"H.Can I play? "asked the skinny, pug-haired teen at the side of the yard. The group of 20 were day teachers and small business owners, but they took their nightly pickup basketball games seriously. They wondered who the skinny boy was and why he was safe with them to keep up with them.
The older players let the boy join in, thinking he would soon find his way out of his depths. But 14-year-old Alex Caruso could hang and more.
Years later, after seeing Caruso's success with the LA Lakers, the pickup players joked that they taught him everything he knows in that square three doors down where he grew up. You weren't the first to underestimate the NBA's unlikely cult hero, and you certainly wouldn't be the last.
When Caruso arrived at Texas A&M University early in his freshman year, Johnny Manziel was a superstar on campus. The quarterback was just the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. He earned national prestige and got the masses to watch his movements in College Station in Texas.
A football-focused college – A & M's Kyle Field has a capacity of 102,733 – while in a football-obsessed state, Caruso's recruitment in the shadow of Manziel caused little stir.
Even within A & M's basketball program, Caruso wasn't the headline. This award went to J-Mychal Reese. When he was in sixth grade, Reese starred alongside two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash in a TV commercial – "J-Mychal Reese?" Nash said in the ad. "I named my dog after him" – and for a long time had been counted among the best prospects in the country.
Caruso was born and raised just a stone's throw from A&M, where both of his parents worked for 30 years – his father Mike as a sports administrator and mother Jackie in human resources and public health school. Reese was from neighboring Bryan, and the pair regularly competed in high school: Caruso's A&M Consolidated versus Reese's Bryan High in battles known as the cross-town showdown.
"Someone said," This is J-Mychal Reese. He's the best sixth grader in the country, ”recalls Mike Caruso, who was a good college point guard at Creighton University in his youth. “He was very talented.
“When Bryan was playing College Station, you had to pre-order tickets. They would share the gym – everything was maroon on one side and blue on the other. "
Hours in the local park or working on his shot with Dad – an 88% college free throw shooter – in the driveway helped Caruso develop an anticipation and a feel for the game beyond his years. But it wasn't until his junior year of high school, aided by a 5-inch growth spurt, that he began to attract his own national attention.
"He loved everyone," recalls Richard Law, who coached Caruso with the D1 Ambassadors, an AAU club in Houston. "I called all the coaches I knew and Max Ivany [the club's founder] called all the coaches he knew and before we knew it everything went to where he started his recruitment."
Caruso's parents calculated that he had traveled 32,000 miles in his senior year playing AAU basketball. His performances with the Ambassadors secured an invitation to the prestigious Pangos All-American Camp in California. From there he was selected for the NBA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Despite other scholarship offers, he would most likely choose Texas A&M. Caruso had followed A&M basketball for most of his life and had played every home game for five years while his father was game manager. He would try to mimic the moves of former Aggies point guard Acie Law, and he even served as the ball boy.
"He was probably the worst ball boy in America," laughs former A&M player Logan Lee. “Absolutely the worst. That's because he'd grab a rebound and work on the baseline on his ball handling. He would start dribbling and acting like he was playing ball outside on the court.
“But he's the only ball boy who never made the wrong pass. If someone shot a ball and it went through the net, they wouldn't give us passes. "
In the end, it came down to choosing between A&M and the University of Colorado. "Can I call her?" One afternoon Caruso texted his father. "I think I am ready to choose." Mike Caruso had no idea which way his son was leaning. He left his office and sought the privacy of the stairwell to take the call. He was ready to support Alex's decision one way or another, but still nervous.
Caruso chose home. He chose the shadow of Manziel and Reese. He opted for the basketball program, which was often retrofitted by the school's fixation on football. He chose A&M and supported himself to overcome anything.
I can control what I can control, is the often repeated motto of Caruso. I can't control anything else. I have to put myself in the best position to do what I can.
The phrase that comes up again and again when Caruso is discussed with those who have played with him or followed his career is "sneaky sporty".
At an AAU tournament in Denver when he was 16, Caruso tried to get revenge after Thomas Richardson, son of former NBA player Michael Ray Richardson, tried to get involved with him.
"The next time he had the ball, Alex didn't take the key from the top, but not far from it, and just pounded it on this kid," recalls Ivany. "The whole building went crazy." It was similar when the D1 ambassadors played against an Australian U19 team. "He rebounded, got it back on the three-dot line, turned it and popped it on a 6-10 kid," says Law.
Caruso continued to delight the college crowds. The most memorable example was a game against Ole Miss. After catching a theft, the Aggies point guard raced onto the court, spun the ball behind his back, and rose to dive over former SEC tournament MVP Marshall Henderson.
Alex Caruso is known for his dunks Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today Sports
The hometown guard's fondness for the spectacle helped draw the crowd into A&M's 12,989-seat Reed Arena, but it was the defensive instincts and competitiveness that were shown in his Ole Miss Dunk that made the Caruso most popular with his coaches and teammates.
"He's always been a fun player because he plays so hard," says former A&M head coach Billy Kennedy. “He's giving up his body. He takes responsibility and does things to help you win. As a coach, you love people who are about winning first, not their individual stats. "
The physical strain Caruso was ready to endure was characterized at the SEC tournament in Atlanta in his sophomore year. A slipped finger on his left hand exposed a bone to his skin, forcing him back into the locker room during the first half of a game. Caruso instructed the attending doctor to mend him; he went back for the second half.
"He wanted to play and played the rest of the game," says John Thornton, a retired college player and friend of the Caruso family, who commented on the game. "He hasn't even hit an eye. That tells you how tough he is."
The defining moment of Caruso's college career was his senior year in the 2016 NCAA tournament, with SEC Champion Aggies trailing north Iowa by 12 points 34 seconds to go. "Everyone said," Well, it's been a nice season. Looks like it's going to end, ”recalls Mike Caruso. "But none of the players thought that way."
Danuel House, now with the Houston Rockets, might have scored more points, but it was Caruso who drove A & M's miraculous comeback. The Aggies tied the game and secured a place in the Sweet 16 after double overtime.
"The thing that gave us a chance was to put the ball in Alex's hands," says Kennedy. “We had the biggest comeback in the history of the NCAA tournament. Alex was a big part of it. He just kept playing no matter how far back we were. "
"Without Alex Caruso, you can't beat Northern Iowa 14-2 in 34 seconds," adds Gabe Bock, who reports on A&M-Sport in his role as presenter for TexAgs Radio. "You don't have the feeling that without Alex Caruso you even have a chance of being in this position."
Caruso was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year by CBS Sports in his senior year and became the Aggies' all-time leader in assists and steals. Reese was with A&M for only a year and a half and was fired for violating the sports department's rules. And Caruso had been in the NBA longer than Manziel, a first choice for the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 draft, survived in the NFL.
"If you had asked 1,000 Aggies this year," says Bock, "it would be 1,000 to zero in favor of Johnny Manziel if you asked them who the better athlete would be."
“[Caruso] has never scored an average of 10 points per game at A&M, not once. But there is no doubt that he was A & M's heart and soul, MVP. "
Caruso worked for multiple teams prior to the 2016 NBA draft and was hoping to be selected, perhaps late in the second round. When his name wasn't mentioned, it wasn't so much that he got discouraged from his NBA dream. He just didn't know where to turn next.
But he stayed positive, kept working, and controlled what he could control.
Soon an offer came from Oklahoma City Blue, the subsidiary of Thunder & # 39; s G League.
"He was a newcomer, but he could pick it up very quickly, find people in the right places and lead a team," recalls Kameron Woods, a former Caruso teammate in OKC. “It took two weeks at the training camp before everyone said, 'We'll ride and die with this guy at point guard. Our results will depend on how he performs. "
Caruso orchestrated, encouraged, or calmed his teammates, depending on what the situation required. His unusual habit of taking out his mouthpiece and dropping his shorts to his ankles to pull his jersey back during a break in tense games was a bizarre comfort to his peers, a comforting piece of stupidity. "OK, this moment is clearly not too big for him," you would think.
"He was already an NBA-capable player," says Dez Wells, another OKC teammate. “For him it was just an opportunity. He was good enough to be an NBA player from that point on. "
That opportunity wouldn't come with the Thunder – it was released at the end of the 2016-17 G League season – but a bigger shot was around the corner.
Caruso was drafted by the Lakers for the 2017 Summer League as a substitute for Lonzo Ball. When an injury knocked Ball out of a game against the Sacramento Kings, Caruso seized the opportunity he had longed for. The day after an impressive performance guarded by De & # 39; Aaron Fox, the Kings electric point guard, the once-overshadowed Aggie signed a two-way contract at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Las Vegas, where the Lakers were staying. That meant he would play for the Lakers' Gakers daughter in South Bay but could be called up to LeBron James and Co for the entire season.
Two years later, his unique combination of thinning hair, pasty complexion and devious sportiness made Caruso – or, as he was called, "The Carushow" – a cult figure at the Staples Center.
"I knew LA wouldn't change Alex Caruso a bit," says Bock. “But I was curious if Alex Caruso would change LA. They clung to him. "
Caruso signed a two-year deal with the Lakers for $ 5.5 million last year, but fame and fortune don't go well with the 26-year-old who spends his free time watching reruns of The Office, playing or watching video games watch his beloved Manchester City in the Premier League. The 15-foot mural of him that artist Gustavo Zermeno Jr. painted on the side of a sports shop in LA will take some time to get used to. as well as the looks when he brings friends to the local California Pizza Kitchen.
Its vocal online critics argue that Caruso would not attract such attention if he was black, but even his doubters must respect the way he got his celebrity status to help others. When Igloo approached him to launch a carushow ice box, he insisted that all profits go to the CDC Foundation's Coronavirus Response Fund. And he's been running a basketball camp in College Station for the past two summers. "Hey, if I can do it, you can," he tells the teenage participants. "I was in your shoes."
While warming up to a street game against the Chicago Bulls in January 2018, Caruso paused and looked up at the United Center mezzanine. There he saw the TNT broadcast crew – Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith – and gave himself a moment of quiet reflection.
"Yes," he said to himself. "I think I'm really here."