I've seen certain players who don't have that person in their ear telling them, 'Okay, you need to do this and that,' and they get put on academic probation or flunk out of college."
Hill still uses Carter's course sheets in his studies today, "'cause that formula is what works," he said. "That one sheet shows what you need to do academically and that itself gives you a format and a stepping stone to push and better yourself, and also gives you something to strive for." Hill is an African-American studies major at UC Berkeley and, like Reed, wants to eventually work in the community where he grew up. "If I give back, it might open the doors of opportunity for the next person," he said.
In 2006, when Hill graduated from McClymonds, Carter reached a major milestone in his coaching career: He topped his 2001 record and got nine players scholarships at Division-I schools. The following year, he had six more. In this two-year period, more kids from his team received scholarships than the total number of players an entire league normally signs. But these two years were also the last he'd coach at McClymonds.
Carter's one requirement for the school had always been that he'd be an on-campus coach. At McClymonds, Carter's day-job title was Physical Education Attendant, and after school he was the coach. Because he had the day job, he was always present. If a kid got in trouble, he knew; if a parent needed a phone call, he was there. He could help kids with schoolwork, with teachers, or with anything else they needed.
But the school officially wrote his job out of the budget at the end of the 2006 school year — the district required layoffs, and the administration didn't make his day job a priority in the new budget. The school offered to let Carter continue coaching but could no longer pay him to be the Physical Education Attendant. In order to continue coaching at McClymonds, Carter would have had to get a job elsewhere and commute to West Oakland in the afternoons. He didn't think that was fair to the kids.
Carter had already been laid off the last year he coached at McClymonds, but he kept it a secret and coached for free. "He kept going, and not even for money — he just enjoyed doing it," Abrams said. That year, McClymonds won the league championship, the Silver Bowl, and the Transbay Bowl, which was the first time an Oakland champion team played the San Francisco champion team. They won the Transbay game 72-14. "I knew that was gonna be my last game, and I cried, 'cause people didn't really know what I was holding inside," said Carter.
Shortly after that game, he received a call from Berkeley High School. The school's head coach was retiring, and they promised him an on-campus coaching job. Even though it was painful for Carter to leave his alma mater, he moved to Berkeley High, starting over once again.
Since Carter left, McClymonds' football team has gone from first place to last, winning only two games this past year. "And the saddest part, not even on record," Carter said, is that "not one kid signed a scholarship this year."
Up at Berkeley High last spring, Carter could be heard throughout the entire school yelling at his players. "Pick your damn feet up," he yelled at Lucas King, a senior linebacker, as King, a tall, slim guy with a freshly shaved buzz cut, did cancan kicks over hurdles. Even though it was late afternoon in the off-season, Berkeley High's football field was in full swing. Down on the AstroTurf, surrounded by bleachers, graffiti paintings, and images of the school's yellow-jacket mascot, there wasn't a lot of empty space. Several different sports teams were training: lacrosse, track, and cheerleading. Dozens of other students sat in the bleachers cracking jokes, flirting, and half-watching the athletes practice.
Carter was in one corner of the field with a handful of his players. Wearing a red-and-black Georgia Bulldogs tracksuit and a Yellow Jackets baseball hat, he closely scrutinized his players as they shuffled, hop'n'skipped, and twisted through the rungs of a rope ladder lying on the ground. To a bystander, these routines could just as easily have been dance practice as football training.
"Off-season is the toughest part," Carter said. "But I do my best work in the off-season." That's not only when he gets his kids in shape, but gets them really focusing on their grades. Two years ago, King was pulling a 1.5 GPA. This year, he was one of the top recruiting prospects in the Bay Area and received a scholarship to UC Berkeley starting this fall.
When Carter first came to Berkeley High, he saw King's athletic potential but didn't go easy on him. "It was a rough start, because I was a quarterback and he told me I couldn't throw," King said. Carter made King try out again for quarterback, then said he'd have to play defense instead. Even though King was dismayed, it turned out he was a lot better at defense.
But King's grades were lagging. "He sat right here with his mom, teary-eyed, and she said, 'What can we do?'" Carter recalled, "And I said, 'We gotta buckle down.'" Carter got King to go to extra study sessions in the library as well as night school, summer school, and junior college. Pretty soon King's grade point average was about 3.0. "He's taught us we can go to college for free, doing something we love," King said. "Most kids think their dream is to be in the NFL, but our dream is to go to college and get a degree."
During the two years Carter has been head coach at Berkeley High, eight players have signed to four-year colleges, the most in school history. The football team has also twice won the league championships, gone to the playoffs, and hosted a home game, all of which have not happened at Berkeley High for years. "The program has turned around in two years," Abrams said. "He runs this coaching thing like a corporation, and he works hard at the craft."
Wide receiver Morris Norrise was another player recruited from Berkeley High this year. He's slender and articulate, and has a big inviting smile. As a freshman, he had a 1.8 GPA; last year he earned a 4.0 and signed a full scholarship to Sacramento State. "With Coach Carter, you have to be a student athlete," he said. "You have to be as good off the field as on the field."
Reamer, Carter's friend from his dancing career, sees a direct correlation between Carter's King Ho days and now: "Whether you're dancing or coaching, repetition is everything," he said. Carter fixated on his dance practice and training until he had every step down to the millisecond, and as a coach, he puts in the same care and study. As King said, "He's dealt with stuff other coaches wouldn't. He has perseverance and he stuck with us."
Carter knows that in order to fully relate to his players, he needs to practice what he preaches. Today he is back in school at Contra Costa College, finally getting the bachelor's degree that he never finished. His story has come full circle.
On National Signing Day in February, all high school players offered scholarships sign letters of intent to play football at their chosen universities. Four or five kids fit at one signing table. Carter's goal for this school year is to have two tables of kids — ten altogether — signing scholarships. Recently, when Carter was training his players in the weight room, a junior came up to him and promised Carter that he would get those two tables.
"He said this just in the middle of working out, just out of nowhere," Carter said. "And I know what he was trying to say — we're in here working hard, we're working on our academics, and if you as a coach work just as hard, we're gonna give it back to you. We're gonna make your dream of two tables."
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