“Hey, can I play?” asked the scrawny, mop-haired teenager at the side of the court. The group of 20-somethings were teachers and small-business owners by day, but they took their evening pickup basketball games seriously. They wondered who the skinny kid was and why he seemed sure he could keep up with them.
The older players let the boy join in, thinking he’d soon find himself out of his depth. But 14-year-old Alex Caruso could hang, and then some.
Years later, having seen Caruso’s success with the LA Lakers, the pickup players would joke that they taught him everything he knows on that court three doors down from where he grew up. They weren’t the first to underestimate the NBA’s unlikely cult hero, and they certainly wouldn’t be the last.
When Caruso arrived at Texas A&M University to begin his freshman year, Johnny Manziel was a superstar on campus. The quarterback had just become the first freshman to win the Heisman trophy, earning national stardom and ensuring crowds followed his every move around College Station, Texas.
A football-centric college – A&M’s Kyle Field has a capacity of 102,733 – in a football-obsessed state, Caruso’s recruitment generated little buzz in the shadow of Manziel.
Even within A&M’s basketball programme, Caruso wasn’t the headline arrival. That distinction went to J-Mychal Reese. When he was in the sixth grade, Reese starred alongside two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash in a TV commercial – “J-Mychal Reese?” Nash said in the ad. “I named my dog after him” – and had long been ranked among the best prospects in the country.
Caruso was born and raised a stone’s throw from A&M, where both his parents worked for 30 years – his father, Mike, as a sports administrator and his mother, Jackie, in HR and the school of public health. Reese hailed from neighbouring Bryan, and the pair faced off regularly in high school: Caruso’s A&M Consolidated versus Reese’s Bryan High in battles labelled the Cross-Town Showdown.
“Somebody said, ‘That’s J-Mychal Reese. He’s the best sixth-grader in the country,’” remembers Mike Caruso, who was a fine college point guard at Creighton University in his youth. “He was very talented.
“When Bryan played College Station, you had to pre-purchase tickets. They’d divide the gym – it was all maroon on one side and all blue on the other.”
The hours spent at the local park or working on his shot with Dad – an 88% free-throw shooter in college – at the driveway hoop helped Caruso develop an anticipation and feel for the game beyond his years. But it wasn’t until his junior year in high school, aided by a five-inch growth spurt, that he began to garner national attention of his own.
“He was dunking on everybody,” recalls Richard Law, who coached Caruso with the D1 Ambassadors, an AAU club in Houston. “I called all the coaches that I knew, and Max Ivany [the club’s founder] called up all the coaches that he knew, and before we knew it, it all evolved to where he picked up his recruiting.”
Caruso’s parents calculated that he’d travelled 32,000 miles to play AAU basketball in his senior year. His performances with the Ambassadors secured an invite to the prestigious Pangos All-American Camp in California. From there, he was selected for the NBA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Despite other scholarship offers, most expected he’d choose Texas A&M. Caruso had followed A&M basketball most of his life, attending every home game for five years while his dad was game manager. He would try to emulate the moves of former Aggies point guard Acie Law, and he even served as a ball boy.
“He was probably the worst ball boy in America,” laughs former A&M player Logan Lee. “Absolutely the worst. That’s because he would grab a rebound, and he would start working on his ball handling on the baseline. He’d start dribbling and act like he’s out there playing ball on the court.
“But he is the only ball boy that never made the wrong pass. If someone shot a ball and it went through the net, he’d be making no-look passes to us.”
In the end, it came down to a choice between A&M and the University of Colorado. “Can I call you?” Caruso texted his dad one afternoon. “I think I’m ready to make up my mind.” Mike Caruso had no idea which way his son was leaning. He stepped out of his office and sought the privacy of the stairwell to take the call, ready to support Alex’s decision either way but nervous all the same.
Caruso chose home. He chose the shadow of Manziel and Reese. He chose the basketball programme often rendered an afterthought by the school’s football fixation. He chose A&M, and he backed himself to overcome it all.
I can control what I can control, is Caruso’s often-repeated motto. I can’t control anything else. I’ve got to put myself in the best position to be able to do what I can do.
The phrase that keeps cropping up when discussing Caruso with those who’ve played with him or followed his career is “sneaky athletic”.
At one AAU tournament in Denver, when he was 16, Caruso sought revenge after Thomas Richardson, the son of former NBA player Michael Ray Richardson, had tried to dunk on him.
“The next possession, Alex took off from not quite the top of the key but not far outside it and just hammered it on this kid,” remembers Ivany. “The whole building went nuts.” It was a similar story when the D1 Ambassadors played a touring Australian under-19 team. “He got a rebound, brought it back up to the three-point line, did a spin and dunked it on a 6-10 kid,” says Law.
Caruso continued to wow college crowds too. The most memorable instance came in a game against Ole Miss. After snatching a steal, the Aggies point guard raced downcourt, flipped the ball behind his back and rose to dunk over former SEC Tournament MVP Marshall Henderson.
The hometown guard’s penchant for the spectacular helped coax capacity crowds into A&M’s 12,989-seater Reed Arena, but it was the defensive instincts and competitiveness on show in his Ole Miss dunk that most endeared Caruso to his coaches and teammates.
“He’s always been a fun player to watch play because he plays so hard,” says former A&M head coach Billy Kennedy. “He gives up his body. He takes charges and does things to help you win. As a coach, you love guys like that, who are all about winning first and not their individual stats.”
The physical toll Caruso was prepared to endure was typified at the SEC Tournament in Atlanta in his sophomore year. A dislocated finger on his left hand caused a bone to protrude through his skin, forcing him back to the locker room in the first half of one game. Caruso instructed the attending doctor to patch him up; he was going back out for the second half.
“He wanted to play and played the rest of the game,” says John Thornton, a former college player and Caruso family friend who was commentating on the game. “He didn’t even bat an eye. That tells you about how tough he is.”
The defining moment of Caruso’s college career came in his senior year, at the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The SEC-champion Aggies were trailing Northern Iowa by 12 points with 34 seconds to go. “Everybody was like, ‘Well, it’s been a nice season. Looks like it’s going to end,’” remembers Mike Caruso. “But none of the players thought that way.”
Danuel House, now of the Houston Rockets, might have done more of the scoring, but it was Caruso who drove A&M’s miraculous comeback. The Aggies tied the game, going on to secure a place in the Sweet 16 after double overtime.
“The thing that gave us a chance was putting the ball in Alex’s hands,” says Kennedy. “We had the greatest comeback in the history of the NCAA tournament. Alex was a big part of it. He just kept playing, no matter how much we were behind.”
“You don’t outscore Northern Iowa 14-2 in 34 seconds without Alex Caruso,” adds Gabe Bock, who covers A&M sports in his role as host of TexAgs Radio. “You don’t feel like you even have a chance to be in that position without Alex Caruso.”
Caruso was selected as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year by CBS Sports in his senior year and became the Aggies’ all-time leader in assists and steals. Reese lasted only a year and a half at A&M, dismissed for violating athletic department rules. And Caruso has already been in the NBA longer than Manziel, a first-round pick for the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 draft, survived in the NFL.
“If you polled 1,000 Aggies that year,” says Bock, “it would be 1,000 to zero in favour of Johnny Manziel if you asked them who would be the better athlete.
“[Caruso] never averaged 10 points a game at A&M, not once. But there’s no doubt he was A&M’s heart and soul, MVP.”
Caruso worked out for several teams ahead of the 2016 NBA draft, and he was hopeful of being selected, perhaps late in the second round. When his name wasn’t called, it wasn’t so much that he was discouraged from his NBA dream; he just didn’t know where next to turn.
But he stayed positive, kept working, kept controlling what he could control.
An offer from the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G League affiliate team, soon came.
“He was a rookie but he was able to pick up everything really fast, find guys in the right spots and run a team,” recalls Kameron Woods, a former teammate of Caruso’s in OKC. “It was two weeks into training camp before he had everybody like, ‘We are riding and dying with this guy at the point guard. Our results are going to be based off how he leads.’”
Caruso would orchestrate, encourage or calm his teammates, depending on what the situation demanded. His unusual habit of, during timeouts in tense games, taking his mouthpiece out and dropping his shorts to his ankles to retuck his jersey was a bizarre comfort to his colleagues, a reassuring bit of goofiness. “OK, this moment is clearly not too big for him,” they would think.
“He was already an NBA-ready player,” says Dez Wells, another OKC teammate. “For him, it was just opportunity. He was good enough to be an NBA player from the moment he got here.”
That opportunity wouldn’t come with the Thunder – he was released at the end of the 2016-17 G League season – but a bigger shot was around the corner.
Caruso was drafted in by the Lakers for the 2017 Summer League to act as Lonzo Ball’s understudy. When injury ruled Ball out of a game against the Sacramento Kings, Caruso grasped the chance he’d longed for. The day after an impressive performance guarding De’Aaron Fox, the Kings’ electric point guard, the once-overshadowed Aggie signed a two-way contract in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas, where the Lakers were staying. That meant he’d play for the Lakers’ G League affiliate in South Bay but could be called up to join LeBron James and Co throughout the season.
Two years on, his unique combination of thinning hair, pasty complexion and sneaky athleticism has made Caruso – or, as he has been nicknamed, “The Carushow” – something of a cult figure at the Staples Center.
“I knew for a fact LA wasn’t going to change Alex Caruso a bit,” Bock says. “But what I was curious about was whether Alex Caruso was going to change LA. They’ve clung to him.”
Caruso signed a two-year, $5.5m deal with the Lakers last year, but fame and fortune is an uncomfortable fit for the 26-year-old, who spends his free time watching re-runs of The Office, playing video games or watching his beloved Manchester City in the Premier League. The 15-foot mural of him dunking, painted by artist Gustavo Zermeno Jr on the side of an LA sporting-goods store, will take time to get used to; as will the stares when he takes visiting friends to the local California Pizza Kitchen.
His most vociferous online critics argue Caruso wouldn’t garner such attention were he black, but even his doubters have to respect the way he has parlayed his celebrity status into helping others. When Igloo approached him about launching a Carushow signature ice chest, he insisted all profits should go to the CDC Foundation’s coronavirus response fund. And the last two summers, he has hosted a basketball camp in College Station; “Hey, if I can do it, you can do it,” he tells teenage attendees. “I used to be in your shoes.”
During the warm-up before a road game against the Chicago Bulls in January 2018, Caruso paused and looked up at the mezzanine section of the United Center. There, he saw the TNT broadcast crew – Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith – and allowed himself a moment of quiet reflection.
“Yep,” he said to himself. “I guess I’m really here.”