Will Ivan Carter Follow in Wilbon’s Footsteps?

By: Harry Jaffe

Covering basketball for the Washington Post can be a ticket to TV stardom. Ask Mike Wilbon, Ric Bucher, and Dave Aldridge, all of whom wrote about roundball for the Post and now have lucrative careers analyzing basketball on TV.

Could Ivan Carter be next? Carter’s star has been rising with the winning ways of the Washington Wizards, who seem headed for the NBA playoffs. Don’t be surprised to see his angular face on TV if the Wizards make it past the first two rounds.

Covering a top team is like writing about the candidate who gets to the White House. He makes it; you make it. Carter’s byline is becoming as hot as Gilbert Arenas’s hand from beyond the three-point line.

Like Arenas, Carter had to fight his way to the top.

Carter’s dream of becoming a sports writer took shape when his mother took him to see a Vikings football game when he was five. He looked up at the press box

“What are they doing?” he asked.

She said they wrote about the game.

“You mean they get paid to watch it?” he said. And the child, who grew up reading history books and sports pages, saw his future.

Carter’s grandmother knew the odds were against his making a buck at sports. He had been running with a bad crowd in his home town of St. Paul, Minnesota. His mother had shipped him to live with his grandmother in Red Wing, a small town far enough away to be frigid and boring. He loved to read so much he would skip class to read about Malcolm X in the library. He had no contacts in the sports-writing world. He was not headed to an Ivy League school.

At St. Olaf College he played wide receiver and wrote for the newspaper. He found himself at loose ends after graduating. No job prospects. No internships. No connections.

“The Timberwolves were playing at home one weekend,” he tells me. “I put on a sport coat, tucked some important looking papers under my arm and talked my way to court side before the game.”

He approached Ray Richardson, legendary sports writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and said, “I love your stuff. Can you help me get a job writing about sports? A free internship, maybe?”

Richardson introduced Carter to his editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who gave the kid an internship in 1997. He got a few clips but found himself at loose ends once again when the internship ended. He sold his car to buy a plane ticket to DC to attend a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists. He worked the room and landed a job with the Kansas City Star.

In 2005, after covering the Chiefs for five years, he got a call from Garcia-Ruiz, who by then was sports editor at the Post. Carter snapped up the chance to cover the Wizards.

What has impressed Carter, 32, about Washington?

“At my first Wizards game, I was amazed to see so many middle-class black people in the stands,” says Carter, whose father is African American. “You don’t see that so much in the Midwest.”

Carter’s days and passions are organized in opposition to the average Washingtonian’s. For many, politics is a day job and sports a diversion. Carter comes home from a day covering sports, flips on a TV show with political talking heads, and winds up cheering on his point of view and screaming, “You idiot!” at the opposition.

He’s found the Wizards to be a class act. “Not a knucklehead to deal with,” he says. He discusses the latest Noam Chomsky book with Etan Thomas, the ponytailed center he calls “a different cat.”

Carter is still connected to home. When he got his first writing job, he called his grandmother to say, “Guess what?”

And when he attended the recent commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Lincoln Memorial, where his mother had been for the 1963 March on Washington, he called her and said, “Guess where I’m standing?”