By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
J.J. Carter has never taken a shot for the Stillwater High School boys basketball team. He’s never grabbed a rebound or even put on a Stillwater jersey.
But make no mistake, Carter is as much a part of Stillwater’s basketball team as any of its players.
“He’s one of our biggest inspirations,” Stillwater senior Caleb Watkins said. “You look at a kid like J.J. and he’s never got a frown on his face. He’s always smiling. He doesn’t believe that he’s any different from us. He’s out there with us everyday.”
From his nearly flawless impersonations of Stillwater coach Michael Davis inside the Stillwater locker room to dancing in the huddle before tipoff, Carter has been the glue that has kept the Pioneers together throughout the season.
“If we have a practice or are in the gym and J.J. isn’t there, something just isn’t right,” Davis said. “Our mojo is not right. ... He keeps it light for me because I’m a very intense person. The music will be going and he’ll dance and crack you up. He’ll mess up practice and make me laugh. He’s a big part of our family and he’s a lot of fun.”
“I’ll be coming over to the gym thinking, I’ve got this and that to do, but then I’ll look over at J.J. and he’ll just smile,” Stillwater assistant coach Derrick Verner said. “It’s infectious. It just makes you smile. It changes your mood and takes your mind off some of the worries you have and sometimes, in not such a good way, (you forget) the responsibilities because you get caught up in joking around with him.”
While Carter has a knack for joking around and trash talking some of the players, it wasn’t always like this. The 25-year-old is still shy around people he doesn’t know, but he has started to come out of his shell.
“He’s finally opened up to me this year and comes in every day and talks to me,” Stillwater athletics secretary Tracy Sodowsky said. “It just keeps a smile on your face. ... It used to be that coach Davis would send him down for a piece of candy. He’d come get it, leave and wouldn’t talk. Now, he’s not outside my door for very long. He comes in and sits with me for about an hour a day and we talk about basketball.”
Basketball has been an outlet for Carter. Whether it’s ragging on Verner about the San Antonio Spurs or telling Carson Teel that he can beat Teel in a game of one-on-one, basketball has given Carter a voice, and a family, when he previously had none.
“Since I’ve been coaching, it seems like J.J. has been a part of us,” Davis said. “When we first got him he was so quite. I mean, he wouldn’t say a word. Now he talks smack. He’s upset when we lose, happy when we win. He doesn’t have to be here over the holiday practices. J.J. never misses a practice, though. He’s here every day we’re here.”
It’s that consistency that makes Carter a rarity. He doesn’t miss a game. He doesn’t miss a practice. He doesn’t even miss the team dinners.
“Every game this summer during the summer league, he traveled down there with us,” Stillwater assistant coach Kyle Love said. “He exemplifies everything that we think a Pioneer is. He’s more than just somebody that hangs around with the team, he’s definitely a part of it. We view him as an extension of us. Everywhere he goes, we feel like he’s a part of us. It’s not even a question for somebody like that.”
The players, coaches and even fans have become so accustomed to seeing Carter on the sidelines that when Carter’s mother died last March, the thought that he might not return to the team almost seemed unbearable.
“Losing his mom really hurt the team pretty good,” Verner said. “We all understood and we were all sympathetic. Then when he left town to go be with family, we thought we were going to lose him for good. It cut a little bit when we thought that, but we’re glad to have him here.”
But like everything he does, Carter was able to make something positive out of that tragedy — forming a special bond with Budke, whose father died in a plane crash earlier last season and had been sidelined with a knee injury.
“It brought us even closer together,” Budke said. “It showed J that we have his back. He’s not just someone that hangs around our team. He’s part of our team and part of our family. He’s honestly like a brother to me.”
Now the two seem almost inseparable, with Budke often driving Carter wherever he needs to go and Carter offering words of encouragement from the sidelines.
“He’s just a great friend,” Budke said. “Any time coach D is yelling at me or something, he just comes up to me and says, ‘Budke, you good.’ It just kind of settles me down a little bit.”
Sitting on the Pioneers’ bench Carter has found what he’s been looking for — a voice and a family.
And as Stillwater prepares for regionals Friday at Pioneer Fieldhouse, you can bet Carter will be somewhere on the sidelines coaching the Pioneers.
“We’ve got to work hard. We’ve got to work as a team and we’ve got to get better,” Carter said, impersonating Davis before cracking his trademark smile.