Canadian basketball veteran English relives life full of tragedies for his book

TORONTO — Carl English has lived a life full of heartbreaking setbacks.

From losing his parents in a house fire as a young boy to the death of his uncle to going unchosen in the NBA draft, the Canadian basketball stalwart has been thrown one cruel curve ball after another.

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And for an exhausting week this past summer, English poured out every poignant detail to Blake Murphy, a basketball writer for The Athletic, for their book "Chasing a Dream: The Carl English Story." It hit bookstore shelves on Friday.

"We got 50 hours of recording done in the first week, and I was just physically and emotionally drained, because you're facing everything, you're telling every little detail so it can be vivid to the reader," the 38-year-old said from his home in Paradise, N.L. "And to tell the story the way I wanted to from my eyes and so people would know there was so much tragedy, so much failure, so much disappointment, but then also perseverance and determination.

"And it's been a successful career. But I put so much pressure on trying to make the NBA, and try to live up to what my parents would want me to be."

English hopes to inspire Canadian kids with his story. He was five when his parents Kevin and Lavinia died in a housefire. He and his four young brothers escaped virtually unharmed, but they were split up afterward and raised separately. English's aunt Betty and uncle Junior McGrath took him in, and Junior became like a second father before he died of a heart attack when English was 20. The two had just come ashore from a fishing trip.

English had hoped telling his story would be cathartic, but opening old wounds was painful.

"I buried it for so long that it comes back, and it's there, and you've got to imagine that me and my brothers lost our parents at such an early age and we didn't speak to one (counsellor)," English said, his Newfoundland accent still present after more than a decade of living in Europe. "Imagine if something like that happened in this day. We all got separated, and we went different ways, and still to this day we don't even talk about it. We bury it. We buried it like we buried them and it becomes difficult."

Basketball has always been English's outlet. But he endured his share of setbacks on the court as well. The six-foot-five shooting guard suffered humiliation in the 2003 NBA draft, throwing a draft party and inviting the media, only to go undrafted in a nightmare scenario. He recounts the experience in distressing detail in his book — right down to splitting his pants wide open moments before facing the media.

"It was a mix of arrogance and cockiness, disappointment and failure. I was doing everything I could not to cry in front of all of these people and all these cameras," he writes of that night.

English signed with Indiana only to be cut during training camp. Then a potential position in Orlando evaporated in frustrating fashion.

"I'm en route to the airport, a big guy goes down in practice, and they call me and say 'No, we can't bring you in, a big guy just blew out his knee,'" English said — he dropped an F-bomb, still frustrated by the memory.

And so English headed to Europe where he had an excellent career, playing in seven countries and on 13 pro teams before returning home in 2017 to play with the St. John's Edge of the National Basketball League. English hasn't re-signed with St. John's for next season. He's also made numerous appearances for Canada's national team.

He and his wife Mandy have three kids — Ryder, 11, Kirsten, who turns 10 this week, and Kylie, five.

English said his life thus far has been a "helluva journey." He and Ryder began reading his book together last week. He wants his kids, and others across Canada to know, what's possible with hard work and perseverance. He'd love to be a voice of hope for people who might be suffering.

"It's great to look at LeBron James or Steph (Curry), like 'I want to be LeBron.' Well, you've got to be outstanding. It's very difficult to be LeBron James," English said with a laugh. "But if you can look at a normal person, an average person, someone like myself, and say look what I came from, look what I rose up from and look what determination and hard work and hours and hours and hours can do for you — well I can achieve that or better.

"That's what I want from the book. I want it to be for people who are in a dark place, or dealing with tragedy. This is a sports story yes, but it's also a life book."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2019.

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