WASHINGTON — The timing awful. The news was worse.
There was no way Mandy Carter-Zegarowski could bring herself to tell her son. Not in the middle of a tournament game. No matter how many times he asked.
But she kept getting up, leaving her seat and coming back. She was 10 rows up from the Syracuse bench, and Michael Carter-Williams could see it in her face.
“She was crying,” Carter-Williams said. “She was really upset.”
They were in San Jose. The Orange were trying to fight off a California team that refused to wave the flag after falling behind as much as 13 in the first half. Carter-Williams was playing in just his second NCAA Tournament game as a starter and he was working on a 12-point, three-assist night.
Carter-Zegarowski didn’t want him to know what was happening back at their home in Hamilton, Mass.
But she couldn’t keep the worry off her face.
“It definitely affected him,” she said.
In the middle of one timeout, Carter-Williams kept mouthing to her, “What’s wrong?”
Trying to compose herself, she shook her head and said, “Nothing.”
She got up again, went to a lounge in the back of the HP Pavillion just to clean off her face and try to gather herself.
Eventually, two Syracuse administrators, sent by Orange assistant Mike Hopkins after Carter-Williams again asked what was going on, came up to her.
She told them, “My house is burning down right now.”
Her husband, Zach Zegarowski, was there watching Carter-Williams’s game with his stepbrothers Maxwell and Marcus. The word was already spreading on social media. Posts and pictures were already on Twitter. That was how Carter-Williams’s stepsister, Masey, found out.
But Carter-Zegarowski didn’t want such a catastrophic distraction to grab Carter-Williams at such an important moment.
So she told them, “Tell Michael my father’s not doing well. I had a bad night and that nothing’s wrong.”
She figured it sounded believable enough to get Williams through the game. They did. He played. The Orange hung on for a 66-60 win that sent them to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years.
But the worry still lingered.
“It was upsetting at the time,” Carter-Williams said. “I was a little distracted. But I knew I had to keep going and close the game out.”
Carter-Zegarowski waited until after the game, as Carter-Williams was finishing an interview on the court, to tell him what had actually happened, knowing once he got into the locker room, he would be surrounded by people who already knew.
Their 2,500-square-foot home had gone down in a blaze that took firefighters 2½ hours to extinguish.
“We have nothing,” Carter-Zegarowski said. “We have nothing left. Everything was ruined. We lost the house and everything in it. We pretty much walked away with what we had on. It’s tough, our family lost their home. My kids, the twins were born there, and the four of them were raised in that house. We built that house on my dad’s land. So it’s rough.”
All too often, life’s highs and lows come at the exact same time.
In his second year at Syracuse, Carter-Williams’s star couldn’t be brighter. He is third in the nation in assists (7.6). He was a finalist for the Oscar Robertson Trophy (player of the year) and the Bob Cousy Award (top point guard). He was named All-Big East second team as well as the conference’s most improved player. He was the cover boy for Sports Illustrated’s NCAA Tournament preview.
But moreover, after having to patiently bide his time on the bench last year, he was handed the keys to the team, pushing them to 28 wins so far.
A year ago, even though he was a coveted recruit, Syracuse’s backcourt was so crowded he barely saw the floor.
Coach Jim Boeheim started two seniors. Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph. The first man off the bench was Dion Waiters, the fourth pick in last year’s draft.
That left Carter-Williams as the low man on a tall totem pole.
“Any other year at Syracuse, he would have played as a freshman,” Boeheim said. “Any other year — except last year.”
It didn’t make the situation any less frustrating. His parents were both coaches (Carter-Zegarowski’s girls basketball team at Ipswich has won the Cape Ann League title seven of the past 10 years), and ever since he was the tiny kid constantly dribbling or shooting at their games, he leaned on them for guidance. This was no different.
“It was very hard,” Carter-Zegarowski said. “It was almost a daily conversation with him . . . We did a lot of validating, ‘You are right. It does stink, and you could be contributing.’ ”
The Orange coaching staff knew as much. At one point, Boeheim tried throwing Carter-Williams into the deep end, on the road against teams like Providence or St. Johns, expecting him to drown.
“Usually, I stick a freshman in there and they usually don’t play well,” Boeheim said. “So you can say, ‘See you’re not quite ready.’”
But the minutes Carter-Williams got, even if they were scraps, he seized. He still remembers one game last season against Providence. Boeheim called his name. When he checked in, Syracuse had the ball. Immediately, he drove to the basket and got a layup. The Orange got a stop at the other end, he came back down and drilled a 3.
“That made it worse,” Boeheim said. “You could see that he could play.”
But when he got back on defense, one slip-up (he had to take away the middle, but gave up a 3) landed him on the bench again.
“I knew that just because any little mistake I made he would jump all over me,” Carter-Williams said. “But I tried to play, in the short amount of time, as best as I possibly could. I knew that once I went out and played and played well, I knew it was putting him in a tough position.
“It’s a bunch of little moments like that where he was just on me. I think he was on me because he had to find a little bit of reason for me to not play, but then again he wanted me to be the best player I could be. I do wish I could have played from the beginning, but I’m glad it happened. It made me work a lot harder. I was just determined to get better.”
Boeheim could see him putting the work in. Carter-Williams, at 6 feet 6 inches, added 10-12 pounds, he improved his defense, he became mentally tougher.
“He understands the game,” Boeheim said. “He sees the game. He’s got a great feel for the game.”
In just one year as a starter, the buzz is that Carter-Williams has the potential to be an NBA lottery pick. (“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “But we’re just going to see how the rest of the season goes.”) But watching so much of last season from the sidelines, there’s something sweet about being behind the wheel for this run.
“Now we’re watching the team with Michael being a large part of it and it makes us and Michael appreciate it more,” Carter-Zegarowski said. “It makes you value something that he probably could’ve taken for granted had he not stepped right in. He definitely cherishes this opportunity.”
Carter-Zegarowski said she and her family will fly to Washington to see Carter-Williams play Thursday against Indiana.
Nothing about the past week has been easy, she said. They’ve stayed with a friend since the fire.
Sometimes, she says, it will hit her that all of her baby pictures are gone, that there are things that she can’t replace.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “Everybody’s had their moments throughout the day where we just want to go home.”
Teammates have helped make things easier for Carter-Williams.
“At times like this, you want to have your teammate’s back,” said forward C.J. Fair. “With what his family’s going through, I know it’s tough for him, but luckily he has a big family that supports each other, so hopefully he can overcome this.”
And as a family, they will use the game as a mental getaway, knowing that you can’t control life’s highs and lows, but you can get through them.
“It kind of gives us something to look forward to and stay positive,” Carter-Zegarowski said. “I think, emotionally, it’s going to take a long time to move on from that. We’re just trying to stay positive and believe something good comes out every things bad. We’re just going to try to stay focused on that and stay close as a family.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.