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Michael Carter-Williams fueled by doubt of others

Michael Carter-Williams, who many thought may have a chance to play Division 3, instead helped Syracuse reach the Final Four.

kevin c. cox/getty images

Michael Carter-Williams, who many thought may have a chance to play Division 3, instead helped Syracuse reach the Final Four.

Flames licked at the vinyl paneling and the plywood boxed around a stovepipe. They crept skyward, toward scattered clouds hung late in the frigid North Shore night.

Finally, near the roof of the two-story Colonial home in Hamilton, they found a way inside.

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Christmas ornaments, family photos, and more were collecting dust in the attic, but the fire was blind to heirlooms that measured Michael Carter-Williams’s family through time. It saw only fuel.

Quickly, the flames swept into his upstairs bedroom, where they devoured the game jerseys in his closet that his mother had planned to frame: the one from the McDonald’s All-American Games, from the Jordan Brand Classic. Others, too. Gone.

But the flames also destroyed a nondescript piece of paper taped to the wall above the desk near the point guard’s bed, one that hung there for the past six years.

It was an evaluation that he received at a basketball camp the summer heading into his freshman year of high school.

It indicated that Michael Carter-Williams wasn’t fit to play at a school such as Syracuse, where, as a sophomore, he helped lead the Orange to the Final Four last season.

And, therefore, it indicated that the NBA was a fantasy at best, one that will, in fact, become reality, as he’ll be a likely lottery pick in the draft on Thursday.

You see, at that point, what the coaches who evaluated Carter-Williams saw was not a player whose basketball future held promise.

They instead saw a player who, if he worked really hard the next few years, might have a chance to make it at some small college — a Division 3 school, to be specific.

Doubt is a roadblock, forcing a pause, often a change of direction. But a few charge through and drag it along, as a reminder, the one thing they’ll never leave behind.

“Pretty upset” is how Carter-Williams described his reaction when that paper was handed to him. But know that he took it personally — “I know he took it personal,” said his stepfather, Zach Zegarowski — and so he posted it on the wall.

Rare was the day when he didn’t read it again just to boil his blood. If he didn’t want to work out, go to practice, he glared at it, and then off he went, doubt in tow.

Born leader

In the backyard, between the house and a dark gray barn, two metal baskets bookend a full blacktop court that looks worn.

Its white painted lines — baselines, sidelines, half-court line, 3-point line, free throw line — have lost their new-coat shine. Up to six basketballs litter nearby grass.

But basketball had Michael Carter-Williams in its clutches from the start.

His father, Earl Williams, played at Salem State in the late 1980s. His mother, Mandy, coaches girls’ basketball in Ipswich, and brought her son to games when he was 2 years old.

And his stepfather, Zegarowski, played four years at UMass-Lowell and spent 10 years as an assistant at Charlestown High, during which time the team won four straight state titles. Carter-Williams started jumping in the Townies’ practices at age 10.

He played point guard — and that version of the position in other sports, too.

From second to seventh grade, he was a catcher, and his Little League team came close to reaching Williamsport, Pa., site of the World Series.

Through that same stretch of time, he played quarterback. He was so in tune with the game that his coach once remarked it was like having another coach on the field.

He learned plenty from playing captain-like positions in three sports. “It helped me organize my teams to help me become a better leader,” he said.

He stood 5 feet 9 inches as a freshman in high school, and believed he’d grow no more.

And then he started growing, up to 6-6 in sneakers. Mike Hart, the coach at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington, R.I., spotted Carter-Williams around 2008, and it conjured up memories of another tall, lanky point guard Hart witnessed in the mid-1990s.

“You remember Shaun Livingston?” Hart soon told one of his assistant coaches.

The 6-7 Livingston possessed rare size and wizardry with the ball. It was heresy, but some cast him in the same light as another tall point guard, Magic Johnson. Livingston was drafted out of high school in 2004, taken fourth overall by the Clippers.

Yes, the assistant coach said. Why?

“Well, he’s in the North Shore of Boston,” Hart continued.

Though a colossus for his position, Carter-Williams played as if he were a half-foot shorter. But size aside, he didn’t really stand out.

He left no impression on Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins when Carter-Williams attended a basketball camp at the college as a high school sophomore.

But a summer later, Hopkins heard that Carter-Williams starred at another camp.

“Who?” Hopkins asked the tipster.

“Hop,” he was told, “he was at your elite camp, you idiot.”

Hopkins then saw him play on the Boston Amateur Basketball Club team coached by Leo Papile.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” Hopkins said. “He was running ball screens, he was shooting, he was slashing, he was creating plays, he was competitive.”

“People thought he wasn’t a point guard, but he was,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He was quick and good with the ball. He was a leader on his AAU team and his high school team. It was a no-brainer, I thought.”

The main knock: too skinny, at a rail-thin 175 pounds. Hart said that scared other schools, even as Carter-Williams piled up wins and points at St. Andrew’s, became a five-star recruit, and the first McDonald’s All-American from a Rhode Island school.

“His Ichabod Crane-like physique definitely wasn’t appealing,” Papile said, “but I think anybody with foresight could see that he was a boy and that he would develop.”

Syracuse didn’t waver, but Carter-Williams played little as a freshman, buried on the depth chart behind Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, and Dion Waiters. However, Boeheim said, Carter-Williams never sulked. He studied.

“And my second year,” the guard said, “I took everything I learned and applied it.”

Said, Boeheim, “He just took over the team.”

The Orange advanced to the Final Four and Carter-Williams finished fifth nationally in assists (7.3), fourth in steals (2.8), and averaged 11.9 points and a team-best 35.2 minutes.

Although this year’s draft is considered weak, an NBA executive said Carter-Williams could be one of its “top five talents.”

“He’s got that kind of ability if he can put it together with that size and feel and vision,” the executive added.

Carter-Williams is talked of as a leader, which he showcased even during a school production of “Aladdin,” when he organized others to make sure they all had the timing down.

His shot, though, is a question mark. “He shoots it different every time,” a veteran NBA scout said, adding that Carter-Williams’s defense is also suspect.

He has, however, bulked up, and he weighed 184 at the Chicago draft combine.

But, as Zegarowski said, Carter-Williams wasn’t an NBA prospect from Day 1.

“I know the people closest to him didn’t see it coming,” Zegarowski said, “so I don’t know how anyone outside of that network could see it coming.”

Including Carter-Williams. It wasn’t until college, when he was practicing and beating future NBA players, that, he said, “I knew I had a chance.”

He added, “I was always under the radar. I always had something to prove.”

Which perhaps has fueled him as much as anything. Bad games leave him sleepless, aching to return to the court to tweak any mistakes.

“He’s got a baby face,” Zegarowski said, “but inside, he burns, he burns, he burns.”

Family devastated

It started around 10 p.m. EDT. Carter-Williams, his mother, and sister were in San Jose as the Orange played California in the NCAA Tournament.

Back in Hamilton, six friends and family members had gathered to watch the game in the living room of the 2,500-square-foot home.

After the smoke alarm sounded for the second time, Zegarowski checked the basement. Smoke. He checked outside. More smoke, around the base of the chimney.

Soon, the paved road that bobs up and down and turns to dirt on the western end was clogged with nearly a dozen fire trucks, including eight from nearby towns.

About 40 firefighters battled the flames. Kirby Brand is coming up on 35 years with the Hamilton Fire Department, and he called it the most stubborn fire he’s ever seen.

Twice he ordered the crews to back off because the fire had them overmatched.

“And I’m not a deputy who pulls guys out of a building,” said the deputy fire chief.

Zegarowski phoned Mandy, who sat in the stands in San Jose, crying as the house built on land owned by her grandfather for more than 50 years burned down.

On the court, Carter-Williams could tell something was wrong. He learned after the game. Thankfully, no one was injured. The family is renting in Ipswich for now.

“It’s definitely been tough,” Mandy said, “but it’s brought our family close together and we’ve seen how wonderful the community is, and that’s been great.”

What remains is scheduled to be torn down. And somewhere, maybe in the damp ash, is that paper, the evaluation. It’s gone, but Michael Carter-Williams carries that doubt still, dragging it along, the one thing he’ll never leave behind.

Baxter Holmes can be reached at baxter.holmes@globe.com.
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