The Rookie: Michael Carter-Williams
My knuckles are white as I grip the steering wheel, trying in vain to keep up with Michael Carter-Williams, who’s burning serious rubber up ahead. The Sixers’ rookie point guard agreed to meet me here at Dave & Buster’s on the waterfront for a head-to-head competition. As we walked through the arcade, he chose our first event—a racing game, “for Paul Walker,” he said, a nod to the Fast and the Furious actor who just died. Carter-Williams is a pop-culture hound; if he has Sunday night off, he’d rather watch Homeland than SportsCenter. He tells me he’s not a gamer, though. I think I may actually have a shot at beating MCW, as he’s known—something not many people can do these days.
Carter-Williams laughs as his hot rod leaves mine in the dust. He speeds through turns with ease, weaving in and out of traffic with abandon. My foot’s on the floor, and I still can’t keep pace with him. He takes the checkered flag in second place. I finish last.
Next up, I suggest a shooting game. Carter-Williams surveys our options. Laid-back in manner and dress, wearing dark denim and a red-and-black-checked flannel, he picks Rambo.
“Do you know who that is?” I ask. The first flick in the Stallone series came out nearly 10 years before the 22-year-old was born.
“Yeah,” he says. “I saw the one where he’s in the mud.”
I chuckle to myself. Yes, young man, that’s First Blood Part II, in which our hero camouflages himself so as to sneak up on a Commie grunt. Here’s where I’ll no doubt mount a comeback. But after a few waves of guerrillas eat virtual lead, Carter-Williams is the last man standing.
My final hope is Skee-Ball. Though I’m the one who was raised on Jersey Shore Boardwalk arcades, it’s Carter-Williams whose rolls are straight and true. Thanks to a couple lucky 100-pointers, I come from behind to pull even in the end. Unwisely, I suggest a tie-breaker. Carter-Williams could pass for a teenager, with his baby face framed by sleepy eyes, dimples and a mega-watt grin. But when it’s game time—basketball or anything else—he plays to win.
In our second Skee-Ball contest, he smokes me. We both laugh, and all Carter-Williams can do is shrug. I wonder: Is there anything this kid can’t do?
IN CASE YOU haven’t been paying much attention to the Sixers lately (and who could blame you?), here’s what Carter-Williams has accomplished in his short time in Philadelphia. He led all rookies in nearly every meaningful statistical category at the quarter-mark of the season; was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in October and November; took on the best player in basketball, LeBron James, and beat his championship team in the most thrilling Sixers season opener in more than a decade; gave hope to a moribund fan base that had none; and flipped the rooting philosophy of this season upside down, forcing a new story line to be written. Before the season began, Sixers fans were focused solely on the 2014 draft. Now, thanks in large part to a skinny kid who this time last year was a sophomore at Syracuse University, there’s life in this flatlined franchise. Few would have predicted Carter-Williams’s impact on this young team: When he missed seven games in December, the Sixers lost every one.
Carter-Williams heads to the ticket redemption room to see what we can claim with our meager winnings. We’re about 7,960 points shy of a waffle maker; his eyes light up when he finds a remote-controlled rat with glowing red eyes, but the price tag is a bit too rich. There’s almost nothing the young millionaire can afford in here, but a girl behind the counter agrees to let Carter-Williams choose from the bottom shelf—ah, the perks of celebrity. He passes on an eraser that looks like a $100 bill (“I’d get that if I was still in school,” he says) and picks out a blue mini-frisbee the size of a coaster.
What’s surprising isn’t the attention he draws, but the way he handles it all. Staffers walk into the private room reserved for our interview and ask for photos. He poses for them. A couple we saw on the arcade floor figures out why he looks so familiar and requests two pics, one for each of their cell phones. No problem, he tells them.
It all fits in with what we’ve seen of Carter-Williams in post-game press conferences: He stays poised in front of the cameras, says the right things, keeps the focus on the team game, not his own. In today’s NBA, where teenagers earn starter minutes and millions, and fans track their every move through Twitter and Instagram, the learning curve for stardom is steep. In many ways, Carter-Williams is the anti-Iverson. And that, I learned, is by design.