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The NBA journey begins for Wendell Carter Jr. and his family in Chicago

Mom Kylia Carter: ‘This is what you wanted. You’re here. You’re in this elite fraternity now.’


Wendell Carter Jr. begins his life in the National Basketball Association today.

The former Duke standout will take a flight to Chicago, where he will report for duty with the Chicago Bulls, who made Carter the seventh pick of the NBA draft on Thursday.

He will not make the trip alone. He will be accompanied by his parents, Kylia and Wendell Carter Sr., who are moving to Chicago with him.

Carter Jr. turned 19 in April and just completed his freshman year at Duke. His mother rejects the notion that a successful college basketball career and a first-round selection in the draft qualifies her son to be out and about on his own.

“We’re not trying to hover and be helicopter parents and do all that foolishness,” she said. “This is just normal. Every other 19-year-old kid lives at home with their momma, so why do we become helicopter parents because our kid’s a millionaire and we still want him at home with us?”

Wendell Carter Jr. (right) poses with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being drafted seventh overall by the Chicago Bulls during the 2018 NBA draft at the Barclays Center June 21 in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I met Kylia Carter in Atlanta a little more than a year ago, shortly after Carter Jr. announced that he had chosen Duke over Harvard for what would be his first and only year in college.

Kylia Carter had pushed hard for Carter Jr. to go to Harvard and had sat in on a Harvard Business School session where MBA candidates debated the long- and short-term advantages of one school over the other. Harvard was the best long-term choice, but Duke suited her son’s purpose for the here and now.

Carter Jr. loved the undergraduate experience. He writes poetry and at Duke began to act. Now critics wonder whether Carter has the physical and mental toughness required to survive and thrive in the rugged NBA.

The challenge began Thursday evening when Carter Jr. was not the first, second or third big man taken in the draft.

Deandre Ayton, the center from Arizona, was taken first overall by the Phoenix Suns. Marvin Bagley III, Carter’s teammate from Duke, was selected second by Sacramento and Mohamed Bamba, the imposing big man from Texas, was selected by Orlando.

When I spoke to Carter Jr. on Thursday night, he said all sorts of wild thoughts entered his mind as he sat at the table with his family.

“I was going through a lot of scenarios, like not being picked, or something coming out of nowhere where I didn’t get picked or getting picked by a team I didn’t work out for,” he said.

His mother reassured him that wherever he went was the right place. When his name was called, his father shed tears and his mother just smiled and gave her son a hug. As Carter Jr. headed to the podium to shake the commissioner’s hand, his mother told him, “This is it. This is what you wanted. You’re here. You’re in this elite fraternity now.”

In fact, Carter Jr.’s mother was a little shocked by the selection.

When we spoke on Wednesday about possible landing spots for their son, Chicago was not one of the teams or cities mentioned. Carter Sr. liked Dallas because he liked the idea of his son being mentored by Dirk Nowitzki as the veteran winds down his career.

Carter Jr.’s mother was thinking economics, playing somewhere that has no state income tax, a place such as Florida or Texas.

“We’re trying to save as much of his money as we can,” Kylia Carter said. ”Wherever he goes, we’re happy, but if you get a chance to pick or say what you want, I would say the place that is most affordable for him and a place where he can develop as a player and just go to work every day and do what he’s expected to do.”

Carter Jr. will begin his NBA career with Chicago, a franchise with a tradition of winning titles with the legendary Michael Jordan. The team is also in rebuilding mode.

The NBA draft is a significant marker in the journey of young players who have been competing with and against each other in many cases since grammar school. Carter Jr. and Collin Sexton, drafted eighth by Cleveland, began playing together when they were 10 years old.

There will be ample opportunities for Carter Jr. and his family to do well in Chicago, a city with a large African-American presence. The NBA will also provide him with a platform to talk with parents of young basketball hopefuls about negotiating the harrowing, often predatory basketball landscape.

During her son’s one year at Duke, Kylia Carter became an outspoken critic of the NCAA, especially of big-time basketball and football, sports fueled in large part by young black athletes. On Wednesday, she and her husband hosted an event in midtown Manhattan to kick off a new enterprise, Elevate, designed to empower athletes and their families.

“We just believe that sports and athletes have the power to change the world,” she said.

Kylia Carter told parents Wednesday, and tells other parents in general, that how she and her husband guided Carter Jr. through the system was not rocket science. It’s all about parenting.

“If what Wendell is now is something that you aspire to for your son, the main thing is that you have to know who your child is and be firm and convinced and OK with who you are to him.”

Basketball at virtually every level is a meat market, an industry that runs on supple, mostly black, young bodies. It’s an industry where parents are often seen as a threat. The Carters said they saw this firsthand as they went through the process of getting their son a seat at the table of Thursday’s draft.

“Anybody can do what my husband and I have done with our son,” she said. “We are not rich. We don’t have extravagant jobs. We live paycheck to paycheck. We have a small house. We’re just like everybody else. And everybody can do what we’re doing. It’s not magic. It’s just spending time with your child.”

She added: “Never stop being a parent. I’m a firm believer in parents continuing to be parents. You have to stand firm and know who you are to your child and be that.”

When Carter Jr. was in third grade, his teacher asked students to write what they wanted to be when they grew up. Carter Jr. wrote that he wanted to be a professional basketball player.

Kylia Carter still has the piece of paper. “When he brought it home, he told us about the ridicule he got from the teacher in the classroom when he said what he wanted to be.”

Twelve years later, Carter Jr. is a member of the Chicago Bulls.

The lesson: Never scoff at a child’s dream.

The challenge is not that a child only has a one-in-a-million chance to achieve a dream. The challenge is how do you get to be that one in a million.

For the Carters, it’s on to Chicago.

One journey has ended. Now the real grind begins.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.