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At home at Illinois

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Day 3: Illinois | Traveling Violations

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – At age 15 his mother was in prison, his dad wasn't around and he and his two brothers were out of their home. Warren Carter was sleeping on the floors of friends' houses around Dallas wondering, and trying to avoid sliding through society's cracks.

He soon got a job catering while his brother Kevin, 16 at the time, worked at Kroger. Both continued to attend high school and, with the help of friends, pulled together enough money to get an apartment and support their youngest brother Joshua.

So every time Carter struggles through a drill during his first week of college basketball practice here at the University of Illinois, every time his head spins as coach Bruce Weber tries to explain something new, and every time he fights off exhaustion so he can finish his homework in Speech Communications, you know from where he draws his resiliency.

There is plenty wrong with college athletics. But stories of kids like Carter, a reserve freshman forward for the Illini, remain what this pursuit is all about.

"He is a guy you just have to feel good about," said Weber.

Carter will not be the star of the Illini this season, not with Dee Brown and Deron Williams around. He isn't even the team's best freshmen; not with Brian Randle dropping jumpers.

But he is representative of many players, tough kids who survive tough backgrounds and try to make the most out of a scholarship and to maybe, just maybe, get good enough to crack the lineup.

"I just [want to] get on the court and contribute in some sort of way," said Carter, who was named Texas Class 5A Player of the Year at Lake Highlands High School.

So he tries to get better while surviving a brutal first week of practice.

"There is a lot that gets thrown at you," said Carter after a demanding and detailed three-hour practice Monday. "I've been telling coach that I am confused. It is overwhelming. In high school you are just used to playing."

One day he'll feel that way about college basketball too. But not now. At 6 foot 9 inches and with great athletic ability and a natural shooting stroke, there is no denying his potential. But at 205 pounds he isn't strong enough to make an impact in the Big Ten.

The thing is, when you raise yourself parentless in poverty, it is difficult enough to get two square meals a day, let alone lift weights. The Illinois training table already has helped; a year ago Carter weighed just 180 pounds.

Carter is neither bitter nor embarrassed about his background. He is philosophical about the challenges life has thrown at him. Besides, he's making it. His mother is out of prison and his brother Kevin is playing at Collin (Texas) Community College.

"It was hard," Carter said. "It was a rough time going through it. But you look back on things like that and realize they help you grow because I don't think I would be the same person I am today if I hadn't gone through it.

"Some people might say [it's impressive] but I just took everything day by day. I don't think it was that big of a deal. As I look back on it, it wasn't that big of a deal.

"I was just a typical kid who went through things and I got here like everyone else."

Carter's top priority is getting a degree; second is developing as a player. If he can make money with basketball one day – and the potential is clearly there – then great.

But the game doesn't owe him anything.

"He has such a level head," said Weber. "He has no ego. And then you think of home and that is not the best situation, so now you are worried about brothers and all the things at home. But he just comes to work."

He is just one more freshman trying to make the most of a new opportunity – a free education and a chance to play big-time basketball. The challenge is enormous, the workload considerable, but he's been through tougher stuff than this.

These are the good days.

"You always hear about the bad kids and the bad problems," said Weber. "But this is a kid who has overcome so much that he is just happy to be here. It's a great story."

Playing college basketball.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. Send him a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.