When Coach Carter walks into a classroom, kids shout and wave. They jump up and down, ask for autographs, and jostle for his attention.
But when he asks them to sit down and listen, they do. To them, basketball coach Ken Carter is a hero. Hollywood made a movie about him, after all, in 2005.
That was several years after he made national news by locking his team – the Richmond High School varsity basketball team in Richmond, California -- out of the gymnasium because their academic performance was so low. By forcing his then-undefeated team to forfeit games, he won a much bigger victory than a basketball championship: he brought athletic and academic achievement together in the minds of his students, and along the way garnered the gratitude of teachers and parents everywhere.
“Average is just not good enough,” he insists. “If you get 1% better every day, in 100 days you will be 100% better.”
His story and philosophy have proven so inspiring to kids that two years ago, Paramount Pictures/MTV Films released a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson in the title role of “Coach Carter.” Since then, Carter has traveled around the country speaking to student groups, teachers, administrators and coaches about the importance of academic achievement.
“I’m not in the business of making better basketball players,” Carter maintains. “I’m in the business of making better people.”
On April 26, Coach Carter came to Montclair where he visited Rand, Mt. Hebron and Glenfield schools all in one day.
At each school, students cheered to see him. Whatever their grade level, gender, or race -- whether they are athletes, scholars or anything in between – they unanimously embrace his message: working hard in school and being kind to others are the paths to future success in the world.
“Doing your homework is a good business decision,” he said to the Rand fourth-grade class he visited. “It seems now like it doesn’t matter if you do your homework or not. But here’s how life works: if you don’t take care of your responsibilities now, you won’t ever have power later on.”
Although he kept his remarks brief and peppered his address with playful moments, he returned again and again to his theme of achievement and good personal conduct.
“You want to be successful, don’t you?” he demanded of the class. “You want to be somebody in the world someday, am I right?”
“Yes!” they shouted.
“Then start today,” he said.
Moving through the room, he hi-fived the children and threw small gift packets into the crowd. At one point, he called a boy to the front of the room and demanded five push-ups. He bear-hugged them, pretended to box with them, and autographed t-shirts and $1 and $20 bills, then gave them out as gifts.
But all the time, he never stopped driving his message home.
“You guys have to be kind and generous to everyone you meet – not just some people; everyone,” he said. “That means your teachers and parents, too.”
Although the students didn’t know it, Coach Carter has garnered a host of awards as a result of his inspirational impact on youth. Over the past several years, Carter has been presented with Harvard Club's Distinguished Secondary Educator Award, the NAACP's Impact Citizen of the Year Award, the California State Lottery/Governor Gray Davis' Heroes in Education Award, the (San Francisco Mayor) Willie Brown Leadership Award, the state of California's Unsung Heroes Award, and the A.N.G. California Boy's Coach of the Year Award. He has been honored with a Proclamation from the City of Richmond was named one of CityFlight Newsmagazine's "Ten Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area" for 2000 in the Sports category.
Whatever he does, Ken Carter does in a big way. In October, 2000 he traveled from Richmond High School to the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento on a scooter. The trip was designed to draw awareness to the deteriorating state of California schools and the need for students, parents, teachers, and school board officials to commit to making a difference. His website reports that as a result of his pilgrimage, Richmond High received building enhancements and a gift of new computers from the Office of the Secretary of Education.
But on April 24, the students of Montclair weren’t thinking about any of the things Carter had done in the past. With their hero standing in the room with them, they were thinking only of the present.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world,” sighed one boy, at the conclusion of Carter’s presentation.
“No,” said another, “I am. I get to ride in the car with him later today.”