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"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.
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