At 7 she was playing pick-up with the boys in Paterson, New Jersey. At 12 she was knocking on the floor of Madison Square Garden, telling her mom she’d be back there to play someday. And she would. After four years playing on Rutgers' Scarlet Knights basketball team, Essence Carson found her way back to MSG’s hardwood floors as the New York Liberty’s number one defensive threat. As the 6-foot guard packs her bags to play overseas in Turkey (off-seasons aren’t always “off,” after all), Greatist caught up with Carson to talk shooting mechanics, Cinnabons, and what she really wants to be remembered for — Imus controversy aside.
Can you remember the first time you picked up a basketball?
It was so long ago honestly. But I do remember going to the playground early in the morning before school to shoot hoops with the boys. We had to be on line for school at 8:15, so I would show up at 7:45 to get a half-an-hour in. That was when I was 7.
Did the boys give you a hard time out there, or were they accepting of you?
No, no they were really welcoming. They’d make fun of the other boys when I’d do a crazy move and score on them. There was a lot of, “Oh you just got did up by a girl.”
In school you also played volleyball, ran track, studied music... How did you balance it all?
I just really loved each and every sport that I played. And I really loved music, too. I went to a performing arts school so after class I’d stay around for piano labs, finish up my homework, then shoot over to whatever practice I had. There were a lot of late nights, but when you’re passionate about something, the amount of time it takes to put into it doesn’t really matter. And most of the time you don’t even notice because you’re having such a good time doing it.
What would you say your legacy is from your time at Rutgers?
During the four years that I was there, I was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. I think I was only the second person in history to do that in the conference. So I know they’ll remember me for that. And I still always get asked about the Imus situation, which happened in 2007, so hopefully I will be remembered for standing up for our team, our university, and a lot of young women across the nation and across the world. I try not to think about it anymore. But when people talk about different milestones they reached or different things they’ve achieved in life, that definitely stands out with me, and with a lot of people.
[Ed Note: The Imus Controversy occurred in 2007 when radio host Don Imus called the Rutgers women's basketball team — starring Carson — "nappy-headed hoes" during the NCAA championships.]
Fast-forwarding to today, what does a typical training day look like with the New York Liberty?
In season, we have three or four games per week, so training slows down and becomes more focused on the intricacies of the game. But during pre-season that means two-a-days (2 ½ to 3 hours sessions, twice a day), hitting the weight room, getting some cardio in. And lots and lots of stretching and foam rolling ... It’s a long day, but for me, the time just flies by. When you’re an athlete or any kind of competitor all you’re thinking about is how to improve, how to be better than the next player.
If we were to come along for a strength training workout, what would that consist of?
Explosiveness is something we’re always working on, and a lot of that is accomplished just through bodyweight exercises. We do a lot of walking lunges, alternating lunges, single leg squats, jump squats… As far as upper body, in my younger days in college, the emphasis was on lifting really heavy and doing things like bench presses and hang cleans; stuff that we as women aren’t always so interested in. [laughs] But now at the professional level it’s more about agility and maintaining your strength. Because we play so many games in a short amount of time, the body naturally fatigues and when you fatigue you tend to pull muscles and tear things. So instead of lifting heavy to make those muscles even more fatigued, we focus on maintaining strength and keeping the body healthy.
And what about fuel? What’s the biggest staple in your diet?
I really love protein. Fish, chicken, steak… I would eat steak every day if I could. And in between those meals, fruit, nuts, and berries help keep my metabolism going.
So generally whole foods instead of supplements and shakes?
No, no, no. I do not do shakes. I think I’m lactose intolerant so those shakes aren’t a good idea for me.
What’s your go-to cheat meal?
I can’t tell everybody that! Honestly my go-to cheat meal is Chinese food. It’s actually on the healthy side: shrimp with broccoli with white rice.
OK, but what about when you really want to indulge?
I love pound cake. Marble cake. But my ultimate cheat dessert is a Cinnabon.
The big one?
Yes, the big one. And I’m not even going to say extra frosting, but yeah…
Sounds good to me! When you’re having an off day, what helps you pull through?
Back in the day when I used to get into shooting slumps, I honestly wouldn’t know what to do. But now I just kind of take a mental break and go back to the mechanics. Stationary shooting, making sure your muscle memory is there. A shooter might hit a slump, but they never forget how to shoot.
What’s the toughest part of your life as a professional female athlete?
There was a year where I went from playing a lot and starting to not playing at all. Just as a true competitor you want to be out there on the floor — just to help out. Especially if your team is losing — you have these mental battles with yourself. But I just kept with it, supported my teammates, and stayed on top of my game with my drills. And by the time the end of the season rolled around, my number was called... We went to the Eastern Conference finals that year, and the following year that’s when everything started falling into place. Becoming an All-Star, and also runner-up for the Most Improved Player; it ended up being a really good thing for me and my career.
So what’s next?
I’m heading over to Turkey, where I’ll be playing for a team called Istanbul University this fall. Also, on the philanthropy side, I’m a celebrity ambassador for the Health Equity Initiative, a non-profit organization that helps raise awareness of health disparities around the world. And on the music side, the video for my first single “Love Letter” is out, so I’ll be working on getting the album out by year’s end.
And even the league is behind you… What’s been the most rewarding part of all this for you?
I get to meet a lot of great kids. I don’t mind spending the extra time after a game talking to them or signing autographs because when I was that age I wanted someone to spend that extra time with me, and show me that anything is possible despite where you come from, what you look like. And kids really do need to see successful people that they can relate to, so that they know that anything is possible.
Have a question for Essence? Ask her in the comments below, or tweet Jordan at @jshakeshaft.