COCHRAN, Ga. — The house on Peach Street is filling up with people.
There are so many of them, almost all dressed in Wichita State gear, that they spill out the front and side doors, some standing in the yard underneath a slight drizzle of rain and listening to Carl Halls stepfather, King Fields, as he holds court in the front yard, chain-smoking cigarettes and talking about the Shockers chances against Louisville on Saturday in the Final Four, just two hours up the road in Atlanta.
Some stand underneath a carport, beneath a sign tacked to the back wall Carl Hall #22, Wichita State Shockers, We Are Proud of You! and joke about not knowing the person they see on television.
Nobody here calls him Carl, they say. Here, they all call him Tony.
He is, after all, Carl Anthony Hall Jr.
Who is Carl Hall? one of his aunts asks. Im calling him Tony. I cant call him Carl. Hes Tony to me.
Inside the house, Halls mother, Jackie Fields, scrambles from the kitchen to the living room when she hears screaming among the seemingly endless stream of small children running back and forth through the house.
Nobody better be messing with my baby! Jackie says. Nope, nope, nope, yall aint doing that. What did yall do to Tyreke?
There is laughter from the other room as Jackie comes back into the kitchen carrying her grandson, Carls 3-year-old son Tyreke, and sits down at the table with him in her lap. Tyreke has been living with Jackie since December.
Somebody get my baby a cupcake, Jackie says. You know I will toss each and every one of these little kids up out of here if theyre messing with my baby.
The women sitting around the table nod and smile. Thats Jackie, they all say. Shell tell you whats on her mind. And dont mess with her kids, or else.
Soon, there will be another baby. Hall and his girlfriend, Elesa Ates, are expecting another boy, due June 1. Doctors have already told her that he might come sooner because he is growing so fast.
The house on Peach Street, deep in the heart of Georgia, is filling up with people.
• • •
By 1986, Carl Anthony Hall had already done a stint in the Air Force and was headed toward big-time trouble in small-town Georgia.
Carl, 21, caught the eye of Jackie, 16, when they met through mutual friends before her junior year of high school. He was from Eastman, just 15 miles south, and taking classes at Middle Georgia College in Cochran.
He was in a car with a guy who was dating one of my friends, Jackie said. He got out, we started talking and I guess that was it. We got married when I turned 18.
They had their first child, Carl Anthony Hall Jr., on March 29, 1989. It wasnt long after that when Carl Sr. went away to prison for the first time, going in from June 1989 through October 1990 on drug charges.
Sheri Williams, Jackies friend, was living next door to her in the Pecan Points Apartments in Cochran and was there the day they brought Carl home from the hospital.
Tony was just our little sweetheart I always felt like he was my little baby, too, Sheri said. We all just loved him so much. We were always close.
After his release, Carl Sr. and Jackie had another child, Quanesha, born in 1992.
In the fall of that year, Carl Sr. was confronted by a man named Wendell McClain about dealing drugs around children.
After the argument, Wendell went back to his car. When he looked up, Carl Sr. was approaching him. Wendells sister, Jacquelyn McClain, and another bystander saw what was happening and approached to intervene. As the four people argued, a scuffle ensued.
Carl Sr. pulled out a semi-automatic gun and shot Jacquelyn in the forehead, killing her. He shot Wendell once, a bullet that went through both of his legs.
For his crimes, he received a life sentence without parole. He is currently serving his sentence at Calhoun State Prison, just over two hours away in Morgan, Ga.
He has remained in touch with his children via phone calls.
Weve never resented our dad, which would have been easy to do, Quanesha said. And thats because our mom always tried to make the best of it. She pointed to it as a lesson, like thats what you dont do. I dont think its fair to say we missed having a father, because we never knew what that was.
Carl and his father still talk, usually once every two or three weeks.
My mother told me everything about him, my aunties told me everything about him, Carl said. I can say hes helped me through some tough situations the last 2 1/2 years with the advice hes given me. Im close with all of my family growing up it was never like I just had one mother looking after me, it was like I had four.
• • •
If you want to know something about sports in Cochran, John Stanley is probably your guy.
In a town of just over 5,000, John, a longtime assistant boys basketball coach at Bleckley County High, is as well-respected in the community as anyone youll come across. Hes also known Jackie since they were children.
John is a good man, Jackie said. Hes done a lot for the boys in this town, making sure they dont go to the streets. Not just my boys.
And it was John who introduced Carl to sports.
Here, youre either in sports or youre in the streets, John said. Ive been friends with Jackie almost all my life, so when I saw that (Carl) was old enough, I just grabbed him and pointed him in the direction of sports. At first, he was really quiet and really shy once he started to outgrow the rest of the kids, that was when he really started to develop his sense of humor, in part because he excelled at basketball and football and in part so he didnt get picked on.
By the time Carl was in elementary school, the teachers were having a hard time controlling him in class although he seemed to be able to charm his way out of more trouble then he got into.
Id get called up to school from work, telling me I needed to come get Carl, Jackie said. Then Id get there and theyd say, Oh, never mind, he can stay, and I just couldnt believe it. Whatd you call me for in the first place? He was mischievous, a little hard-headed he caught a few whippings, thats for sure. A couple of times, I just went and sat in the class with him. He wasnt bad, he was just a big jokester.
Jackie had another son, Tavon Ross, in 1995, and began caring for another boy that was Carls age, Donja Jackson, after Donjas mother died when he was 10.
And that was their family, through thick and thin.
You stick together through hard times, you cherish the moments you get with each other, Jackie said. No matter what, we never lost sight of that.
Carl always hated the fact that Jackie had to work two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. It ate him up on the inside to see her come home, beat, and fall into bed only to wake up and do it all over again.
She babysat when she could. She worked at the hospital at night and at a dentists office during the day. She cleaned houses. She did home health care.
He just hated it, he always told me that when he got bigger, he was going to make sure I didnt have to work so much, Jackie said. And he always worked hard. Always. From the time he was little, helping clean up around the house to when people would start paying him to just do odd jobs.
By the time Carl was 13, he was waking at the crack of dawn to mow yards. By the time the rest of his family woke up, hed have already knocked out two or three yards.
When the Fourth of July rolled around that year, Jackie was getting ready to have people over when Carl walked in the house from another long day of mowing and she remarked on how much money hed made.
I told him he about had enough money to buy his school clothes and he just looked at me like I was speaking another language, Jackie said. It had never occurred to him that he might be able to do something with that money for himself. He looked at me and said, Mama, that money is for you if you need it.
I took him to the mall that next day and had him pick out his clothes for the school year. We put them on layaway and he came back and paid them off before school. He was so young, even the people at the store were impressed.
Carl never stopped mowing yards, or working. At the Piggly Wiggly when he got old enough. He kept a little for himself. He gave the rest to Jackie.
I saw that first hand, Sheri Williams said. What can you say about a child like that? He loves his mama so much there was nothing he ever did just for himself. It was always the family first.
One Christmas, when Carl was in high school and money was tight, he went to Jackie and forbade her from buying him gifts.
I heard him talking to mama and he said, You better not get me anything, you just get Quanesha and Tavon everything they want, Quanesha said. He didnt even wake up Christmas morning with the rest of us.
Jackie didnt listen. She bought Carl a cell phone and placed it on the pillow next to his head while he was sleeping.
He always puts us before him, Quanesha said. Thats my brother.
• • •
Clifford Kerbo was hired as the boys basketball coach at Bleckley County in 2005. Kerbo, a Thomasville native, played football for The Citadel and decided to switch to coaching basketball from football after he felt like hed been passed over for a defensive coordinator position earlier in his career.
It was a good fit. Last month, the Royals lost in the Class AA championship game in Macon. Theyve been to the state tournament in six of his eight seasons.
We hadnt even played for the state title since 1965, when we won it all, Kerbo said. And that was seven years before integration. When I showed up and the first time I sat down with John Stanley and we talked about our philosophies and our approach it was kind of scary how much we were both on the same page.
Before Carls senior year, Kerbo knew they had a chance to be one of the best teams in the state, and behind Hall, a skinny, 6-foot-8 forward, they made it to the state tournament.
I dont think he knew how good he was yet, which is pretty typical for a 16- or 17-year-old, because theyre mainly interested in girls, Kerbo said. But you could tell he had a love for the game. And the town loved him. Every time Carl played, it seemed like there was one half of the gym that was just there for him. John and I always said his best basketball was ahead of him.
Before a Class AA state quarterfinal game against Jordan High, both Kerbo and Carl were about to learn an important lesson.
Kerbo had one steadfast rule about hair no dreadlocks. At the time, Carl was just beginning to grow out his hair and decided to go against Kerbos rule the day before the game.
He walked in the gym for practice, we looked at each other and I said You can go home, Kerbo said. He stopped for a moment, then turned around and walked out of the gym. The rule is if I kick you out of the gym is that you need to be in my classroom the next morning, first thing, before school starts. Because we both need time to cool down.
He came in and had the dreads taken out and his hair braided. We looked at each other and I told him, The bus leaves at 4 and he turned around and walked out.
Still, Carls teammates didnt know if Kerbo would let him play. They pumped the assistant coaches for information, but Kerbo played it close to the vest.
I let John know (Carl) was going to play, but that I wasnt going to start him, Kerbo said. I put him in about halfway through the second quarter.
Carl responded with a triple double for the ages 22 points, 27 rebounds and 16 blocks to advance Bleckley County to the quarterfinals, where they lost to rival Dodge County 31-30.
When Kerbo got home after the win over Jordan, he got a quick reminder in who ran his household, and that maybe he needed to begin changing with the times.
My wife said if he hadnt played, there was no reason to bring my (butt) home that night, Kerbo said, laughing. My wife and kids absolutely loved Carl kids change, but coaches have to change, too. Now, I just tell them to keep the hair pulled up.
• • •
Carl didnt have the grades to go Division I out of high school, so he enrolled at Middle Georgia, close to home. He played four games his freshman year before he collapsed during a pickup game the result of a heart condition called neurocardiogenic syncope. It means the heart sometimes beats too fast.
Doctors told him that he could never play basketball again and he went to work on the graveyard shift at Lithonia Lighting in Cochran.
I worked there for two years in a paint booth, which was very hot it was a nasty place to work, Carl said. But it paid the bills.
At the same time, a girl working at the local Dairy Queen caught his eye Elesa. She was one year younger than Carl at Bleckley High and had just graduated from high school. Elesas friends and family call her Tootie because of how much she resembles a character from the 1980s television show Facts of Life.
At first he was coming in once every day, then it was twice, and he was ordering the same thing every time, a large cotton candy Blizzard, Elesa said. And he was telling everyone I worked with that we were going to start dating. He even bet my manager it was going to take him two weeks it took a little longer.
Elesa found out she was pregnant at the beginning of 2009 and had Tyreke on Sept. 15, right around the same time medication for Carls heart condition was giving him hope he could resurrect his basketball career.
It was also then that Carl, previously a lackluster student, started to focus on his future.
Tyreke changed my life, he said. Hes my reason I wanted to go back to school. I didnt want him growing up not having things, struggling he motivates me to work hard every day.
Carl dominated at Middle Georgia in 2009-10, leading the Warriors to the Region XVII title and a spot in the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, where he first caught the eye of Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall.
After the season, with doubts that Carl could qualify for Division I because of Georgias Regents Testing program required of any junior-college graduate in the state he transferred to Northwest Florida Community College. The decision caused some static in Cochran, as Carl was part of a mass exodus of players from Middle Georgia to Florida junior colleges.
At the heart of any story about Carls transfer, which you can get from almost anyone in Cochran, is Jackie.
I look out for my children first and foremost, Jackie said. I make no apologies for that.
Hall signed with Wichita State in November 2010. He averaged 17.6 points and 9.6 rebounds in his one season at Northwest Florida.
Carl was already well-known in Cochran before the Shockers run to the Final Four over the last two weeks he was the Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year last season and was named to the MVC All-Newcomer team.
This season, he is averaging 12.5 points and 6.9 rebounds and was chosen second-team All-MVC despite missing a month of the season with a broken right thumb.
But the Final Four, two hours north, has created a different kind of buzz in Cochran, where Marshall hit a deer on his way to recruit Carl for the first time.
I can tell you first-hand how rural it is, Marshall said. We hit that thing and blew out a tire.
The town itself seems like a little slice of Wichita these days the Piggly Wiggly has a special Carl Hall cake and Shocker cupcakes. Bleckley County schools superintendent Charlotte Pipkin issued a proclamation changing the schools mascot from the Royals to the Shockers through Monday.
If theres a business in town with some sort of sign or billboard out front, its got some sort of homage to Carl, mainly wishing him luck.
Everywhere you go its Carl, Carl, Carl. And dont get them started on his now-famous dreadlocks that he cut off before the NCAA Tournament and mailed to Jackie, who keeps them in a plastic storage bin at her house. Donja, Carls adopted brother, cut off his own shoulder-length dreadlocks in solidarity the day Wichita State opened NCAA play against Pittsburgh in Salt Lake City.
You tell these kids who Carl is and they kind of nod their heads and listen to you, Bleckley County athletic director Benji Rogers said. But when you get Charles Barkley on TV saying Carl Hall is a beast, that changes things a little bit.
Carl smiled when asked what he thought was going on back in his hometown.
Its a really small town, and the way people treat each other reminds me a lot of Wichita, Carl said. People look out for each other there. I was one of those kids that was hard-headed and always wanted to do his own thing, so I needed those mentors to kind of guide me through the tough times.
At the Bleckley County Recreation Department, eighth-graders practice a few feet from Halls framed jersey from Northwest Florida and a team picture of the Shockers.
The Final Four, everybody knows thats a big deal as big as it gets, said D.J. Lemmon, 13, who is growing his dreadlocks out just like Halls were. And I was shocked when he cut off his hair. Shocked.
• • •
The house on Peach Street is full.
The stories about Carl Tony are flying. Some are funny, and people laugh. Some are emotional, and people cry.
He is the heartbeat of our team, Marshall says on Thursday in Atlanta. A true warrior.
The last time anyone saw Carl in Cochran was last fall, when he came to town to watch Tavon, a junior, play football. Hell likely come back when the new baby is born. He is contemplating naming him Carl Anthony Hall III.
Thats negotiable, Elesa says, smiling.
Give that boy his own name! Sheri says. He cant!
Everyone laughs. It is getting deep into the Georgia night. Jackie makes sure everyone has eaten. The women are in the living room and kitchen, talking about Carl.
The men are outside, still discussing whether the Shockers have a shot against Louisville, a conversation that wont end until the game is played on Saturday.
The house on Peach Street is full.
Of so many more things than just the people in it.