This was his moment. It was why he returned for his final year of college. In front of a record crowd of 35,446 deranged, orange-clad fans on February 1st at the Carrier Dome in upstate New York, in the very first matchup between Duke and Syracuse as ACC opponents, Orangemen senior forward C.J. Fair made a definitive statement.
Matched up against Jabari Parker, the Blue Devils’ wondrous 6-foot-8 freshman who is all but guaranteed to be selected with one of the top two picks in tonight’s NBA Draft, Fair delivered a 28-point masterpiece. It was a signature performance that will forever be remembered by the Syracuse faithful.
The game was not lacking for star power, including both teams’ Hall of Fame coaches Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski. Despite the fact that he was playing with and against four players – Duke’s Parker and Rodney Hood, and his Syracuse teammates Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant – who are all projected to be picked ahead of him in tonight’s NBA Draft, Fair was the best player on the floor.
After an excellent first half, where he scored twelve points, he elevated his game in the second half and overtime. He scored 16 after intermission, pushing his team’s record to 21-0 after the Orangemen’s nail-biting 91-89 victory over Duke.
Throughout the game, which was college basketball’s most anticipated contest during the regular season last year, in an overwhelmingly electric atmosphere, he exhibited his full offensive arsenal – a dependable 3-point shot, a succulent mid-range repertoire, being fluid and under control in transition, an unflappable composure, a savvy, instinctual and cerebral basketball intelligence, and a flight game that registers on air traffic control radars. He punctuated his stellar night with an emphatic dunk: a final flourish that accentuated his marvelous performance.
“C.J. Fair was phenomenal tonight,” said Boeheim after the game. “He broke out of that good solid player into a great player. He was a great player tonight.”
After his junior season at Syracuse the previous year, despite leading the team in scoring and rebounding during their magical and thrilling run to the Final Four, his teammate Michael Carter-Williams garnered most of the national acclaim. Last summer, Fair thought about testing the NBA Draft waters. But he decided that there was more that he wanted to do, more that he wanted to prove.
After weighing his options and talking to his support network of family and coaches, and friends who’d already made the leap to the pros, he decided to return to Syracuse for his senior year.
It was a decision that brought a smile to the face of his father, Carl Fair.
“We thought, despite the stigma that exists about guys who stay in college for four years in terms of their NBA potential, the best thing for C.J. was to go back and show that he was much more than a complimentary player,” said Carl. “He not only proved that he could carry a team, but that he could lead one as well. And being able to see my son walk across the stage and earn his college degree was more than special to me. It validated all the hard work, the blood sweat and tears that he put in over the years, along with all of the conversations we’ve had, since he was little, about avoiding the mistakes that I’d made in my own life.”
HARD LESSONS LEARNED
Carl Fair was an accomplished athlete in his own right back in the early 1980’s. He was a starter on some excellent basketball teams at East Baltimore’s Lake Clifton High School, who played against Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate, Reggie Williams and the late Reggie Lewis’ powerhouse teams at the legendary Dunbar High School. But he truly excelled on the football field.
Carl was considered one of the top prep players in the state of Maryland as a 6-foot-5 defensive end, linebacker, tight end and wide receiver who never came off of the field. He’d received a boatload of scholarship offers from some of the top football programs in the country. Nebraska, Oklahoma and North Carolina State were among his top choices.
On his recruiting visits, he soaked up the adulation and atmosphere. He envisioned himself playing in front of packed college stadiums before reaching his ultimate dream of playing in the National Football League.
“Even though I was excelling on the football field, and doing well in basketball and running track, I was still searching for myself and somewhat lost, though” said Carl. “I was hooking class, getting into trouble and I didn’t take my schoolwork seriously. I’ll never forget when those big-time football schools rescinded their scholarship offers. The recruiter from Nebraska told me, ‘We love you on the football field, but as far as academics, we can’t do nothing with you.’”
“All of those scholarships went away,” Carl continued. “I didn’t have much guidance and direction at the time. I thought as long as I dominated on the field, I would be straight. I didn’t know about minimum GPA’s, qualifying scores on the S.A.T’s and all of the minute NCAA rules and regulations. That was a big lesson that I learned the hard way. I always told C.J. when he was growing up, ‘You gotta take care of your books.’”
He played as a freshman at Central State University, a Division II school in Wilberforce, Ohio, got his academics in order and transferred to play Division I ball at New Mexico State. He sat out his first year in Las Cruces, which is mandatory for transfers as per NCAA rules, but played well in the spring football game. That next fall, he was slated to make a big impact for the Aggies.
Over the summer break, though, while playing basketball back in Baltimore, Carl used his considerable hops to soar into the air while attempting to block a player’s shot during a pickup game. While in full flight, his opponent ducked underneath him.
“He undercut me and as I came down, I was about to fall on my head,” said Carl. “I put my hands down to protect myself. It was a very violent fall, and I wound up fracturing both of my wrists.”
When he returned to New Mexico State in the fall, the coaches demanded that he practice. He asked to have X rays done on his wrists so they could know the severity of his injuries.
“I’d been hurt before but never missed a game or practice in my life,” said Carl. “But my wrists hurt so much, I couldn’t play. I cried because I wasn’t able to step out on the field. But the coaches demanded that I get out there and play. I was like, ‘These dudes don’t even care about me.’ I asked them to let me go see a doctor, a specialist that could diagnose the problem and help me get healthy again, but they weren’t trying to hear it.”
Carl was angry and hurt. Without consulting with his family and support network at home, he made a sudden, hasty and irrational decision.
“I wasn’t thinking right, just acting on emotion,” said Carl. “I didn’t even call home to talk to anybody and ask for advice. I didn’t really think it through. I just said, ‘I’m done with this,’ left school and came back home.”
Without sports and school, Carl found himself directionless when he returned to Baltimore. Many of his friends were making fast money in the drug game, and they were eager to share their ill-gotten fortunes with him.
“I started holding packages for my buddies, and they were giving me $5,000 a week to do that,” he said. “I fell in love with that fast, easy money. It was the worst mistake, after leaving school, that I ever made.”
Carl worked the numbers in his head and realized that if his friends could pay him that much for such menial work, they were making a fortune. So with a misguided entrepreneurial spirit, he took a head-first dive into the murky waters of the narcotics business and set up his own operation.
“I wasted a lot of years living that type of life, blinded by that fast money” said Carl. “I got arrested a lot of times, but always managed to beat the case. When C.J. was about eight years old, I was sent to prison for the first time in my life. The judge sentenced me to 18 months. That was a difficult time, but it forced me to dig deep and think about how I wanted to live the rest of my life.”
When C.J. came to visit him, the father stared into his son’s eyes and saw tears.
“I knew I had to change,” said Carl. “I was determined to make sure that my son didn’t make the same decisions and mistakes that I made. A guy told me, ‘Change, you must. Or die, you will.’ When I got home, I turned my life around.”
A NEW START
Carl signed up for job training and apprenticeship classes upon his release and began working as a welder. It was difficult work, for a fraction of what he was accustomed to earning, but he was happy with his new life.
At that time, C.J. was playing on a youth team called the Baltimore Stars which boasted a mind-boggling collection of talent. They traveled around the country and were one of the top teams in the nation.
The Stars featured Will Barton, who is currently a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, and his brother Antonio, who just finished his college career at the University of Tennessee. Also on the roster was the Barton brothers’ cousin, Josh Selby, who was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011 after his one-year stint at the University of Kansas.
Eric Atkins, the point guard at Notre Dame for the last four years, Nick Faust, who recently transferred from the University of Maryland to Long Beach State, and Roscoe Smith, who won a National Championship at UCONN as a freshman and then transferred to UNLV before declaring for this year’s NBA Draft, were also on the team.
“C.J. was doing well, but he wasn’t one of the best players on that team,” said Carl. “He was really just learning how to play the game. Sometimes, he’d get frustrated, but I would just tell him to be patient, that players develop at their own pace. He always worked hard and when he stepped on the court to practice, he was serious. He wanted to become a great player.”
“That Baltimore Stars team when we were just little kids had so much talent,” said C.J. “The competition in practice was incredible. And we were all close friends off the court. Will and Antonio became like brothers to me. I would spend weeks staying with them over the summers. Their step-father was our coach. He spent a lot of time working with me and helping me to develop my talents. He really believed in me and gave me some insight, even at that early age, in terms of what I could accomplish through basketball.”
The Barton’s step-father, Stanley Lee, was also instrumental in easing Carl’s transition from “High Roller” to an honest, hard-working and dependable family man.
“Stanley Lee helped me get back involved with my first love, sports,” said Carl. “He asked me to help him coach. He kept saying, ‘Man, I got two killers! Will and Antonio are going to be special. And C.J., one day, is going to do big things. We have a really talented team. Come help me work with the boys. You could really help us.’ That assisted me tremendously, to become a part of that. C.J. was also playing football at the time, but he was starting to become long. He was improving every year and he really took to basketball. Those experiences coaching him and being around him, doing something we both loved, that really strengthened our bond as a father and son.”
C.J. entered Baltimore’s City College High School, one of the area’s top academic public schools, as a 6-foot ninth grader. By the time basketball practice started, he stood 6-foot-4.
“Once I hit that growth spurt and played as well as I did during my freshman year, that’s when I began to realize that I had a chance to really go places with the game,” said C.J. “My game really elevated as my body began to develop. I started becoming more athletic and explosive and I saw my game starting to separate from other players. During my freshman year, I started getting a lot of recruiting interest from some big colleges, and that’s when I began to visualize being able to play at the next level.”
As a sophomore at City, Fair dominated. He showed a feathery-soft touch on his mid-range jumper, looked comfortable and confident shooting three’s, he was a force in the paint and on the perimeter, along with being an animal on the glass.
After his 10th grade season, he was named to the area’s All-Metro team, a prestigious achievement in the heavily talented Baltimore region, and a rare accomplishment for a sophomore. He dominated on the summer circuit and was named to the All-Tournament teams at the country’s top events like the Bob Gibbons and Boo Williams Invitational’s.
THE FALL AND SUBSEQUENT RISE
On the last day of school that year, he was playing in a pickup game in the City gym. Dribbling down court on a fast break, he made an explosive move towards the basket. He elevated and smoothly laid the ball in, despite being fouled. But he landed awkwardly, and with his left knee absorbing the bulk of his weight, he felt it buckle.
“I thought I sprained it,” said C.J. “But when the doctor told me that I’d torn my A.C.L., I was devastated. I cried. I didn’t know if I could recover from it. At the time, my confidence was through the roof. I knew I could play against anybody. But after I got hurt, I started doubting myself.”
After injuring the knee in June, he had surgery in July. He sat out his entire junior year and attacked his rehab with ferocity.
“He never missed one rehab workout,” said Carl. “His determination was tremendous. Because he missed that whole year, a lot of schools that were recruiting him disappeared. But Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Rick Pitino at Louisville never wavered. They said that they knew what type of player he was, what type of person he was, and they weren’t worried about the injury. They believed in him. That meant a lot. But a lot of those other schools, they disappeared.”
During his senior year, Fair decided to play at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, in the ultra-competitive New England prep school league, where his teammates included Iowa State University star Melvin Ejim, former Kansas point guard Nadir Tharpe, and his brother from another mother from Baltimore, Will Barton.
“Coming back from the injury, I wanted the best and most competitive experience that would get me ready for college,” said C.J. “I would be going up against the best high school competition in the country, it was a college environment in terms of being away from home, on a campus and living in dorms. And Will was my roommate. That helped tremendously. Playing with those guys every day, I started to feel like my normal self again, physically. It took a little while, but my explosiveness returned. My athleticism came back. After that, I knew that was ready to contribute right away once I got to college.”
“The decision for him to leave Baltimore and attend Brewster was a tough one,” said Carl. “But he made the All-Metro team as a tenth grader. He needed a new challenge and some tougher competition. If he stayed in Baltimore, he would dominate like he did as a sophomore. He needed to be pushed. Playing up there helped him get his confidence back. The hardest part of overcoming any injury is mental. He was wondering if he could get back to where he was. But by the time he got to Syracuse, he was ready for the big stage.”
As a college freshman, C.J.’s job was to bring energy to the team as a rotation player off the bench, a role he filled admirably. He shot 6-for-9 against Georgetown and scored 12 points, tallied 17 against Rutgers and in the Orangemen’s NCAA Tournament win against Indiana State, he collected 14 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes of action.
He became the team’s 6th man as a sophomore, their dependable weapon off the bench who could change the flow of a game with his scrappiness, offensive rebounding and ability to score buckets in transition.
“I was the first sub off the bench, but I was playing starter minutes,” said C.J. “I gained tremendous confidence. Coach Boeheim gave me some freedom. He trusted me out there and allowed me to contribute to the team in very meaningful ways. Instead of getting all my points on hustle plays, the team started running some plays for me and letting me shoot.”
As a junior, he surpassed 1,000 career points and inaugurated the season with a 17-point, 10-rebound gem against San Diego State. He scored 20 points against Pittsburgh, and had 22 points and had four blocks against Villanova.
He posted 18 points and 10 boards against Notre Dame. 19 and 11 against Seton hall. 20 and 10 against Providence. He scored 21 in the Big East Tournament final against Louisville. In the Orangemen’s Final Four loss to Michigan, he scored 22 points and grabbed six rebounds.
This year, he was named a second-team All-American by USA Today and the Basketball Writers Association, as well as making the All-ACC First team. After four years, he walked away from the university as one of the most accomplished and distinguished players in program history.
“I was proud of what I was able to accomplish in college,” said C.J. “Since the season ended, I really had a chance to sit back and reflect on the journey. When you’re going through it, you don’t get a chance to appreciate it. It feels good to have the type of impact that I had, for four years, at one of the country’s great college basketball programs. And being able to become the first person in my family to graduate from college, and see the look on my mom and dad’s face at my graduation, I can’t even put into words what that felt like.”
“The great thing about C.J. is that he’s one of the most consistent kids I’ve been around from a work ethic standpoint,” Syracuse assistant coach Adrian Autry recently told Sports Illustrated. “He has a high I.Q. and figures things out really quickly. He’s an NBA player – and a very good one at that.”
According to the various mock drafts, it’s obvious that there isn’t a consensus on where he might be selected though. While working out for 14 teams leading up to the draft, he’s been anxious to prove that his 28-point performance against Jabari Parker and Duke this season was the rule of who he is as a player, and not the exception.
After the season, he spent over a month working out in Houston with former NBA coach John Lucas. He also trained with former NBA legend and scoring machine George Gervin, who also trains Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris.
“I think he’s one of the most underrated guys in this whole draft,” Harris recently told the Baltimore Sun. “Whatever team picks him, the sky’s the limit. I think he’s more ready than more than half the guys in this whole NBA Draft.”
During his workouts, which took place all over the country during a dizzying last few weeks, Fair was eager to show off his scoring ability, versatility and athleticism, traits that are highly coveted in today’s pro game.
At 6-foot-8, he feels that he can slide to the shooting guard, and the power forward position in a small-ball lineup, from time to time, but that his natural place on an NBA court is at the small forward position.
“Whatever team picks C.J., they are not only getting a talented player, they’re also going to be getting a delightful, sweet person,” said Carl. “He’s a coach’s dream, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his dad. He’s always smiling, kind of shy and he’s always been humble. But when he steps on the court, he wants to destroy you. And he can do it in many different ways. He’s self-motivated, self-sufficient and will do whatever it takes for his team to be successful.”
“I’ve shared my story and experiences with him ever since he was little, and he always listened,” Carl continued. “He tells me that I talk too much sometimes, but I wanted to make sure that he understood how I threw all my opportunities away. He trusted me, took a different path, made his own plan and stuck to the script.”
“I could get drafted in the first round, second round, or get invited to training camp as a free agent,” says C.J. “I know I’m one of the best players in this draft. I’d love to be a first round pick, but ultimately, that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Some team is going to take a chance on me. And I’m going to prove that they made the right decision. I’m gonna do what I have to do and take advantage of this opportunity.”
It’s a lesson that his father didn’t learn until later in life. But the son, ultimately, was the beneficiary. Lesson learned.
C.J Fair went undrafted in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Dallas Mavericks signed him to their summer league roster after the draft. He reports to Dallas on July 5th. The Las Vegas NBA Summer League runs from July 11th - 21st.