Mac Engel: How Alex Caruso went from a Texas A&M ball boy to a Lakers fan favorite who's a win away from an NBA title

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FORT WORTH, Texas — He doesn’t look like he belongs on the floor, but sleep on the balding white dude and you’ll find yourself co-starring on the wrong end of a viral video.

Alex Caruso is the guy you didn’t realize is a Texan who played at Texas A&M and is now a staple of the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench mob.

He’s the guy who doesn’t get picked in a pickup game because of racial stereotypes, and then goes out and embarrasses everyone on the court.

“If you were not ready he was going to dunk right on you. Those videos you see now? We got used to those all the time,” said Caruso’s former A&M teammate, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, in a recent phone interview. “You have to respect the way he played, not the way he looked.

“I could see him playing in the NBA, but not next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.”

LeBron James was drafted out of high school in 2003, first overall, and is considered to be one of the best to ever play the game. Anthony Davis was drafted out of blue-blood Kentucky in 2012, first overall, and has posting MVP-type numbers for years. Alex Caruso? His name wasn’t one of the 60 called on draft night in 2016.

If you’re considering unlikely success stories in these NBA Finals, you probably don’t need to look much further than Caruso. The kid from College Station who grew up as a ball boy for the Aggies, played his college ball at A&M and went undrafted is now part of the 2020 version of the Showtime Lakers who sit one win away from an NBA championship.

“My wife bought me a couple of tickets to see him play for the Lakers in Los Angeles around my birthday,” said Caruso’s A&M Consolidated High School coach, Rick German, in a phone interview. “When Alex comes off the bench to go into the game, the ovation he got is bigger than for anybody but LeBron and Davis. People were screaming and hollering. It was such a great moment.

“You put in a long time and you do your job, and it’s like a prospector that finds that big chunk of gold,” German continued. “You’ve been looking for 30 years, but you get one chunk. He was one of those young men.”

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When Caruso collected a rebound and threw it down on the Golden State Warriors in a blowout loss on April 4, 2019, the play became a viral sensation.

At the time, Caruso was just a former G League player trying to do enough to stick on any NBA roster.

He is a contrast because he’s a balding white guy (with that trademark white headband) whose game does not stand out, except when he swoops in for a rebound or gets ahead of the pack and throws down a dunk worthy of being on almost anyone’s highlight reel.

“I had just taken the (A&M Consolidated) job and I was watching him play. He caught a pass and finished at the rim and I told my assistant, ‘We have a player,’” German said. “Once he started playing I could tell he was a coach’s dream.”

Caruso is the son of a coach, Mike Caruso, who played for the late Eddie Sutton at Arkansas.

“He knew the game better than anybody, but I would see him after games and I’d ask him, ‘Why don’t you shoot it more?’” said Buddy Reed, who was the principal of Alex’s high school. “He could score whenever he wanted to, but he’d rather give it someone else.”

In high school, Caruso had three serious suitors to play college ball: Colorado, Creighton and A&M. None of college basketball’s major powers had any interest.

“Do you really think he can play at Texas A&M?” friends and colleagues would ask German.

“Keep watching,” he told them.

At A&M, Caruso played 137 games averaging just eight points per contest, but he set the school record in assists. The conventional wisdom was that Caruso was your solid college player who might make some money playing overseas.

At 6-foot-5, he had good size for a guard. He just didn’t do a lot to standout, except for those dunks that simply didn’t fit his game.

“Do you really think he can play in the NBA?” friends and colleagues would ask German.

Again, he told them, “Keep watching.”

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Caruso’s post-college ambition was to play 10 years of pro ball, but he was not selected in the 2016 NBA draft.

He had a shot with the Oklahoma City Thunder. That lasted one month.

Instead, he signed with the Oklahoma City Blue of the NBA’s Development League (now the G League), and the following summer landed on the Lakers’ summer league team.

It helped that the Lakers were bad, rebuilding, and opportunities were available for anyone who could show a little something.

Even when they added LeBron James in July of 2018, Caruso stuck. When they added Anthony Davis last summer, or Rajon Rondo, Danny Green and other veterans, Caruso still stuck.

He does not score a lot, but he does everything well. And every so often he still dunks a ball that stops the game.

In July of 2019, he signed a two-year deal with the Lakers for $5.5 million. In this current playoff run, he’s averaged 24 minutes, 6.8 points per game, and has a basketball IQ that’s immeasurable. It all adds up to a steal in today’s NBA.

Caruso has become a fan favorite at Laker home games — back when they actually had those — and, at a minimum, he has proven that he belongs in the NBA.

He may yet realize his ambition to play 10 years of pro ball, but before that he and the rest of his teammates will have a chance to end the season in Game 5 on Friday night as a member of the storied Los Angeles Lakers.

“He’s told me many a time, ‘I am living the dream for everybody,’ ” German said.

He and his old coach still visit, and when Alex Caruso returns to College Station he’s just the Aggies ball boy, now all grown up. And depending on how things break over the next few days, there might be one more viral video to add to the collection.

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