Hartford’s Traci Carter leads Hawks to their first NCAA Tournament with the purpose of honoring his late brother

Lori Riley, Hartford Courant
·6 min read

Traci Carter was only three years older than his brother Semaj, but their relationship was more like father and son.

So when Semaj was killed last July in a shooting in southwest Philadelphia, it hit Carter, a point guard on the Hartford men’s basketball team, hard.

“I basically raised him growing up,” said Carter, a graduate student at Hartford. “My mother was on drugs my entire life. I had to raise my little brother, literally. As a kid, I didn’t get to be a kid. My grandma told me I didn’t stop drinking a bottle till I was about 5. I used to sneak behind the door and drink a bottle because I didn’t get a chance to be a kid.

“He was more than a brother to me. He was basically like my son, which is why it was so impactful. I felt responsible for him.”

After Hartford made history by winning the America East Tournament to earn its first NCAA Tournament berth on Saturday, Carter honored his brother.

“My little brother passed [last] summer,” Carter said. “His name was Semaj Carter. He was a genius, but unfortunately his life was taken away. So it means everything for me to get this championship.”

Carter, 24, is the honorary “dad” of the Hawks, who will play Baylor in an NCAA Tournament first-round game Friday at 3:30 p.m. He’s played basketball at three colleges — Marquette, LaSalle and Hartford the last two years. He’s had three knee surgeries. He’s been through a lot, and he still stepped up to lead his new team.

“I’ve never had a leader like that, when I was at Marist,” said senior guard Austin Williams, who transferred to Hartford from Marist before last season. “Last year, when I came here, there was something different. That was the first time of me really seeing a leader. He just set himself apart by the way he handled himself and approached the game. I have a great respect for Traci.”

Life-changing events

Carter grew up in Philadelphia one of seven kids.

“The reason why my mom [named Tracey] named me Traci, she said I was going to be the son she got her life together with,” he said. “She was on drugs way before me. She was doing really well for a couple years or so, but then she fell back. [The Dept. of Human Services] was about to take me, and my grandma came and got me and I started living with her. My grandma raised six of us.”

Carter was a highly touted guard who ended up at Life Center Academy in New Jersey playing for Pervis Ellison in high school. He went to Marquette and played in 33 games as a freshman and eight games the next year before he decided to transfer. He returned to Philadelphia where he played for LaSalle for one season (2018-19) and led the team in assists and steals. But he wasn’t happy.

“A guy who took me under his wing was Donnie Carr, a Philadelphia legend in basketball,” Carter said. “He was working at Hartford at the time when I transferred. I transferred in the middle of year with nowhere to go, that tells you the emotional state I was in. I came to Connecticut and I stayed with him a couple weeks and I was actually working out at Hartford. I ended up going to LaSalle. But I knew Coach [John Gallagher] through Donnie. After I transferred from LaSalle, I wasn’t even thinking about basketball because I was so emotionally destroyed from basketball.

“I knew Coach Gal was a person I needed who could help me excel in business with all his connections. I was going to Hartford, and I wasn’t even thinking about basketball. It was to excel in business. Coach Gal exceeded my expectations of who he was. It made me grow. Everybody grows, but you have to be in the right environment. He gave me the right environment to grow.”

Carter is working toward a master’s degree in communications. Last year he was a member of the conference’s honor roll with a 3.5-plus GPA. Everything was working out. But in the spring, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the Hawks’ season shut down before their first conference championship game appearance since 2008.

Then came the phone call from his grandmother on July 20. Semaj had been shot. Two younger cousins that were with him were wounded.

“The one thing that hurt me was I felt like I was responsible for him because I believed that I was supposed to go to the NBA and get my family out of there,” Carter said. “Things didn’t happen how I planned. That was one of my fears. I have lost more than 15 people I have known well to gun violence in Philly within six years.”

Honoring Semaj

Carter’s Hartford team and his coach were there to lean on. Gallagher had Carter come to his beach house on the Jersey Shore after the funeral. There, Carter met the man who would become his business partner, Jim Newfrock, a friend of Gallagher’s who owns a consulting firm.

Newfrock always wanted to start a camp for young men. He had a farm in upstate New York. He and Carter and Gallagher walked on the beach, and Newfrock learned how Semaj had an engineer’s mind and was smarter, Carter said, than he was.

“The only difference was exposure to other people and other perspectives,” Newfrock said. “All he saw every day was the same picture. I said, ‘Why don’t we get the kids around him and get them out of Philadelphia and bring them up to my farm?’”

Three weeks later, there was Carter, still grieving but showing up at the farm with eight campers and three counselors. The kids learned technical skills — plumbing, wiring an electrical outlet, carpentry. They went for hikes and rode horses and ate.

“Good kids,” Newfrock said. “They ate me out of house and home. It was insane how much they could eat.”

They called it Anchor Camp.

“We all need an anchor in our life,” Carter said. “We all are the anchor for somebody. The anchor holds the boat. We hold our family down. These kids need to be anchors for themselves and for their family.

“But you have to know how to be an anchor for yourself. So the camp teaches these kids vocational skills in a camp-like environment. We wanted to change their perspective on what success is and what success can be. Everybody can’t be a basketball player like me.”

There are big plans for the camp. A website will go up soon. Newfrock is the CEO of the nonprofit, and Carter is the executive director.

Now the Hawks are in Indianapolis, in the middle of preparing for their first NCAA Tournament. Carter is the team’s top defensive player. He leads the Hawks in steals (59), has 79 assists and is the second-leading scorer (11.8 ppg). He was the leading scorer (19 points) in the 64-50 win over UMass-Lowell in the America East championship.

“Traci, his strength is unbelievable,” Gallagher said. “We spent a lot of time together during that week in July, just making sure he understood the love and support we were going to have for him.

“It’s really not about basketball. It’s about life. He’s a special young man, and the reason we’re in the position we are is his character.”

Lori Riley can be reached at lriley@courant.com.