It might be nice to capsulize Hassan Carter’s playing career at Irvington High by saying he pushed the starters in front of him to be better, but you might not get an accurate picture of what that meant.
When we use that phrase these days—“He pushes the starters”—that’s usually just a nice way of saying that the kid offers upbeat verbal support or doesn’t complain about his lack of playing time.
But Hassan Carter really did push the starters back when he was coming off the bench for some of former head coach Kurt Fenchel’s teams in the early 1990s. Heck, for some of the best public school teams in all of New Jersey during that period.
“He was a stopper. A tough, physical kid who didn’t back down to anyone,” Fenchel said. “And he was the same way in practice as he was in games. As strong as a bull and he made you feel it.
"I remember after practice sometimes, the big guys (starters) would be talking to me. ‘You’ve got to talk to Haas, coach. He’s hurting people.’ I’d say you just have to hang in there and battle him because it’s going to make you better."
“On the court, Haas was a fiery competitor,” Fenchel added. “Off the court, he was a gentle giant.”
The gentle giant was the side of Carter that the players at Shabazz High in Newark had come to know and admire over the past 14 seasons--the last two as head coach--and the side they have been missing profoundly since he was wheeled off the court at Essex County College in Newark after collapsing in the first quarter of a Dec. 28 game against Newark Vocational in the semifinals of the Newark Public Schools Tournament.
Carter had suffered an aneurysm, but had it repaired that day and seemed to be improving at University Hospital in Newark. The 37-year old coach, father of three daughters and Shabazz High crisis counselor died early in the morning of Jan. 1 and immediately left a huge hole where there had once been a rock. He was buried Saturday morning at Rosehill Cemetery in Linden.
Carter was tough as nails when he needed to get results, because he probably knew he wasn’t going to see much of the court otherwise. Irvington was highly talented and remarkably deep in those days; Essex County Tournament champion and Group 4 runner-up Carter’s senior year and ECT and Group 4 winner the year after he graduated.
He could never shoot as well as Donald Moxley, drive though the lane like Kenya Capers, finish around the cylinder like Jermaine Sparrow or handle the ball like Sulaiman Abdullah or Eugene Robinson. But Carter could sure disrupt shots, clog the lane and make opponents think twice about attacking the rim.
“If you looked at his stature, he’d remind you of Harry Carson (or Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears), only with goggles,” Fenchel said. “He’d say, ‘Coach, put me on that big guy. I’ll beat him down for you and then we’ll put the starters back in.’ He would do anything for you, anything for the team.”
Robinson, in his 10th season as Irvington’s head coach, was a year behind Carter in the Irvington school system, but essentially alongside him every winter since they started playing PAL basketball together in 1985. Robinson would eventually distinguish himself as a standout in the program, but never felt he was on a higher plane than Carter or the other hard-working reserves on those clubs.
“Haas was a bruiser, a warrior, just a good teammate, man,” Robinson said. “When we had that run, we had really good guys on the bench and he was definitely one of them.”
The Shabazz players generally saw another side of Carter, the gentle giant one that Fenchel recognized. The Bulldogs had their tough-talking taskmaster in legendary head coach Lou Grimsley during Carter’s years as his assistant. Grimsley would run the kids to the ground with his famously rigorous practices, and Carter would be there to pick them up and rebuild their confidence.
“He was the one that would always talk to the kids,” Grimsley said. He retired from teaching and coaching two years ago, but raced back from a vacation in North Carolina Jan.1 to assist acting head coach DuJuan High and his staff for the remainder of the season.
“I had to push the kids to the limit,” he said. “And Hassan was the soothing voice to the kids that would keep them on track.”
“He always knew how to talk to the kids,” assistant coach Ken Terry said. “Haas was young enough to relate to the kids, and that was a plus. They liked him and they trusted him.”
Carter’s good-cop style helped create an ideal balance at practices and games to counter Grimsley’s oversized demands and sometimes glowering presence during a prodigious period for the Bulldogs. They won three state titles in the 12 seasons Carter worked under Grimsley, most recently the Group 2 title in 2010.
Carter was a supportive shoulder, a voice of reason during that span. But he also wasn’t just a happy back slapper, by any means.
“He was always able to see things I couldn’t when I was entrenched in the game,” Grimsley said. “He would bring up to me that we were missing this, needed that, could do without this. And he was always right. It would still be my decision, but nine out of 10 times he was correct and I followed his advice.”
Carter had a productive, respected run as assistant under Grimsley, but then faced the difficult task of replacing one of the most popular figures in the history of Newark basketball. Grimsley was an All-State player in the early 1970s, a proven winner as performer and coach, a Newark Athletic Hall of Fame inductee.
“It was really tough on Haas at first,” Terry said. “His personality was great as Lou’s assistant, but now he had to try to get the kids to buy into his ideas and his style.
“Lou is an icon in Newark,” he said. “Most of the children who played on the team, their parents played with or played for Lou and they respected him for the player he was. Those kids from Chadwick Avenue and Stratford Place, they knew they could win championships if they followed the boot camp.”
But Carter didn’t coach that way, he’d only played that way. He’d spent too much time being yin to Grimsley’s yang and the comforting voce of reason as a crisis counselor at the school. Some people probably hoped for a Grimsley carbon copy when Carter took over for the 2010-11 season, but Haas seemed to know instinctively that such an attempt would have been disastrous.
“A lot of the practices were run by the guidelines that Lou put down, but Haas had his own style,” Terry said. “Lou was the constant motivator. Haas was more the guy who put his arm around you and said, ‘Hey, you can do this. Just listen to what I tell you and you can do it.’ Lou would be like, ‘You better do it!’"
No coach at Shabazz knew Carter better than High, who has taken the reins from his fallen buddy. They met at Kean College in the Fall of 1992 and had been pals ever since. They roomed together at Kean and even shared an apartment when they broke in as substitute teachers almost 15 years ago at University High in Newark.
“We taught a lot of basketball together and helped young boys become men together,” High said. “I can’t even put this into words yet. It still doesn’t seem real.”
High had spoken to Carter every day in the hospital and was sure he was on the road to full recovery. They’d chatted on New Years eve, in fact, and Carter said he’d hoped to address the squad the following Monday via conference call. He wanted to tell them to keep their heads up over the 54-45 loss to University Dec. 30 in the NPST championship game.
“He was stable, alert, thinking about the team,” High said. “But a kind of strange thing did happen when he was getting off. He said, ‘I love you.’ I said, ‘Don’t give me any of that love you crap, that emotional nonsense. We’re gonna get through this.’ We laughed about that. A few hours later he was gone. It happened so quick.”
The Bulldogs faced West Orange last Tuesday in their first game since Carter’s death. Shabazz was a bit tentative in the first half (though managed to gut out a 22-17 lead), but erupted in the second behind senior guards Michael Reid and Anthony Closs to post a 62-41 victory. Reid netted 23 of his 27 points and Closs had 11 of his 18 after the intermission as the Bulldogs improved to 5-2.
“I felt great. I felt like Coach was still there with me, still watching me play,” Reid said.
Reid and his mom, Shervell Johnson, had visited Carter in the hospital on Friday, Dec. 30. He told one of the top guards in New Jersey to continue to lead with enthusiasm and to not worry about him one bit.
“He told me he was coming back, that it was nothing,” Reid said. “Then he called me on Saturday and said the same thing. When Coach (High) called me Sunday morning to tell me, I was just hurt all over.”
Shabazz has dedicated its season to Carter, which includes, of course, the practices that lead to the games. That’s where Carter had earned the respect of some of Irvington’s finest players when he was toughening them all up for the Elizabeth, Linden, Seton Hall, Essex Catholic and Shabazz.
“Haas always knew what his role was and he accepted it,” Fenchel said. “He was one of those guys that made the first guys better. He was just happy to be part of the team.”
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS