Moab • He takes fans bowling and once spent a night off at a local high school basketball game. He freely engages using social media and has built a loyal Twitter community of nearly 20,000 followers.
But the Utah Jazz’s least inhibited free-agent-to-be has to draw a line somewhere, and DeMarre Carroll has just decided that when it comes to interaction, that line is placing a carrot stick in his mouth for the purpose of feeding a 4-year-old camel named Cramer.
“Free kiss for a carrot!” promises a sign in the fence at the Hole N” The Rock petting zoo 7 miles outside Moab. A young woman demonstrates. If she recognizes the 6-foot-8 Alabama native, his trademark dreadlocks brushing the shoulders of a white Jazz T-shirt, she doesn’t show it. She sticks the carrot between her teeth and giggles when the camel’s fuzzy upper lip scrapes her own. Carroll captures the moment on his iPhone and later will tweet the image. He tightens his lips, squints and contemplates for a moment. Finally, he says, “I ain’t doing that.” He shakes his head, sighs and drops a carrot through the wire fence and onto a steel feeding tray.
The Jazz forward is visiting southeast Utah for the first time, despite the start of free agency just days away. In less than two years he has become a key member of the rotation and wildly popular among fans, despite being the team’s lowest-paid player. Now, as one of seven Jazz players whose contract expires at midnight Sunday, he is looking for his first big payday.
But first he is obligated to perform what may be his final duty as a member of the Jazz, a two-week tour of rural Utah for the Junior Jazz program. Carroll is, in some ways, the ideal representative. While many NBA players fulfill their community obligations then happily slip back into celebrity hiding, Carroll has helped bridge the gap between fans and the players with whom they are eager to have a relationship.
“He’s living in the moment,” point guard Earl Watson says. “He’s taking in the opportunity to be in the NBA. He knows it’s a privilege, and he knows he has to work for it.”
Jazz fans always have identified with the players of Utah’s one major professional sports franchise, but their players historically don’t identify so much with them. Carroll is different.
A fan favorite • At the petting zoo, Carroll stuffs carrots into the mouths of fallow deer, pygmy goats and a miniature donkey. He extends his arm and stands back as an ostrich jackhammers grain out of the bucket. He lobs orange chunks to rouse an albino raccoon sleeping in a dark corner.
At Hole N” The Rock, though, two camels are the real stars. After declining to feed Cramer, Carroll wanders over to a second pen and tosses a carrot past a sign that implores visitors not to feed a dromedary named Luke.
“You can’t feed that one,” hollers a man standing on a porch behind Cramer. His skin is desert leather, and his mustache is grayed. He wears a University of Arizona ballcap and a floral print shirt. He isn’t angry, but he is serious. Luke is on a diet. Carroll apologizes and makes his way to the exit. As he slips into the Expedition, the man yells once more, hurrying across the parking lot.
“I thought that was you,” he says. “You’re one of my absolute favorite players on this team.”
Carroll turns and smiles warily. The day before a fan in Price approached, oozed praise, then called him DeMonte.
The man continues. “I told my son, ‘Whenever there’s a loose ball, he’s the one who goes and gets it.’ You going to be back with us this year?”
“We’ll see,” Carroll says.
The man is Erik Hanson, owner of the roadside attraction. “We saw the thing on TV,” he says. “You know, we’re in the bowling game, too.”
“What’s your score?” Carroll asks.
“Oh,” Hanson says, “about 190.”
Carroll, if impressed, says nothing. He has been bowling seriously for a year and hired a personal coach this summer. He talks often about earning a spot on the Professional Bowlers Association tour. His score hovers around 180.
“Do you mind?” Hanson asks, holding up his cellphone.
Carroll shakes his head and his dreadlocks quiver like wind chimes. He leans into Hanson and smiles for the photo.
Effort for sale • Despite having the best job of his life for the past year and a half, DeMarre Carroll will become unemployed Monday morning. Free agency brings trepidation with excitement for a player who started 12 games last season but sat on the bench for 16 others. Unlike teammates Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Carroll does not appear on any lists of this summer’s hottest free agents.
What he does have is a very particular set of skills acquired in a career that started in Memphis, included a trip to the D-League and cast him in cameos on the rosters of the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets.
Since Kevin O’Connor signed Carroll in 2012, the former first-round draft choice has established himself as the Jazz’s go-to burst of energy, an unrestrained and hard-nosed defender, an enforcer who body-slammed Kevin Durant a month after the Oklahoma City star leveled a similar shot at Jazz guard Alec Burks.
“Some guys, they can’t get their motor up to that level,” says his agent, Mark Bartelstein, who adds: “That’s the stuff I don’t know if we put enough of a value on in the league.”
It can’t be found everywhere but, starting Monday, it can be bought.
Carroll returned home to Alabama after the season ended. He has visited Atlanta and Missouri and conducted clinics in Utah and Nevada. On Wednesday, he will head to Aruba with his girlfriend and wait. Says Carroll: “I’m gonna be chillin’ when my agent calls.”
Bartelstein, who also represents Jazz free agents Watson and Mo Williams, predicts “a lot of interest” for Carroll. But Carroll has made no secret of his preference to stay in Utah. He calls executive vice president Kevin O’Connor “my guy” and credits the former general manager for salvaging his career.
Obstacles impeded Carroll’s path for years, as if the universe was trying to tell him to give up on the NBA. He transferred from Vanderbilt to Missouri midway through college, at least in part because his first college coach insisted on playing him at power forward. In 2007, he was shot in the ankle outside a Columbia, Mo., nightclub. Months later, he was diagnosed with liver disease. He eventually will require a transplant.
“It’s life, man,” Carroll says, “that’s why I always say I’m blessed.”
Carroll, the son of a Birmingham pastor, does so in nearly every tweet. “There’s a lot of people out there way worse,” he says.
Carroll sees it as his job to make them feel a little better.
“He’s a unique guy in a special way,” Watson says. “In a positive way.”
Ticketholders show up at games wearing No. 3 Carroll jerseys they custom order.
“See how they do me?” Carroll asks. “I’m a fan favorite. They make their own jerseys.”
Back to school • It was an off-day for the Jazz in January when Carroll tweeted: “Was wondering what’s a good high school game to go to in SLC?!?”
That night, nationally ranked Lone Peak, with at least five future Division I players, was on the road at rival Pleasant Grove. Shortly after the game began, school administrators ushered Carroll through a side door.
“Our student section picked up on it,” athletic director Nate Johnston said, “and started chanting his name. And then Lone Peak picked up on it and they started chanting his name, too. … I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Carroll sat in the stands behind the Pleasant Grove bench. A police officer stood nearby, but Carroll posed for photos and signed autographs.
NBA players, by nature, are aloof. They cling to what personal life they are allowed. Free time is theirs. Carroll, however, chooses to share his.
Asked why he is this way, Carroll seems confused, as if this is the first time the idea has occurred to him.
Defining the difference • Following a clinic in Monticello, his eighth in three days, he hurtles toward Moab in the tricked-out SUV. He rides shotgun. Nate Martinez, the Junior Jazz coordinator, drives, and in the back seat, controlling the music, is a guy they call Shank.
It is nearly 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the self-proclaimed Junkyard Dog’s midday meal was a melted Kit Kat bar. Game 6 of the NBA Finals kept him up late the night before, thanks to the Miami Heat’s fourth-quarter comeback and eventual overtime victory. He has been trying to book a weekend trip to Los Angeles for a wedding, but sporadic cellular service has slowed the effort. To make the trip work, he will have to cancel a commitment to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Salt Lake Bees game.
He has no answer to the question. What makes him different from other NBA stars?
“It’s because you go out,” Shank says from the backseat between handfuls of M&Ms. Shank’s real name is Avery Shanklin, and he is Carroll’s cousin. “Other guys don’t interact with the fans. Other guys stay in.”
Carroll considers this.
“What do you do after practice?” Carroll wonders aloud. “What do NBA players, what do we got to do? Sit at home? I can’t do that.”
Coach Tyrone Corbin says Carroll’s personality is an extension of the way he plays.
“He’s an engaging guy that works extremely hard,” Corbin says. “You see the energy that he plays with on the floor. What he gives on the floor is what he gives in the community.”
A ‘miserable time’ • In mid-March, with the Jazz in the final push for the playoffs, Corbin moved Carroll from a reserve role to the starting lineup.
While Carroll had one of the best plus-minuses on the roster — a stat that measures a team’s productivity with certain players on the floor — and statistically made the Jazz much better on defense, they lost four of the five games he started. That included the 23-point blowout at Oklahoma City on March 13, the game in which he flattened Durant. Then it was back to the bench. He didn’t play meaningful minutes for nearly three weeks.
“I don’t know how I went back to the bench, man,” Carroll said. “Miserable time.”
He called it the “most difficult season” of his five-year career.
“In Memphis, I knew I wasn’t going to play,” he said, “so I could work hard on my game. Here I could work hard on my game and maybe I’d play, maybe I wouldn’t.”
Carroll has watched the free agent market closely. At one point on the drive, he starts firing off thoughts and questions.
“What do you think of Chris Copeland?” he asks. “Will Dwight stay in L.A.?”
Carroll wants to return to the Jazz. He won’t discuss the possibility of a hometown discount, but Bartelstein calls him “loyal like a dog,” a description that fits Carroll’s nickname.
“The Junkyard Dog don’t want to go anywhere because the dog pound is here,” he quipped April 18, a day after the Jazz’s season ended without a trip to the playoffs.
General manager Dennis Lindsey said Carroll’s efforts to connect with fans have been “very well-received by the organization” but declined to discuss the prospects of a return to the Jazz.
‘One thing great’ • Carroll bides his time playing virtual dominoes with teammate Marvin Williams, who is spending the summer in North Carolina. Williams asks Carroll regularly if he is coming back to the Jazz, a question that Carroll is getting more and more used to answering. “I don’t know,” he says.
Over dinner at a Moab brewery, Carroll examines his chicken sandwich. He asks a server for mustard.
“This free agency gonna be very interesting,” he says.
He has spent time studying film of former San Antonio forward Bruce Bowen, an All-NBA defender eight times over and a three-time NBA champion. Watson describes Carroll as a highly intelligent player who could fill the same role for a championship contender as Matt Barnes does for the Los Angeles Clippers.
“He’s not a guy that goes out there and tries to score 10 to 15 points a game,” Watson says. “He’s a guy who’s going out there trying to change the game.”
Carroll says that his struggle, and the thing that separates him from the best players in the NBA, is that no one aspect of his game is exceptional. He is a moderate shooter, a better-than-average defender and not an especially strong rebounder. “Hard work is a talent,” he told the group of kids in Monticello. What goes unsaid is that it’s a talent that teams usually won’t pay big bucks for unless it is accompanied by other, more marketable skills.
“It’s all about guys who do one thing great,” he says. “Like Al Jefferson, he scores the ball. He’s gonna get you 20.”
Carroll’s career high is 19 points.
“My thing,” he says, “is all opportunity.”
The Jazz will rebuild. They will let many players walk away in free agency, one step back to establish a core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and top draft choice Trey Burke. Hayward, Carroll believes, is one year away from being an All-Star.
Carroll does this, he predicts the future. Hayward’s, Jefferson’s, Millsap’s, but not his own.
All he knows about that is what he wants, which is to be appreciated and to be rewarded — to be given opportunity and for that opportunity to be backed up with the confidence of a multiyear contract. A permanent home for him, his jersey available in the team store.
Utah Jazz free agents
Al Jefferson, center
Age • 28
Last season • 17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, named Western Conference Player of the Week final week of March
2012-13 salary • $15 million
Likelihood he returns to Utah • 40 percent
Paul Millsap, power forward
Age • 28
Last season • Averaged 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds
2012-13 salary • $7.2 million
Likelihood he returns to Utah • 10 percent
Mo Williams, point guard
Age • 30
Last season • Posted 12.9 points and 6.2 assists per game, missed 32 games due to right thumb surgery
2012-13 salary • $8.5 million
Likelihood he returns to Utah • 20 percent
Randy Foye, combo guard
Age • 29
Last season • Averaged 10.8 points, set team record in 3-pointers made and attempted
2012-13 salary • $2.5 million
Likelihood he returns to Utah • 80 percent
Jamaal Tinsley, point guard
Age • 35
Last season • Averaged 3.5 points and 4.4 assists in 18 minutes per game; went 20-12 as a starter
2012-13 salary • $1.3 million
Likelihood he returns to Utah • 70 percent
Earl Watson, point guard
Age • 34
Last season • Missed first 12 games due to offseason knee surgery, averaged 2 points and 4 assists
2012-13 salary • $2 million
Likelihood he returns to Utah • 10 percent
DeMarre Carroll, small forward
Age • 26
Last season • Averaged 6 points in 17 minutes per game, started 12 games
2012-13 salary • $885,000
Likelihood he returns to Utah • 80 percent