LOS ANGELES – Sitting in the bowels of Staples Center, just a few minutes removed from a 16-point, eight-rebound, three-block performance, Carl Hall talked about making light bulbs.
"I worked in what they called the paint booth – I painted the lights," the Shockers' forward explained after helping ninth-seeded Wichita State beat LaSalle 72-58 to move within a game of reaching the Final Four. "I worked the graveyard shift, from 11 at night to 7 in the morning."
He made 12 bucks an hour – which was a lot, he said, for an 18-year-old living at home with his mother. When he'd get home from work he'd go straight to school, head home for a quick na, then back to the factory.
Working in the factory wasn't part of his plan. Playing basketball was, but while playing one day in high school, he fainted. Dehydration, the doctors told him. Then he fainted again six months later. And then again. And that's when he found out he suffered from neurocardiogenic syncope, a condition that means the heart sometimes beats too fast.
His doctor told him he couldn't play basketball anymore, and so he went to the factory in Cochran, Ga., and started painting light bulbs. For two years he did that – work, school, sleep, repeat. The school part wasn't going so well, as one could imagine.
Then in 2009, doctors gave him hope. Medication was working to stabilize his heart. They told him he could play again. But Hall didn't, not at first. He was too scared.
"The doctors had cleared me to play, but once you pass out you don't want to go through that situation again," he explained.
Eventually he made his way back on the court, first on the streets and eventually at Northwest Florida State in Niceville, Fla. That's where he caught the eye of Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall.
During their first conversation, Hall told Marshall that other D-I schools were after him – big ones, like Auburn, Alabama and Oklahoma State – but he wanted to go to a place where he would be a "big piece" and where he could earn a degree that would help him provide for his family. Marshall had his guy, sort of.
Hall still wasn't fully back, mostly because he wasn't in shape. During practice, Marshall would look over and see him sitting on the bench out of breath. Marshall wasn't about to push him. A few years earlier, he watched a would-be recruit die right on a court in front of him.
Guy Alang-Ntang. He was from Cameroon.
"He was a super-nice kid; it was a done deal [he was coming to Wichita]," Marshall said. "So I'm watching him play pick-up and 15 minutes later he just lurches back and it's over. That was my second day on the job. "
Marshall wasn't going to be the one to drive Hall into the ground, so he left it up to him.
"I didn't want to be the coach to make him pass out, or worse. I'd already seen that happen one time," Marshall said. Over the summer, Marshall told him straight up, "I don't want to be the bad guy. I don't want to be the one yelling at you sitting down [while] everybody else is running. If you want to be a pro, if you want to play at a high level, get yourself in shape."
Hall got himself in shape – by sprinting, running, biking, strength exercises – and this season averaged a team-high 28.7 minutes a game. It's been 2½ years since he last fainted. The last time was when he was playing at Northwest Florida.
"It's scary; it changes your life," he said. "I'm taking a chance by touching that court."
At first, his mother didn't want him to play.
"But I told her that if anything happened to me while playing I could live with it," he explained. "That's the situation and the choice I made."
The choice has led him to the doorstep of the Final Four.
If not for Florida Gulf Coast University, Wichita State would be the darling of this year's NCAA tournament. If it beats Ohio State on Saturday night, the Shockers would become the first No. 9 seed to make it to the national semifinals. And if they do, Hall will be heading home – to Georgia.
"It's like I'm in a dream right now," he said, "and I'm just trying to take advantage of this whole opportunity."
Working in the light bulb factory, Hall said it was actually fun, "but it was not as fun as this."
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