The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This forgotten star died without family. The sports world made sure his burial would be different.

Friends, family and loved ones gathered at a service for George Carter at St. Bonaventure Cemetery. (Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The Washington Post)

ALLEGANY, N.Y. — The last anyone in George Carter’s family recalled seeing him was 30 years ago, at his grandmother’s funeral near his hometown outside Buffalo. His old American Basketball Association teammates, such as those with whom he starred for the Washington Capitols in 1969, told me a couple of years ago they lost track of him after his seventh and final pro season in 1976. And despite more than one invitation from his alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, to be celebrated as one of its athletic heroes, he hadn’t returned to this plateau in western New York.

Until Saturday, when his old college teammates, his coach, his blood relatives and various alumni and admirers brought him back.

“When I heard,” said Jim Baron — who never met Carter, though he played for the Bonnies basketball team after Carter graduated and coached it for nine seasons many years later — “I said, ‘We’ve got to bring him back to campus.’ ”

Baron traveled to salute Carter from Florida, where he retired a few years ago after a 29-year college basketball coaching career that ended at rival Canisius in 2016.

Bill Butler also returned to hail Carter from Florida. Butler said it was the first time he stepped on campus in 52 years, since he starred here with Carter in the late 1960s after being a three-time first-team All-Met player at old Mackin High in D.C.

Carter’s brother Chuck came east from Jamestown, N.Y. He said he hadn’t seen his older brother since 1976, when Carter got an opportunity to continue his professional playing career in Europe.

“I hadn’t found out until … I got a call,” Chuck Carter said.

I rediscovered Carter just a few years ago, when I wrote a story on D.C.’s ABA team. The Capitols lasted one season that tipped off in 1969. Rick Barry was their reluctant star. Warren Jabali was his sidekick. The budding attraction was, for all intents and purposes, a rookie, George Carter. He was playing after a two-year stint in the Army that interrupted his NBA career following a single game for Detroit in 1967.

From 2019: For one season 50 years ago, an ABA team called Northeast D.C. home

The military was the fifth team to draft Carter. The Pistons picked Carter, who averaged 19.4 points and 12.5 rebounds over his three years of college eligibility, in the eighth round of the 1967 NBA draft. The New Orleans Buccaneers chose him in the seventh round of the ABA’s draft that year. And the same year, the New York Mets selected him in the 52nd round of baseball’s draft as an outfielder, while the NFL’s Buffalo Bills used a 13th-round pick on Carter as a halfback.

“He was one of our celebrities,” said Nancy Roberts, who graduated from St. Bonaventure in 1969 and came to Carter’s ceremony from Rochester. “We’re a small school, you know.”

Jennifer Stauffer said she never knew of her colleague’s fame when the two met in the late 1990s as limousine drivers in Las Vegas.

“He had a sense of humor,” she explained. “That’s why I liked him.”

Stauffer said Carter never talked about starring in football and baseball at St. Bonaventure, about playing against Julius Erving in the ABA or ending with a brief career in France.

In seven ABA seasons, Carter averaged 18.2 points and 6.8 rebounds. In 1971, he was named an all-star. He was better in subsequent seasons, but honors eluded him.

In my search for Carter I eventually called Randy Anderson, president of the board of directors at the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in Jamestown. It inducted Carter in 1984. He didn’t make that event in his honor, either.

Anderson told me he was in touch with Carter from time to time in Las Vegas. But Anderson relayed that Carter didn’t want to be interviewed. He had fallen on hard times. His health wasn’t good. His finances were perilous, too. He was embarrassed.

“Fate didn’t help George,” said his Bonnies coach, Larry Weise.

After Carter graduated to the pros, Bob Lanier joined the St. Bonaventure varsity with Butler and put the team on the map with a 23-2 record, a No. 3 AP poll ranking and an NCAA tournament region semifinal loss to North Carolina.

“He was the 81st player picked [in the NBA draft]. He wasn’t able to play at a national level,” Weise said, referencing the school’s later success. “I think he’d have been drafted a lot higher. He’d have gotten a better deal.”

Anderson asked whether I knew someone in professional basketball who could help a former star who wasn’t lucky enough to play in the more lucrative NBA. I told him I had heard of an organization called Dropping Dimes that was trying to buoy the lives of ABA players such as Carter who contributed to the success of the NBA but missed out on its riches.

From Mikan to LeBron, how the NBA has evolved

Scott Tarter, an Indianapolis lawyer, and John Abrams, the Indiana Pacers’ eye doctor, started Dropping Dimes after meeting at the screening of a documentary about a basketball-playing hero of their youth, Roger Brown, who led the Pacers to three ABA titles and five championship appearances in eight seasons. Another of their basketball heroes who starred for the Pacers, Mel Daniels, pulled their ear about how Brown’s story was more evidence of the ABA’s impact on the NBA product, yet those influencers, many in need, were left wanting. Daniels’s passion struck a chord with Tarter and Abrams, and the pair set out to start an organization that could pitch in where needed.

“Helping out someone in need,” Abrams said, “made sense.”

They got former ABA players to endorse their idea. Dr. J. Dan Issel. The Iceman, George Gervin. They got recent NBA stars, most notably Hall of Famer Reggie Miller. Even broadcaster Bob Costas, who grew up in St. Louis with the ABA’s Spirits, joined the effort.

“We’ve probably raised $500,000 since we started,” Tarter said.

“But we keep losing guys,” Abrams said. “Three in the past year.”

“I’ve been a pallbearer at two of them,” Tarter said.

Daniels died in 2015.

Abrams and Tarter said at last count they had found 144 players who played at least three years in the ABA, or in combination with the NBA, who they argue are at a threshold of qualifying for some sort of compensation from the multibillion-dollar NBA they helped popularize. Tarter said they’ve had discussions with the NBA that they are hopeful will produce some pensions for old ABA players before the next funeral.

“But this particular story,” Abrams said of Carter, shaking his head.

“He was all by himself,” Tarter said, completing the thought.

It wasn’t until Carter was being evicted that Stauffer learned of her colleague’s past. Carter had throat cancer. He had medical bills piling up that he couldn’t pay because he couldn’t make a living chauffeuring people, because he was undergoing chemotherapy that he couldn’t afford. He appeared not to have any family. Stauffer and her daughter started helping Carter pack. That’s when her daughter took note of a box filled with photos, some autographed, and newspaper articles and awards featuring Carter playing basketball.

The names change every decade, but iconic NBA stars are always reincarnations of Elgin Baylor

Around that time, Anderson told Carter about Dropping Dimes, and Stauffer helped him apply to the group for relief. They drafted a letter in Carter’s name: “My savings are dwindling quickly and I am worried for my future situation. I looked into affordable housing and was told there are 900 people on the waiting list. Please, if there is any way you could help me stay in my home of 15 years, I would be so grateful. I can’t even afford to move, really.”

Dropping Dimes couldn’t keep him in his house, but it did find an apartment for him and channeled him enough funds to rent it.

I hadn’t thought about Carter again until a few months ago, when I got a call from Eric Handler. He identified himself first as a media official with YES Network. Then he explained he was connected to St. Bonaventure as the son of its longtime baseball coach, Fred, who coached Carter on the diamond.

Handler broke the news to me that Carter, 76, had died in November, penniless, without family, in Las Vegas. But Handler assured me Carter’s St. Bonaventure family wasn’t going to let him be. They were planning an interment of his ashes at St. Bonaventure Cemetery across the road and up a hill from the school.

So Saturday, under a bright blue sky on the verdant spring lawn of the cemetery, and beneath the shade of an oak tree, at least 100 people assembled as George Carter arrived home. They included some of his teammates, his old basketball coach, classmates, the current men’s basketball team, friends such as Stauffer all the way from Las Vegas, people who only heard of him such as Baron, and his blood relatives who last saw him decades ago.

The current basketball coach, Mark Schmidt, mentioned how alums often talk about “The Bonaventure Way,” a frequent refrain heard by alums of schools just about anywhere.

“This isn’t shallow,” Schmidt said, looking at the assembled. “This is fact. I didn’t know George until about two weeks ago.”

Carter’s ashes rested in a rectangular pearl white urn. It was nestled in a bed of white flowers and angel’s breath atop a pedestal draped in green turf.

Behind it sat George Carter’s dark gray marble head stone.

“Forever in the hearts of the Bonnies,” it read.

George Carter was back, for good.

Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox

Read more about sports and social issues

“But while Osaka Inc. is thriving, Naomi, the woman, is hurting. Tennis doesn’t seem to be helping. And she doesn’t owe it to anyone to keep trying — not her sponsors, not her fans and not the game.” Read Candace Buckner on Naomi Osaka.

“I can’t escape into sports. Nor should I. I don’t even want to try, even during this most absorbing stretch of the sports calendar. March Madness for me is no competition for the real madness that, while overseas this time, seems oh so close.” Read Kevin B. Blackistone on the war in Ukraine.

“It was all true. The members of the women’s team had been wronged. For years, they had to play more, and win bigger, to be paid anything close to their male counterparts. They got less pay for better work.” Read Sally Jenkins on the USWNT settlement with U.S. Soccer.

“Who’s lying here? Probably, to some degree, both sides. The NFL expecting Snyder to stop lying, covering up, blocking and bullying is a little bit like expecting a poisonous cobra not to bite you. You are who you are.” Read John Feinstein on Daniel Snyder and the NFL.