Keith Carter heads back to Italy for hoops

Keith Carter hasn't played basketball at Ole Miss since time ran off the clock in Milwaukee as the Rebels fell to Michigan State in the second round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament. But he has continued to play the game he loves.

Carter, who will turn 31 in October, heads back to Italy next week, marking the start of his ninth season following a successful college career. This will be his sixth year to play in Italy.

Those college years in the late 1990s were also some of the winningest ever for Ole Miss men's basketball. Carter and company won two Southeastern Conference Western Division titles and went to the NCAA Tournament three straight seasons. On that same trip to Milwaukee, the Rebels beat Villanova in round one of the NCAA tourney, the first-ever win for Ole Miss in that event.

Carter, a Perryville, Ark., native who now calls Oxford home, begins the new season wondering if it might be his last in professional basketball. He and his wife, Jill, have two small children – Drew, who will be 3 in November, and Callie, who just turned 1.

He knows there's more organized basketball in his past than in his future. So he heads back to Italy to give it all he's got and to relish playing team basketball at least one more time.

"I've always tried to take things just one year at a time, and I know this might be the last one," said Carter, whose USA team won a gold medal in the Goodwill Games of 1998 while he was still in college. "I've learned that twisted ankles take a little more time now, and I don't bounce back quite as fast from stuff."

He's also learned it by staying involved with Ole Miss and its hoops program.

"I've played some games with those kids," he laughed and said. "It hurts me to watch them do some of the things they can do."

Which are some of the things Carter used to do. Some of it he still does.

"I've had some knee surgeries and other things happen to me along the way, but I'm feeling as good right now as I have in a long time," said the No. 6 all-time scorer in Ole Miss men's hoops history with 1,682 points. "That makes me even more excited about another season."

Another thing that has him excited is the fact that his team should be good this season.

"I've been happy with the way my game has progressed and the way our team has, too," said Carter, who will play for Veroli, Italy, located an hour south of Rome. "There are 18 teams in the league, and it's the highest level of basketball there. I averaged 12 points a game last year, but it's so much more about winning than it is how I've done. As long as we win, things are fine. I'm happy with how things have progressed."

Carter's dream of playing in the NBA never materialized. He played for two seasons right out of college with the IBL. He then played with the old Memphis Hound Dogs team, but then missed his fourth season after college with a major knee injury and surgery while playing with the L.A. Clippers' summer league team.

He thought at that point his career might be over.

"I thought that might just be it for me," he said.

But during his comeback, he developed a new outlook on his professional life.

"After surgery and during rehab, I just realized how much I loved the game. That propelled me to work hard and keep going."

Which he has ever since. Carter, among the most popular hoops players to ever wear the red and blue of Ole Miss, says playing professionally in Italy is a lot like playing in college in the United States.

"Basketball has really grown there in the last few years," he said. "It's the second most popular sport behind soccer. The atmosphere is incredible. It's like a college atmosphere over here. Fans dress up (in their team's colors), paint their faces. There are drums and whistles. It's loud. It's really a neat atmosphere."

There was obviously an adjustment period earlier in his career living so far from home. Now that there are two young children involved, there is more adjustment.

"Once you get there and get settled, it's a lot easier," Carter said. "The first couple of years we had to get used to the culture. It's just so laid back. We've learned some of the language, and of course the food is great.

"We ship some foods over from here that we can't get. We've made friends from the northern tip (of Italy) to the southern tip. Now with the kids, we're packing like eight bags along with four carryons and a stroller. There's more to it now."

Having his family there makes it much easier, he said.

"I work four hours a day (at basketball), and we only play one game a week. So we have a lot of time to spend together. That's probably kept me in it longer, being able to spend so much time with them. No other job would allow that."

But at some point fairly soon he will make the transition from professional basketball player to professional.....well, he's not too sure right now the rest of that particular statement.

"We love Oxford and would love to stay there," Carter said – wife Jill is from nearby Tunica. "We love going to the games and supporting Ole Miss. It really just depends on the job situation."

So if any Ole Miss alums or fans out there would like to talk to Keith Carter about employment opportunities, he'll certainly listen. In the meantime, there's one more basketball season, at least, in his immediate future.

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