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Long college journey finally paying off for Hartford's Traci Carter

03/18/2021, 9:30am EDT
By Christy Selagy

Traci Carter dribbles a basketball

Traci Carter (above) had a long path to wind up a key player at Hartford. (Photo: Hartford Athletics/Steve McLaughlin)

Christy Selagy (@ChristySelagy)

Playing in your first March Madness game is a big moment for any player. When it’s the first time in program history the team has made the Big Dance? That just makes it even better.

For Hartford point guard Traci Carter, Friday’s matchup between his Hartford Hawks and Baylor (3:30 PM, TruTV) is much more than just his and Hartford’s NCAA Tournament game. It's more than the culmination of a six-year college hoops career. Being in Indianapolis is affirmation he was right his hard work would pay off, right not to quit basketball, right to transfer to Hartford.

“What I believe is God, or whoever you want to believe in, the universe, whatever you want to say, tests you,” Carter said. “It tests you and says, ‘Oh you love basketball? You love this person? You love that person? Show me you love them. I’m gonna put you through everything possible to make you quit.’ You have to be willing to not quit and then you’ll come on top.”

Carter has certainly been tested throughout his college hoops career, which started in the 2015-16 season. He’s played 30-plus games with three Division I teams. He’s redshirted two seasons. He’s thought about quitting. He won’t pretend he’s always had the answer.

But now, he’s part of the America East Championship team, and, on Friday, he’ll be playing in the biggest event in college hoops.

“If you’re ever around Traci his confidence is eternal,” said Hartfod head coach John Gallagher. “He’s one of the more special people I’ve ever coached… Traci is like almost in our family. He’s a part of the Gallagher family and he’s a part of the Hartford family.”

A Philly native, Carter spent his first two high school years at Roman Catholic before transferring to Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J., where he played for former NBA center Pervis Ellison.

The first hitch in Carter’s college basketball plan came the summer after his junior year of high school. After he tore his meniscus, he had to sit out the AAU season and stopped hearing from colleges.

Carter was able to play his senior season, and a double-double in a Hoophall Classic game against an Orangeville Prep squad that featured future NBA player Thon Maker was enough to catch Marquette’s attention. The coaching staff reached out to Carter, who hadn’t known much about the Milwaukee school prior to that.

“(After they contacted me,) I was just checking out their staff,” Carter said. “They had all guards, so I knew there was no other place for me to go to get better at… That was really intriguing to me for my growth.”

For the 6-foot-1 guard with NBA aspirations, a staff consisting of guys like Steve Wojciechowski (Duke), Brett Nelson (Florida), and Travis Diener (Marquette), it seemed like the perfect fit.

Carter immediately liked the campus and the city of Milwaukee—it sort of reminded him of Temple and Philly, he said. He even went to see family friend and La Salle great Rasual Butler play against the Bucks, though that came at the expense of meeting Marquette players.

“I actually didn’t get to spend any time with the team on my visit, and I still committed, which is crazy, right?” Carter said. “Just got a good vibe from the school in general, the coaching staff, and Milwaukee.”

Carter fit in with the team right away his first season, and sees many of his former teammates as family. Things went pretty well on the court, too. Transitioning to college ball is difficult for anyone, but Carter led the team in assists (153) and averaged 5.4 points in 23.9 minutes per game.

Things started to go downhill the following season. Carter had been trying to cope with the death of a friend and felt pressured to find a way to move his family away from the violence they faced in Philly. His playing time was dwindling and he felt like he had fewer and fewer opportunities to prove himself.

Traci Carter dribbles a basketball

Carter (above) as a sophomore at Roman Catholic in 2012-13 against Martin Luther King in the District 12 AAAA championship game. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

“I made a quick decision to leave (in the middle of the season) without having a school to go to because I was just so distraught that my college career wasn’t going nothing like I had planned it to go,” Carter said.

Carter is close friends with another La Salle great,Donnie Carter, and the two had previously discussed what Carter should do if he ever needed to transfer. The answer was always heading home to Philly, so Carter decided to transfer to La Salle.

After sitting out the 2017-18 season due to the NCAA transfer rule and only playing in eight games the season before that, it was tough for Carter to get back in the swing of things.

Further complicating that was La Salle’s coaching change. John Gianinni was head coach when Carter transferred to La Salle. But in March 2018, La Salle fired Giannini and hired Ashley Howard a few weeks later.

Carter knew and liked Howard, so he figured La Salle would still be a good fit. That wasn’t the case, though, as it wound up being “one of the worst years of my life,” according to Carter. The Explorers got off to an 0-10 start for the 2018-19 season, and Carter felt like he was constantly clashing with Howard over his playing style. The only upside was that Carter’s friends and family could easily come see him play.

Carter was so frustrated, he was considering quitting basketball; a friend had to talk him into sticking with the game he once loved.

“When you come from where I come from, you solely depend on basketball,” Carter said. “You don’t know anything else about yourself. You don’t know how good you can be off the court. You don’t know what your interests are. You just know you’re good at basketball and you’ve got a chance with basketball. It’s … frustrating when something you put everything into your whole life starts to diminish and is not being made out to what you thought it would be.”

Carter earned his bachelor’s degree from La Salle in 2019 and knew he needed to leave Philly for his graduate degree. Carr had previously been the coordinator of player development at Hartford, and thought Gallagher’s coaching style would be a good fit for Carter.

Basketball wasn’t Carter’s main focus, though. Sure, he would use his remaining eligibility, and he would try his hardest, but he wasn’t thinking about playing professionally anymore. He was more interested in restoring his confidence and exploring the business world connections Gallagher, who is also from Philly, had.

“We definitely have a bond, definitely connected other than we say ‘woo-der.’ We don’t say ‘wah-ter.’ The Philly thing is more he was comfortable with me,” Gallagher said. “When I first got him, I just said, ‘Look, you just have to get back the love of the game.’ And whatever twists and turns we have in life, if passion's not a part of our life, nothing is enjoyable, nothing. And he got the passion back and you can see it in his play.”

Traci Carter holds a basketball

Carter (above) will be playing in his first March Madness game after starting his college career six season ago. (Photo: Hartford Athletics/Steve McLaughlin)

In his first season at Hartford, Carter finished with then-career highs in points, assists, rebounds, and steals per game. Things continued to click for him this season, as he was named to the America East Second Team and All-Defensive Team. Through 23 games, he’s averaged 11.7 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.2 rpg, and 2.6 spg. He’s shooting 40.1% from the floor and 37.3% from beyond the arc, both of which are his best marks for a full season.

But more important than those numbers is that his confidence is back, which Carter credits Gallagher for.

“The mature part of me and knowledge of self allowed me to play the way I’m playing and have confidence in the way I’m playing, along with the confidence (I've gotten) from Coach Gal,” Carter said. “Confidence is everything. They say coaches can’t give you confidence. That’s the biggest lie ever. Coaches can definitely give a player confidence.”

Carter could play another season of college ball, thanks to the NCAA’s blanket eligibility waiver on this season. A seventh year in the college basketball world isn’t really on Carter’s mind, though. He knows what his next steps are.

He’s going to finish his master’s degree, and then he’s going to focus on expanding his nonprofit, Anchors Camp, which aims to help underprivileged youths discover how they can succeed in life.

And as for the immediate future? Carter is totally focused on preparing for March Madness, finally getting his moment to shine and show how his hard work paid off.

“I worked my butt off,” Carter said. “To know that it’s paying off now is amazing. I had people tell me when I was transferring … ‘What are you going to do, play D2?’ … To know that we made it here, we made it to the tournament, won a championship and to know I was a huge part of that, it’s a huge, huge, huge amplifier to your hard work paid off.”

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