Jalen Carey is from Harlem, N.Y. He’s not from Brooklyn. He’s not from New Jersey.
Although his mother lives in the Bronx, Carey was born and raised in Harlem. This is important to him, and the more you get to know about Jalen, the more you understand why that’s so.
It’s where he and his father, John Carey, cultivated Jalen’s skills as a basketball player. It’s where he learned how to cope with his skin disease. It’s what molded him into a top-100 basketball player in his class. It’s why he has “Harlem” inscribed across his forearm. His hometown hardened him. His hometown made him.
Now, Jalen enters his sophomore year at Syracuse as Jim Boeheim’s starting point guard. It’s taken an arduous effort filled with plenty of sacrifice along the way for him to reach this point in his basketball career. Coming out of Harlem, it was anything but easy.
Basketball has always meant a great deal to Jalen. At an early age, his father, John Carey, put a basketball in his hands. John was a player himself, so it was natural for Jalen to have a passion for the game. It consumed him.
As a child he deferred watching cartoons in favor of SportsCenter or basketball, his mother Tawana Alston says. Growing up in New York City, Carey would dribble his pretend basketball past bystanders on the street and attempt to cross them over as if he were on the court. As he did, people would give strange looks in passing.
“Jalen, you can’t do that,” His mother would instruct.
“But mom,” Carey would plead. “I broke his legs!”
When he wasn’t playing on his Little Tikes hoop, Jalen would make basketballs out of anything he could find. Sometimes that would include scrunched up socks and Jalen would shoot them into a pretend hoop. On certain occasions, that came at the expense of mom.
“He’d be like, ‘Mom, I’m about to dunk it on you!’ Alston laughs as she recalls those early memories. “I’m like, ‘Okay, that kind of hurts! That’s my arm.’”
As he grew older, Jalen would begin basketball workouts with his dad. The two of them lived in the Kings Towers apartments in Harlem. At the center of that complex is the Kingdome, the same basketball court that Adrian Autry used to play on in his youth before he became a point guard at Syracuse for Jim Boeheim.
It’s also the same court that the late Pearl Washington used to travel to from Brooklyn in his early playing days. Before he became a legend at Syracuse, Pearl would play at Kingdome in Harlem. He would show up, park his motorcycle at center court of the Kingdome, drop 55 points and leave.
Jalen and his dad would get work in on those same basketball courts daily for many years.
“Every day he would get me from work, or on weekends we’d go in the morning. He used to get me and we’d go to the Kingdome and just get shots up,” Jalen said.
John put Jalen through rigorous training as a kid so he would understand the intensity he’d need to play the game at a high level. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, there were no days off. John would instill lessons and values into his son through the sport of basketball, which at times included tough love, emblematic of the city they were in. In his younger days, it wasn’t easy for Jalen to understand why his father was working him so hard.
At certain times when Jalen would get frustrated, he’d think of quitting basketball. But that would usually only last an hour or two until he starting shooting a basketball again.
“He’s always had that drive,” Alston says of her son. “Sometimes he would get a little upset because he felt like his father pushed him a little too hard.”
John was trying to motivate Jalen and make him understand how hard he would have to work at the game. When the younger Carey reached exhaustion, that’s when the elder began to prod.
“If it’s not in you, it’s not in you,” John would say to Jalen.
This would usually make Jalen angry, so he’d dig a little deeper. Those comments made him want to work harder and prove to his dad that he had it in him.
“He used to always tell me, when I’m not working somebody else is,” Jalen said. “That’s where my mindset comes from, always working hard.”
These days Jalen understands why he was pushed so hard. It was requisite training for where he is currently. Through workouts in the snow and through the rain, he and his dad developed a close relationship. Jalen says he wouldn’t be at Syracuse without his dad.
Jalen was born with ichthyosis, a rare skin disease which has no cure. It causes skin to have a dry and scaling effect and can lead to dehydration and stunted hair growth. Jalen says he’s the only person he knows with the disease.
During workouts as a kid, John would sometimes make Jalen play without his shirt, leaving his upper body exposed. This wasn’t meant to embarrass him as much as it was meant to encourage him to embrace it.
“We have no problem talking about that,” John says. “That’s what makes him. I’m gonna tell you that right now.
“If you’re too worried about what people think, you’re not going to get nowhere.”
The skin disease was a source of shame for Jalen as a child. Kids would look at him differently, but eventually he learned to own it and it helped him grow his confidence.
Jalen says he doesn’t worry about what people think of his ichthyosis now and wants to be an advocate for people who are looked down upon. He wants to be an example for kids to show them that they can do anything they want if they put in the work.
“One person that helped me with that is my high school coach Jimmy Salmon,” Jalen divulged. “He always said to just be comfortable with who I am. There’s no need to change for anybody.
“He used to always say, ‘If people don’t like you for who you are then they don’t really like you.’”
Salmon would prove to be instrumental to Jalen in myriad ways. Carey played AAU with the New York Rens but changed over to the NJ Playaz when he was in eighth grade, who were coached by Salmon. This would eventually prove to be the stepping stone needed for Jalen to land high division I offers and committing to Syracuse.
Jalen arrived in Syracuse early last summer. As the No. 38 overall recruit for the 2018 class in the ESPN 100, he enrolled during the summer semester to get a head start in the classroom and to train for the season ahead. With Tyus Battle returning to the Orange for 2018-19, Carey was expected to back up senior point guard Frank Howard and potentially earn minutes behind Battle as well.
That fall, Carey suffered an ankle injury in the Orange vs. White scrimmage. With Howard out for eight weeks with an ankle injury of his own, Carey was still thrust into rotation while still learning the offense and nursing a sore ankle.
He played so-so in the opening two games, but really shined in the early season trip to Madison Square Garden. In a homecoming event on the big stage, the Harlem kid poured in a total of 40 points in two contests while hauling in 10 rebounds and grabbing six steals. Still, those performances were in losing efforts.
Howard would return for the next game and Carey’s role would diminish. As the season wore on, fellow freshman Buddy Boeheim emerged for Syracuse. In need of a deep threat at guard, Carey’s playing time would be few and far between and after an early January home loss to Georgia Tech, Carey wouldn’t play over 10 minutes in a game for the remainder of his freshman season.
“He’s always been a starter. He was always the man on the team, the top player. So it was like, ‘Wow, that’s not me right now,’” Alston said. “But that helped him grow. Sit back and watch. Take in everything, learn. Keep perfecting, keep practicing and keep doing what you need to do.”
Even though his role was reduced, the coaching staff still praised his work ethic in practice. Jim Boeheim and Gerry McNamra noted that he was still working just as hard as he was in the early season. Carey remained industrious through the highs and lows of that season.
“That’s how I was raised,” Jalen suggested on his approach to last year. “From when my dad used to take me outside when it was cold out. I felt like that was for me to learn to continue to work no matter what. Don’t let anything stop you.”
“Mentally it’s tough. Physically it’s tough. Emotionally it’s tough. And all of that plays a role. So those types of things right there make you,” John said. “Who you are now when you’re down? Do you rise back up? Or do you fold? He wasn’t raised like that.”
Toward the end of last season at the ACC Tournament, Carey noted that he would stay motivated by thinking of his future and what was ahead of him. He didn’t want to be dour about his lack of playing time. He didn’t want to sacrifice his time by not putting in the work. As much as he looked toward his future, he also did some looking back, pulling lessons from the past in Harlem.
“I feel like that was the main thing for me to go outside when it was snowing or raining,” Carey said.
“Basically he was prepared at a young age for the grind that he’s in now. This is nothing new,” John finished.
None of this has been easy for Jalen. And if things ever started to become easy along the way, the bar was raised.
Coming out of Harlem, there was a lot of opportunity for things to go awry. It would have been easy for Jalen to take a different path. It would have been easy to give up on basketball, to stop working hard and take life in another direction.
“When I was growing up it wasn’t as difficult as it is now with drugs, a lot of stuff like that,” John says of Harlem. “It wasn’t a lot of opportunities, so a lot of people didn’t really make it out of here. A lot of greats, people that had talent, they just weren’t promoted right.”
By the time Jalen reached high school, his hard work starting to pay dividends. Some of his peers started dropping out of school, having kids and smoking, John says.
“These are the problems that we have with a lot of city kids. They don’t understand the sacrifices and the grind. They don’t understand getting up at six in the morning and understand the goals.”
As part of his cohort faltered, Jalen’s star was rising along with a few close peers. Along the journey, Jalen became close with Harlem guys Mo Bomba and Sheck Wes. Bomba currently plays for the Orlando Magic in the NBA while Wes is a prominent rapper. Jalen is also friends up-and-coming rapper TJ Porter.
Ayeee Sheck I got sumn for you bro— Jalen carey (@yungswae5) September 29, 2018
“We’re all from the same neighborhood,” Carey said. “In the Mo Bamba video you see the Kingdome. Those are my boys. I grew up with them. Seeing Mo, seeing what he’s doing now. Where we come from anything is possible.”
Meanwhile, Jalen was turning into a star basketball player at Dwight Englewood where he averaged 19.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a freshman. He started to think that he had arrived.
“He’s loving it. He’s thinking this is what life is about,” John said.
Jalen was becoming satisfied. John wasn’t having it. He knew that basketball was Jalen’s path out of Harlem and to a better life. There wasn’t a fall back plan. Basketball was the only way.
“You think you got money and privilege?” John began to ask Jalen. “We’re working every day. You’re far from that, the opposite of that. Let’s get this straight right now.”
Jalen understood and realigned his focus. His sophomore year he would transfer to Immaculate Conception High School in Monclair, NJ.
Commuting from Harlem to Montclair every day isn’t exactly a short trek. Each day, Jalen would board a bus from Harlem that would take him across the George Washington bridge. From there, he’d carpool with his teammate Donta Davis and then they would drive the rest of the way to Montclair. In total, this was about a 90-minute one-way commute. If Jalen was coming from his mom’s place in the Bronx, it would add an extra 30 minutes onto his commute each way.
This was, in part, by design. Jalen’s mom liked Immaculate Conception for its academics. Jalen’s dad liked Immaculate Conception for basketball and for its coach, Jimmy Salmon.
John also liked the idea of Jalen’s commute across the Hudson River each day because it kept him focused and it kept him out of trouble. By the time he finished school and basketball, he’d have a long commute home. There was no time for distraction. Depletion was the goal – there was no energy to go out and partake in mischief with his hometown friends.
This paid off in the form of camp invitations. Jalen was invited to high profile camps such as the Nike Elite 100 and Pangos All-American Camp in California. He won MVP at the LeBron James Camp.
“For Jalen, he just focused and beat teams he wasn’t supposed to beat,” John said. “That was the hunger, the dog in him.”
As a sophomore, the scholarship offers started rolling in from big-time division I basketball programs. Miami rang. Seton Hall showed up. UConn came knocking. Kansas offered him. Oh, and of course, Syracuse also reached out.
SU assistant coach Adrian Autry first headed down to New Jersey to scout out a player that Salmon brought to his attention. When Autry took the call, he had no idea who Carey was. After Autry went down to New Jersey to see Jalen play, the two were introduced to each other, but Jalen already knew all about Autry.
“You know my dad!” Jalen said to a bewildered Autry.
After a quick exchange, Jalen gave Autry his father’s phone number. Not long thereafter John’s phone rang and the two caught up and it was like old times.
“Guess who I’m recruiting?” Autry asked.
“I dunno. Who you got?” John responded.
“Your son!” Autry proclaimed.
The two of them had grown up in Harlem and while Autry was a few years older, they both played basketball against each other as kids.
In October of his senior year, Carey committed to Syracuse.
“Obviously him knowing me, me knowing him and his family that always helps in this thing,” Autry said. “The biggest thing is when you go through the recruiting process you’re trying to get to know everybody. I think we had that built in already.”
“The journey was great. We enjoyed the process. Everybody love our story.” John says. “They know they used to see us in the cold going to work like ‘Good morning!’ Then they’d come back (later in the day) and say ‘Goodnight!’ We still right here.”
When Syracuse opens the season against No. 11 Virginia on Wednesday, Jalen will start at point guard. He’s coming off an industrious summer’s work with trips to Greece, with the USA East Coast team, in June and Italy, with his Syracuse team, in August. In between those summer bookends, Jalen worked out two to three times each day in preparation for the season ahead. There will be no Frank Howard or Tyus Battle this season. The baton has been passed to Jalen and he’s earned it.
Says John, “Those are things that he worked for when it was raining, when his arm was hurting he was like, ‘No, I’m shooting.’”
Jalen and Buddy return as sophomores, and freshmen guards Brycen Goodine and Joe Girard will push for minutes.
But Jalen has worked for his starting spot. Gerry McNamara, who works with the guards in practice, says the offense will start with Jalen. He’s made Syracuse quicker in the open court and has done an excellent job pushing pace and finding his teammates in transition.
“I think that’s where it starts with him,” McNamara says. “Making other people around him better. Looking for himself a little bit secondary because he’s got that ability to make us go offensively and once everyone is going offensively he’s going to be that much more effective getting to the paint. The biggest thing is to just continue to work and work and work on that jumper. If that’s consistent you have a pretty dynamic guard.”
Carey will have to control his tempo this season and pick his spots. He’ll be tasked with facilitating the offense and limiting turnovers, something of concern a season ago. He’s a better mid-range shooter than what he’s been given credit for while the three is still a work in progress.
Jalen is at his best in the open court. In the half-court he’s dynamic in the pick and roll, something that’s been a staple for the point guard in Jim Boeheim’s offense. Jalen has added some weight to his frame since the end of last season, too.
“Jalen has worked really hard in the weight room so he’s stronger,” Jim Boeheim said. “His decision-making and how he pushes the ball is important. I think he’s shooting very well from mid-range. He works every day on his shooting and he’s getting better. He also continues to improve his 3-point shooting. But he’s really getting better at pushing the ball. We like to get it up the court and he can do that and make plays on the other end.”
If Syracuse is to increase pace this season, that responsibility will fall to Jalen — He’s the most capable guard of getting up and down the court given his speed. The Orange finished No. 276 in adjusted tempo in 2018-19. The days of Syracuse getting out of the fast break seem to be something of a distant memory, but with depth and Carey at the one a strong transition game remains a possibility.
“I’m excited for Jalen. I believe that for us to have the year that we think we can have he’s going to be key,” Autry said. “I think he’ll be ready for it. Obviously there’s going to be some ups and downs. But I’m excited for him. He’s going to be really important.”
There might be ups and downs, but that’d be nothing new for Jalen. Through the highs and the lows, he’ll continue to work every day irrespective of circumstance. If you ask he or his family, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You gotta be broke some days. You gotta be hungry to appreciate that come up. That’s what I wanted to teach my son,” John says. “You gonna have rainy days, man. But that’s what makes you strong.”
No matter how hard it pours, Jalen will keep working. That’s in him. That’s Harlem. Through all the years of workouts in the rain, Jalen is ready to shine.