Derrick Caracter was planning on continuing his basketball career at Long Beach State when his mother received a phone call last December that changed his life.
Randall Dickey, an assistant coach at the University of Texas at El Paso, called Winnie Terry and said he was interested in recruiting her 6-foot-9, 275-pound son after he had parted ways with Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
"My mom said it wasn't going to hurt if you went to visit one more school even though you have your mind made up," Caracter said Sunday in a telephone interview.
Caracter, a Fanwood, N.J., native, made the trip out to West Texas in early December 2008 and was immediately sold on the coaching staff, the players and the campus' peaceful setting.
"It worked out when he came to visit," Dickey said. "I think he liked it. He liked our straightforwardness. It was no-nonsense. I told him it was a two-way street, what we could do for him and what he could do for us. We had a very talented team and we were still adding a piece or two to the puzzle."
In January, Caracter moved out to El Paso, where he paid his own way for two semesters because he wasn't on scholarship. He shares an off-campus house with his girlfriend from Louisville, Britt Shelton, who does some of the cooking, and his childhood friend from New Jersey, Derek Garrette, whom he asked to come live with him. Caracter also raises two boxers.
"It's just preparing myself for the next level," Caracter said said. "I can be more independent off the court. You're more grown living under your own roof."
A hyped prodigy: On the court, Caracter is averaging 12.7 points and 9.0 rebounds for the Miners (9-4), who will face Oklahoma (8-3) Monday night in the All-College Classic in Oklahoma City.
In just his second game back after being cleared academically Dec. 12, Caracter put up 15 points and 15 rebounds in a 91-81 overtime loss to Mississippi. Caracter followed that up with a 21-point, 10-rebound performance in a 101-41 rout of Alcorn State.
Touted as a potential NBA lottery pick from the time he was in eighth grade, Caracter still believes he can realize those dreams one day.
"I never could doubt myself," said Caracter, 21. "I knew it would be harder because of all the obstacles that I've had to go through. People just viewing me a certain way now and having a certain opinion of me but I'm a strong believer in God.
"I feel there's plenty in store for me to be able to get to that level. I think now it's just a cycle where I got to put in that work to accomplish some of the same dreams and goals as some of the other guys out there."
Those dreams and goals seemed a mere formality when Caracter was hyped as a potential lottery pick from an early age.
"I remember watching him when we were doing drills in the gym," recalled former Fitchburg (Mass.) Notre Dame Prep head coach Bill Barton, now an assistant at Duquesne University. "He could put on a show just in individual workouts. I remember thinking, 'That's what an NBA power forward looks like at 17.'
"I just thought he was so powerful. But for someone so powerful, he had skills. He could put the ball on the floor for a dribble or two. He was very smooth around the basket for someone so big."
Caracter was rated as a consensus top-20 prospect in his class. But he soon developed a reputation as a petulant player who did not make the most of his abilities.
"In 10th grade, I started getting spoiled a bit," he said. "Maybe 10th to 11th grade, that was the only time I was arrogant and a little full of myself. That's also the time I put on 15-20 pounds. Sophomore year I was probably like 260. Junior year I was 285. I went to the camps. I didn't do all my workouts. I didn't put any extra work in."
Put on a pedestal: He bounced around to three different high schools, including two stops at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, one at Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick and one at Notre Dame Prep.
"At that time I wasn't really making decisions for myself," he said. "My mother, my uncle, I just did whatever they told me and they felt was the best decision for me at the time. I think that's maybe made me the person I am today. All the experiences from each school and each coach made me understand people. I got to experience a lot of different people and meet a lot of different people."
Even as he averaged 15.4 points and 7.1 rebounds while helping Notre Dame Prep to a 27-3 record and the No. 1 national ranking his senior year, Caracter missed time because of various disciplinary issues.
"Since he was in ninth grade, he was put on a pedestal and all these people around him are telling him how great he is," Barton said. "I've always thought that it's immaturity. I think he just didn't want to work. He was his own worst enemy. I never found him to be a malicious kid. I never found him to be someone who wanted to hurt others. The only one he ever hurt was himself."
Caracter's weight and immaturity issues followed him to Louisville, where he continually clashed with Pitino even as he averaged 8.3 points and 4.5 rebounds during the 2007-08 season.
Caracter was declared academically ineligible at Louisville in the spring of 2008, causing Pitino to announce that his time at the school was over.
"He just has too many issues to overcome, academically and otherwise, to be a Louisville Cardinal," Pitino told the Louisville Courier Journal. "The best thing for him would be to go to a different place."
The two sides went back and forth, with Pitino ultimately agreeing to let Caracter take a year off from the team to work and get his grades in order before returning for the 2009-10 season.
Blame game: But it never happened, and Caracter and Louisville parted ways.
Caracter said he holds no ill will toward Pitino and accepts the blame himself.
"Coach P is a Hall of Fame coach," Caracter said. "None of it was his fault. It was just me being able to get away with things I could get away with my whole life. I knew if I wanted to grow up and eventually play in the NBA I had to look at myself in the mirror.
"I took a lot of lessons from Coach P, how to handle different situations, proper rest, body language, responding the correct way to constructive criticism. All that stuff that freshmen sometimes struggle with coming into college. It helped. I wouldn't do it any differently."
Caracter became very close with former Louisville forward Earl Clark, a Rahway, N.J., native now playing with the Phoenix Suns. The two speak multiple times a week.
"Even though he's at that level I'm trying to get to, he still refers to me as his big brother," Caracter said of Clark. "When we do talk it's usually about life. He's always willing to give me advice on that."
Caracter said his goal was to follow Clark to the NBA, either after this season or next.
"God willing, this year or next year," he said. "I'm not in a rush. I'm just having fun enjoying the experience of being back on the floor with my teammates and just working hard."
Garrette, his childhood friend, said when, and if, Caracter goes pro, will depend on how he does at the pre-draft camps.
"What it really comes down to is how he does in the NBA camps, when he matches up against the best players in college basketball," he said. "I'm pretty sure a team will pick him up if he does well."
No more sesame shrimp: UTEP coach Tony Barbee said Caracter has done a great job losing weight and staying in shape, even if it's meant Caracter having to give up his favorite food.
"My biggest food was sesame shrimp, that's my favorite," he said.
If he makes it to the NBA, he said his plan is to hire a chef so he can eat healthy all the time.
"You can't eat Subway and Quiznos all the time," he said. "When you get some more money you can afford the filet mignon and the salmon, asparagus, all that good stuff."
There are still chapters to be told in the Caracter Saga, and Barbee believes the ending can be a positive one.
"Whether he looks at it as a last chance or second chance or whatever chance it is, he's taken advantage of whatever chance he has left to be effective," Barbee said.
"He's got the talent to reclaim his reputation as the talented basketball player he was early on in his career."