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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 22 February, 2018
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'I feel like I've lived a couple of different lives': Dubliner John Carroll on his hoop dreams

Plying his trade with the University of Hartford since 2014, the 22-year-old is enjoying a fine season.

WHAT FEELS LIKE a lifetime ago, John Carroll awoke one December morning and saw that Santy had been very good to him.

For a basketball-obsessed kid, he already had a hoop in his back yard. But to properly fuel his development, he felt his court required some modifications.

He needed to play as much as possible and that meant pleading with his parents to install an outside light.

Finally, they relented.

“That was my Christmas present,” he says.

“I had a basket out there but I wanted to get up early and shoot. Because it was Ireland, it didn’t get bright until later in the morning and I wanted to get up at 7am or whatever. And then at night I wanted to shoot too. Just stick the earphones in and maybe listen to a podcast. So, it was definitely one of the better Christmas presents I got. Fair play to my mother.”

It’s one of those anecdotes that’s tailor-made for a glitzy, high-profile marketing campaign. Not that Carroll is that way inclined.

The 22-year-old has been at Hartford University since 2014 and flourishing. The junior forward has featured in every one of his side’s 21 games so far, averaging 16 points and 6 rebounds and the team is currently third in the America-East Conference. Now part of the NCAA’s elite Division 1, appearances in the post-season have been rare but it’s not something Carroll spends a lot of time thinking about.

When quizzed on goals and objectives, he speaks with a steely maturity and is almost apologetic about it. But it’s clear that it’s merely part of the calm, composed personality that has won him so many admirers.

“It’s all about the next game. It’s such a cliche but it’s true,” he says.

“We want to contend for the conference and try and win it and try and get to an NCAA tournament. That’s the long-term goal but we get in trouble when we look too far ahead. We need to win the next one. That’s the focus right now.”

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So, how does a kid from Dublin’s north-side end up playing college ball in Connecticut?

Carroll’s dad, Paul, was an Irish international so there was always an interest. But it wasn’t until he was 12 that he joined a club – Kubs in Kilbarrack – and everything began to escalate. He started to learn more about the game. The NBA, NCAA. Every conversation with a team-mate seemed to revolve around it. It quickly became an obsession. Other sports got sidelined and Carroll started to dream about the possibilities.

“When I was about 14, I started to get really interested in college basketball and I think it was the 2010 Championship game between Butler and Duke and I just thought, ‘Wow – I really want to play in something like that,’” he says.

My Dad tried to steer me clear of basketball. He knew there wasn’t much of a future in it. He played the odds because he’d been involved with the sport. But he never stood in my way when it came to reaching for high goals. As I got better I started to make a believer out of him. It didn’t hurt that I grew to be 6’8 and that didn’t hurt my chances.

When I started playing I wasn’t that tall. I was 12 and about 5’9 or something. But in my mid-teens I grew a lot. I remember one major growth spurt. There was one summer and I think I grew five inches – to around 6’5.

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When I got offered the chance to come to the States he was completely on board.”

In his early teens, Carroll began to blossom and his talent was acknowledged when his secondary school – CUS on Leeson Street – rewarded him with their annual Ronnie Delaney Scholarship, a bursary that would contribute to his athletic development. Carroll put it towards a month-long stint at the IMG Academy in Florida. After that came to an end, they offered him a scholarship and he had a choice to make.

“I was 16 and just finished Transition Year so I’d have two years over there in high-school,” he says.

I was all for it and so was my Dad but my Mum was a bit more hesitant at first because I was so young. But we got her on board eventually. So then it was off to Florida – which was a bit of a change from getting the DART into school at 7.30 every morning. Now it was waking up to 30-degree weather every day. So just a little different from home.”

Carroll was far from home but never struggled with the transition. On a strict diet of classes and practice, there was plenty of supervision with dorm mentors and curfews. And, on top of that, everyone was there to work. After all, despite being part of a team, Carroll was trying to wrestle the spotlight from those around him and put himself in the shop window.

“I wouldn’t say it was overwhelming but you knew the importance of it (impressing scouts),” he says.

“There were 15 guys on a team and they all wanted scholarships. So you have team-mates but you’re really competing for spots – the same spots as you. In that final year at IMG, there were so many of us at the same level but only a certain amount of places in college. So it was pressure but good pressure.

I started playing basketball wanting to make it as a pro and play in the NBA and that’s still my goal, even if it’s lofty. But playing college ball was a stepping stone towards that so it was in the back of my mind. It was always going to have to be my journey. Getting a scholarship to an NCAA Division One school was the objective. And there were college coaches coming to games all the time so I was always reminded of it.”

After graduating from high-school, Carroll didn’t immediately sign for a university and, instead, spent an academic year at The Hill prep school outside Philadelphia. In a different setting, away from the intensity of IMG, he could grab the spotlight a lot more frequently. Because of the calibre and consistency of his performances, he was flooded with offers from a variety of colleges.

“At IMG, we had 12 Division 1 players on the team – we were stacked. At The Hill, we were good but had all sorts of players. So I was getting a lot more attention from Division 1 coaches. I ended up with about 15 Division 1 offers. When I was at IMG, I think I only received one.

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It was weird. The offers were varying degrees. With Hartford, it was an official visit and I was here for three days. But with Jacksonville, they offered me a scholarship over text message and I’d never even talked to them in my life. So it was all over the place. It was so strange but good strange. I’d been getting limited looks at IMG so it was a nice problem to have with loads of these coaches interested.

All these coaches are vying for your interest and they want you to come to their school and will tell you what you want to hear. So you have to pick through what’s real and talk to people who know what they’re talking about and then make your own decision from there.

I just liked Hartford and thought it was good for me and I really wanted to play for Coach Gallagher. He actually came to Ireland and hung out with me and my family for about three days and basically convinced me and I’m glad I came. I liked what he was saying but that can’t be the only thing. I liked his demeanour and loved his enthusiasm for basketball. It’s quite a rare thing, actually. Maybe that’s surprising. He had great enthusiasm and I felt I had the same. I wanted to play for someone who cared that much about the game and wasn’t coaching just to be famous or to make lots of money. He just really loved it.”

His first season at Hartford saw him appear in all 30 games for the Hawks and averaged over six points per game. A good start but his sophomore year saw him really impress and step up. In one game against Niagara, he racked up the first double-double of his career. And then he snapped his anterior cruciate ligament.

“It happened five games into the year and in the best game of my career to that point,” he says.

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There were four minutes to go. I’d had my first double-double ever and my Mum was flying in the following day to come and watch some of my games. The injury was bad and sore but it was the recovery that was agonising. The worst part was when I was cleared but I didn’t feel the same. I tried to push back too soon. I came back too early and tried to force it. I was wearing a big leg brace but couldn’t move the same. I probably should’ve taken another few months. That was the hardest part, when I was technically better but was still moving slower. It was the most challenging, mentally anyway.

But I know it can be taken away at any time so I’m probably not as reckless. So I guess it helped in that way. And knowing that if something bad happens again I can come back from it. That’s probably the best part about it.”

He’s fully fit now, having refocused last summer. He was patient with himself and listened to his body. And his mind.

“I put my phone down and got off social media,” he says.

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“Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal but it just made me focus on working out and getting healthier. I’ve been eating better and taking care of my body more and the main thing has been focusing on the process. Day-by-day, just making sure I’m conducting myself in the right manner each day rather than looking down the line. Concentrating on short-term goals rather than long objectives. Because when you look down the line you lose sight of the short. And I used to do that and get stressed. ‘I have to average this many points per season’ or ‘We have to win this amount of games’. You have to win each day. Not a day per month. So it’s about taking it each day at a time and not looking too far down the road.”

He’s enjoying an excellent campaign. The individual stats are impressive. His team – and his coach – are glad to have him back.

“I’ve been saying it to everybody on the street,” Gallagher told the Hartford Courant earlier this month.

But in our game against Rutgers he was the best player on the floor. In the Albany game he was the best player on the floor. Those are two teams in the top 75 in the country. I trust my eyes and he’s got the Irish blood, that Irish toughness.”

When I ask Carroll about the players he draws inspiration from, there’s a long pause. And then a surprising answer.

“I like to look at other sports sometimes,” he admits.

“And one guy I really admire is Padraig Harrington. He went to the top in golf and had real struggles after that. But he just really stuck with it and his attitude is great for the game. He’s so analytical and he’s so candid about how he’s playing. I really like the way he goes about it. He reminds me of what I want to be. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet. There aren’t that many basketball players that have gone through my journey. I find them hard to relate to. I could say Gordan Hayward but he grew up in Indiana – the Mecca of basketball, basically. So it’s hard to be inspired by him, even though he’s a great player.

I like looking at Irish athletes. With Harrington, he’s completely lost in the process. He wants to get better every day. Last summer, I wasn’t using my phone but my Dad showed me some videos of his and that’s the attitude I want to have. The fact he’s Irish doesn’t hurt too.”

It’s been a unique, rewarding path but Carroll is reluctant to stop and smell the roses. He’s just not programmed that way.

“I wouldn’t be giving myself a pat on the back because if my career ended today I wouldn’t be too happy with what I’ve done,” he says.

“I’m not getting down on myself but I feel like I’ve lived a couple of different lives, in a way. That’s how I look back on it, the journey to here. Now I’m here and it’s so different to Ireland and I’m happy with how things are going but I try not to look back too much. I know the story. I don’t replay it in my head all the time and think, ‘Wow, how good am I?’”

In a way, Carroll is still that kid who so desperately wanted an outside light in the backyard so he could keep playing into the small hours.

More to do. Always.

All photos courtesy of the University of Hartford/ Sports Information Department

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