In this touching, often turbulent tale, the legendary Carl English opens up, sharing how a boy from the bay wound up ruling on the basketball court
Many have known that the Carl English story was one that involved both tragedy and triumph. English was born in Branch, later moving in with an aunt and uncle in Patrick’s Cove after heartbreak struck, one he addressed immediately in his Flanker Press released memoir, Chasing a Dream, The Carl
Escaping the blaze
“My parents died when I was five. I don’t remember much about the fire,” he opens powerfully, sharing that the fire that began in the family’s kitchen quickly spread, eventually taking the lives of both his parents, Kevin and Lavinia English.
All five brothers, Peter, Bradley, Kevin, Michael and Carl, the youngest, escaped the blaze. After the death of his parents, the boys were split up.
“The family decided that Bradley would go to St. John’s with Aunt Shirley. Kevin, Michael and Peter would stay with Aunt Florence and Uncle David in Angels Cove. I would go with Aunt Betty,” he writes.
Admitting to sitting down to read the entire book in one sitting, unable to put it down, English says he’s honoured to hear such praise. His tale, I tell him, broke my heart. He’s quiet for a moment, reflecting.
“If I broke your heart, I hope I also picked you back up and that I motivated you. And that now you feel like you know the true story of me,” he says.
On & off the court
English writes in the book that he’s often wondered if the important people who’ve passed, from his parents to the treasured uncle who helped raise him, were proud of him and what he has accomplished both on and off the court.
“I think that’s the whole part of coping. Of dealing with loss. I think the biggest thing is this; we are all relatable in experiences. Everyone has lost someone. Everyone wonders if they’ve made someone proud.”
English says, when asked why he decided to finally release his story, that it was just time.
“The biggest thing for me is it felt right. I think when I’ve been approached to do it before, I had just started having success and people were asking to hear my story and I wasn’t ready.”
There were many complex issues, of course. Maybe more than a few. First, it was painful to have to recall what happened. Secondly, he wanted to find his own path in life and not be known for having had a tragic past.
“I was always defined by the tragedy of my parents at an early age. I don’t think people got to know me before they heard what happened. Newfoundland is like that, it’s a small place. So it already followed me around,” he shares.
But having a chance to tell everything in his own words, with the maturity of the years and with the passion he felt of now being a dad, well, things changed, he said.
“Even now, the fans here in Newfoundland, I don’t think they know the hours that were put in on the side of the highway. The things that I had to overcome. The disappointments, the failures, the ups and downs. I was just always striving for something else from an early age. I wanted more.”
With all he’s accomplished in life, he was ready. In fact, he shares, he probably needed to deal with what happened in order to be healthy.
“The loss of my parents was never really dealt with. And I certainly never really understood it. You’re five years old, my daughter’s age right now. God forbid something like that was to happen to me and my wife. I look at her and I wonder, and I did the same thing with my other kids when they were her age, what is going through their little minds now? And what was going through my mind when I was their age?”
The saving grace
One thing that was going through his mind was basketball, and it soon became his saving grace.
“Basketball became my coping mechanism and that allowed me to be free. It took me out of whatever negative headspace. I just got the ball in my hand and I just felt so free. Then I just wanted to be the best I could.”
Growing up in a hockey town, there weren’t many basketball opportunities, he adds. “I’m in a small town of only 40, 50 people at that time. And obviously people might say I was a bit crazy. But then I started to get good and I started to work harder and harder. And then, it was like, OK. I can do this.”
Not everyone was in his corner mind you. “There was always the naysayers in town and the coaches that said they never thought I would amount to much or get to the next level. But then I took things a step further and I went further and I got better.”
Before long, there were scholarships and notoriety, special back in those days because there was no social media to help fan the flames of fame.
“Now you can find a talented kid anywhere in the world, right? But I just always believed in myself. But along the road, there was just so many ups and downs and so many things like trusting some of the wrong people who steer you in the wrong direction. My way of coping with all of that was to just shut it down. Work harder. Go on to the next challenge. Stay focused.”
Reliving the nightmare
Has the process of writing helped? Yes and no, he answers honestly.
“I thought it’d be therapeutic. But I was living my nightmares all over again. Blake (Murphy, who helped with the writing) came down, and he did a fabulous job of telling things through my eyes and from my voice. We spent about 50 hours together and I remember going to bed some nights and looking at my wife. And I’m like, I am physically destroyed, and I didn’t do anything today besides being interviewed.”
He felt, he shares, like he had been through an intense workout. “I could have worked out three times and played four games of basketball and not been as tired. It was one of the toughest things I’d done and then I realized that that’s probably why I put this off for 15 years.”
Now that the book is out, how does he feel? “When I look at it and I go back and I read it again I’m like, I hope my intentions were obviously to tell my story, but then the whole goal of this for me at this point of my career was that if other people are dealing with loss or tragedy, don’t sit and dwell on it. You can turn to bad things that happen and look for inspiration and motivation.”
At times, life is tough enough without letting the negative things that happen and that we have little control over things that define who we are.
“It’s easy to turn on the TV and find a role model. But is that real? I always loved Michael Jordan, but is that attainable? Kids can look at the stars who live far away but if you’re a Newfoundlander or in Canada, you can look at me, who you know, who you’ve seen, who you could interact with, who is in your backyard, who’s come from hard-times and is cut from the same cloth as you, and I made it. So now, what’s your excuse? That’s why I wanted to tell my story.”
English is from fishing roots, in fact he fished with his uncle many times, earning extra money cutting out cod tongues. He says he knew, at some point, he’d find his way back here if he could.
“I’ve always had such a deep love for home. I had to leave at such an early age. I spent half my life away. But I think all the time, even my years playing with Team Canada, I always represented Newfoundland. I represented Canada, but I was always proud to be the only Newfoundlander that ever played on Team Canada. And then I was the captain for almost a decade. I think I even picked to play in Hawaii because it reminded me of home. The rugged coastlines. The beautiful people. The only thing that was different was the weather. But both places were equally as beautiful in my eyes.”
We are who we are
Is he glad he’s home? “Our winters can be great or they can be harsh. But I think that’s what makes us who we are. That’s what makes us strong. So yeah, I’m glad to be home. I’m glad I’m raising my kids here.”
Thinking on the book, what’s his greatest hope?
“I want people to know it’s not just a basketball story. It’s a life story. It’s dealing with tragedy. It’s a love story to my uncle Junior. To my parents. It’s a love story to myself. To my kids. I lost my parents when I was a kid. I lost my uncle when I was a man. Both were huge losses and both influenced who I am. “
Memories are so alive, he shares. “It’s so vivid right now. Things just flash in my face. My parents, I was five when I lost them and I didn’t understand and you question, was this even real? You question because you’re five years old, you have no idea what’s going on. And for the next 10 years, I still had no idea what was going on. It puts you in a dark place at times.”
But there was so much love. From his uncle, from his aunt, from his brothers and cousins. “My aunt and uncle gave me everything they could. When you’re growing up in rural Newfoundland, there’s not a lot of luxuries. It’s a small fishing community. Everybody’s living off the land. Everybody’s trying their best just to survive. And at that time, in the late 80s, early 90s, there’s just certain limitations. I went into a family of four, which made me the fifth kid. There’s a certain amount that you’re living on and that you’re dealing with. But I think that makes you strong. And it also makes you appreciate the things you get when you work for them. “
It also makes you naive too, he admits. “I’m the guy that trusts everyone. I’m that Newfoundlander at heart. It’s who I was born to be,” he says.
On basketball, does he still enjoy the game? Oh yes, he says.
“You can stack the fans so tight you can barely bounce the ball, or just have a handful. I still get goose pimples. Doesn’t matter the size of the crowd. It’s something really special.”
And so is his Newfoundland roots. “Newfoundland has its limitations, but it also has its many strengths. And I think being from here makes you who you are and makes you great if you really embrace our culture.”
Final thoughts on the book? English pauses. Ours was his first interview after his book’s release and he admits to being nervous. “I’ve always been so guarded with media. Like if you called me on a normal day and you’re trying to get something out of me, I’m trained so well that I’m going to tell you exactly what I want you to hear.
“No matter what you ask me, you’re not going to get out of me what I don’t want to share. But this time I just let loose and I told everybody everything. So hopefully people will appreciate my honesty. Hopefully this book can be a way out for a lot of people and a guidance for a lot more that are struggling with things in life. “
As to future plans? Just be a good dad and husband, he says.
“Whatever else I do, I try to be as amazing a father as I can. I have an amazing wife, Mandy, and we’re grounded, we’re humble and we’re thankful. And life is on a roll. There’s roadblocks and stumbling blocks, but at the end of the day, the overcoming struggles is what makes life worth living because you know there’s always a light at the end.”