Carter family triumphs over adversity

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- About 40 people streamed onto the court at halftime of Texas A&M's game against Baylor for a dance competition. The JumboTron caught one woman smiling and laughing as she tried to master the Cha-Cha Slide. She didn't make the finals, cast aside as the last five went for the prize. She didn't seem to mind, giggling with her friends as they returned to their seats.

Told the next day his mother, Kamela, was part of the show. Josh Carter's eyes bugged as a smile spread wide across his face.

"She did? Oh my God, I'm glad I was in the back," the A&M senior laughed. "Really? She did? She was out there? I can't believe it."

Josh Carter smiles a lot when you ask him about his mother, smiles in wonder at her dance moves, but more in pride at the life she's created for herself.

There are two ways to look at the Carter family's history: You can zero in on the past, on the grave mistakes that sent Kamela to jail and bulldozed her boys into instant adulthood, or you can look at the present and toward the future: to the two boys who have graduated from college and the third who is headed that way, all three college basketball players; and to the woman who is a manager at the Kroger grocery chain but still knocking on doors in the hope of using her paralegal certificate, desperate to buy a house and assume the responsibilities of a mortgage.

Poet Robert Frost wrote, "Two roads diverged in a wood and I -- /I took the one less traveled by."

The Carters did the same. In the face of incredible challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the Carters didn't fall apart. They grew together.

It has made all the difference.

"It does amaze me," Kamela Carter said. "But really, my boys amaze me. They just amaze me."

Amazing. It's the perfect word to describe it all. Eight-plus years ago, the Carters' world unraveled. Kamela Carter left her grandmother's house at the age of 17, married and in short order had three sons: Kevin, Warren and Josh. Thirteen years later she was divorced, and though her ex-husband, Cedric, was then and still is very much involved in his boys' lives, Kamela found herself alone for the first time, alone with three boys to raise.

She says now she was more than scared and lonely; she was lost.

"Divorce is like a death," she said, talking openly on the sofa of her tidy Dallas apartment. "I was overwhelmed, and I started keeping company with the wrong sort of people. They made me feel good about myself."

Kamela discovered a man she was dating also had another girlfriend. Angry, she went on a rampage inside the woman's apartment. Charged with felony burglary in March, she violated her probation when she called the woman repeatedly that summer.

The boys initially thought she'd be home quickly, but Kamela was sentenced to two years and sent to Gatesville prison.

Kamela has spent portions of the past eight years finding a way to forgive herself. It doesn't come easily. She was raised by her grandmother; her parents weren't ever part of her life, so the minute she learned she was pregnant, she vowed she'd do a better job than her own mother.

Yet here she was, in a prison two-plus hours away from her children.

With the final push of childbirth comes a heavy dose of mother's guilt, and Kamela nearly drowned in her own.

"With what happened I sometimes feel like I wasn't a full mom or a perfect mom," Kamela, 44, said.

Lost in Kamela's self-recrimination is a bounty of evidence to the contrary. Whatever time and memories her incarceration might have cost her, it didn't undermine the values she and Cedric long before had instilled.

How else to explain what happened after that tear-filled horrific day when Kamela left for prison? Three boys, ages 17, 15 and 13, chose to live alone. At an age when the temptation of freedom lures at every corner, they never so much as nibbled it.

Raised to be independent out of necessity while Kamela worked, the boys simply did the chores they always did, toed the line they always toed. They just did it without their mother making sure they did.

"A strong-willed black woman can instill a lot in a bunch of guys," Kevin laughed. "No, we knew right from wrong. We knew what our mother would expect us to do."

For nearly a year only a handful of people even knew Kamela was gone. Determined to protect her -- "and we didn't want any pity treatment," Kevin said -- they got by with convenient fibs to explain her absences at their basketball games. Kamela was working; she was sick.

Robbed of much of their normalcy, the boys had vowed to keep something constant: their home, and more, their school district.

Years earlier Kamela had sent the boys to a local rec center to keep them safe while she worked late. The oldest, Kevin, now 25, found basketball first, but before long all three boys were doing whatever they could to play some hoops. A seven-hour stay at the rec center while Kamela worked, a pickup game at a police station, even a tree with a convenient loop that could double as a hoop was good enough for a game.

Soon coaches and adults were telling Kamela that her kids were more than just decent rec ball players, expectations borne out when Kevin headed to Texas A&M-Commerce, Warren grew into a steady performer at Illinois and Josh turned into the best 3-point shooter in A&M school history.

"That's why Josh shoots so well," Kevin explained. "He had to shoot over us. He wasn't getting anything easy inside."

If basketball wasn't the glue that held the boys together when Kamela went to prison, it certainly was the prize they fought for. Kevin was about to begin his senior season at Lake Highlands High School when Kamela headed to Gatesville, hardly the time to relocate and start over.

Together the boys decided they would stay home and manage on their own. Kevin, an old soul, was called "Daddy" as a kid, so when the time came he simply morphed into the role. He took a job as a grocery clerk to get some extra cash and managed his mother's savings to pay the bills.

"He was probably the best of all of us," Josh said. "But he didn't play AAU ball or any of that because he had to take care of us. He really sacrificed for us."

It was a semblance of normalcy in an abnormal existence. Warren, who was always at his mother's elbow in the kitchen, became the cook. Josh, too little to do much, became the gopher, handling much of the grocery shopping.

Kamela wrote letters almost every day, ordering them to stay strong and not fight her fight. The only way she could stay sane, she realized, was to mentally separate her two lives. So while Kamela thought about her children constantly, she learned to compartmentalize them, as well.

But it still took a toll on everyone. Josh remembers one visit in particular -- "She must have lost 30 pounds, just a bag of bones," he said -- and remembers regularly locking himself in the bathroom after her phone calls.

It was hard coming back. I'm thinking I'm coming home to the boys I left, and instead I'm coming home to men. We had to get used to each other again. It took some time. They were so mature and they were used to doing things a certain way and here's Mom telling them what to do.

--Kamela Carter

"I'd just cry," he said. "I'm a mama's boy and I was young. I really didn't understand what was going on."

The boys' arrangement grew complicated after Kevin graduated from high school. He earned a scholarship to Division II Texas A&M-Commerce, an hour's ride away. Cedric Carter wanted to bring Warren and Josh to live with him, but he had moved away with his family, and Warren, heading into his junior season, and freshman-to-be Josh were just as adamant about staying at Lake Highlands.

Cathey and Gene Roberts, longtime family friends, agreed to become Warren and Josh's legal guardians so they could remain in their school district. Cedric briefly fought but Kamela argued back, petitioning the judge to interview the boys. Not wanting to upset his children any further, Cedric eventually backed down and Josh and Warren moved in with the Robertses.

The couple did more than just take them in; they put an addition on their home so both they and the Roberts' two boys could have their own rooms. When Josh comes home to Dallas on school breaks now, he's as apt to stay with the Roberts as with his mother.

In August 2003, Kamela finally was released. All three boys drove to Gatesville to bring her home.

"It was hard coming back," she said. "I'm thinking I'm coming home to the boys I left, and instead I'm coming home to men. We had to get used to each other again. It took some time. They were so mature and they were used to doing things a certain way and here's Mom telling them what to do."

Not long after Kamela got home, Warren was leaving. A two-time all-state player, he had caught the eye of a young Illinois assistant by the name of Billy Gillispie. His role with the Illini would grow steadily over the years, and by his senior season Warren averaged 13.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

Two years later Gillispie tapped the Carter family well again. By then the head coach at A&M, he offered lifelong Aggies fan Josh a scholarship.

Gillispie would move on to Kentucky two years later but his replacement, Mark Turgeon, was every bit as happy to have Josh on board.

"I remember when I was at Wichita State I watched him and I said, 'We have to get Josh Carter'," Turgeon said. "He was a good player out of high school. Not a great player, but he was such a great kid."

Quiet and independent -- a by-product, he says, of spending so much time as a kid alone -- Josh has emerged as a leader for the Aggies. Turgeon says he's stubborn, "but stubborn in a good way," the kind who has such confidence in himself and his abilities that he's willed and worked himself into a great player.

Josh has never talked to Turgeon about his family's backstory, but the coach said he can see it in his player's strength of character.

"When coaches lose they think the world is coming to an end," Turgeon said. "After I'm done berating them I'll turn to Josh and say, 'What do you think?' He'll say, 'Hey guys, we're OK. Let's just do what Coach says and we'll get this.' He's so mature and so grounded. I also think he's very driven -- driven to do the right thing in his life because he saw what happened to someone he loved that didn't."

It's a stunning accomplishment, really. Most families are happy to send one child to college to play a sport. The Carters, despite the odds pyramided against them, sent all three. Kevin has graduated and is now a loan officer with an insurance firm. Warren, too, has received his degree and has played in Europe. After toying with the NBA last year, Josh remained at A&M, where he is the leading scorer and headed toward a degree in community health.

More stunning is Kamela. Within six months of being released from prison, she had a job, no easy task with a felony conviction on your résumé. Kroger hired her as a cashier. Six years later, she's worked her way to manager.

Within a year of her release she had an apartment.

And not long after, she earned her paralegal certificate. Her interest in law piqued by the brief custody suit, she spent 18 months going to class in the daytime and to work at night.

Her lone frustration is her inability to put that certificate to work. Law firms have been hesitant to hire her because of the felony conviction. She was told she could pay to have it expunged from her record, but refuses.

"Didn't I already do that?" she said. "They told me if I did the time my slate was wiped clean. I did that, so I already have paid. Besides, it's part of who I am. I honestly don't think I could be the woman I am today without all of that. Now I wish I didn't have to go through all of it, but I'm the woman I am because of it.

"And I'm proud of the woman I am now."

She's not alone.

"Oh, I don't know if you can even write how proud I am of her," Kevin said. "I'm not sure there are enough words to say it. How can you say how proud you are of someone you love who made a mistake but didn't let it stop her?"

Last week Kamela made the three-hour drive to College Station to watch Josh play. She tries to get to a game a week when she can get off from work.

On this particular night the Aggies pulled off an upset of rising rival Baylor. Josh had 15 points, rebounding from a 0-for-7 night against Oklahoma State.

Kamela wore an understated pink A&M T-shirt. She used to wear Josh's jersey but didn't like the camera finding her in the stands, robbing the attention from Josh.

No, she'd prefer her JumboTron minutes a little differently, with a contented smile and the Cha-Cha Slide.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.