On the days when Charles Carmouche’s knees throbs and ache, the culprit could be a slab of concrete with one rickety hoop near the teachers’ parking lot behind Eleanor McMain High School in New Orleans.
Without a gym of their own, the Mustangs piled into a van some afternoons and rode five miles to McDonogh 35 to borrow a space for a couple of hours — until the Eagles needed their home floor for a workout.
“It was the first time as a coach that I realized what I didn’t have,” former McMain coach Kevin Sanders said. “It’s a little different when another coach walks in flashing his watch and telling you time is up.”
And in the early and feeble stages to rebuild Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, when Orleans Parish schools were wrecked, the Mustangs had to settle for spartan conditions.
“If we couldn’t come up with anything, we’d just walk out back to that patch,” Sanders said. “Just like you used to do in your backyard.”
Chased from native soil to Houston for a year, Carmouche sojourned back to his city before his junior season after sprouting to 6-foot-3 and an ache in his joints from the growth spurts.
But the current guard at LSU (17-9, 8-7 Southeastern), which treks to Missouri (20-8, 9-6) at 3 p.m. Saturday, scantly pondered the implications for two seasons of grating sinew, tendon and bone during workouts on inflexible pavement.
“I was just so excited and going in the moment and flying everywhere. In the gym, I had so much energy. The only thing I wanted to do was run and jump,” Carmouche said Thursday. “That kind of killed me a lot.”
Five years and three college detours later, knee tendinitis dogs Carmouche and cost him at least one game, at Georgia in January.
Emerging at the University of New Orleans, the condition followed him to Memphis and grew so severe that it sat him down after just seven games last season, forcing the NCAA to grant him a medical redshirt after he graduated and ahead of returning to Baton Rouge.
Yet those joints have ably carried the Tigers the past two weeks in a four-game stretch when LSU has pushed past .500 in the SEC, a span when Carmouche has averaged 16.8 points, shot 66.7 percent and is coming off a career-high 26 points against Arkansas on Wednesday.
“He understands that this is it for him,” coach Johnny Jones said Thursday. “When he’s at his best or doing the things that he can do best, we have a much better chance of succeeding as well. It’s not ever about holding back. I think guys play with a little bit of an edge to them.”
The pain that comes and goes is just a lingering piece of baggage, part of a collegiate career that could be viewed as hoops travelogue.
Carmouche played two seasons at UNO before transferring in the wake of the university’s decision to send its athletic programs to Division III because of a drop in enrollment and a paltry $2.25 million budget. Backed by former UNO coach Joe Pasternack, Carmouche visited Memphis, UTEP, Houston and North Texas, where Jones coached the Mean Green and coveted Carmouche’s instant eligibility and skills as a perimeter defender.
At the same time, though, Carmouche’s bouts of tendinitis were rare, Pasternack said.
“I don’t recall it ever being as serious as an injury he suffered in a game,” he said. “His personality is to lead by example and show leadership quietly.”
In some ways, Carmouche concurred with the assessment, added the pace and physicality of transitioning to the college game might have unmasked the issue he overlooked at McMain.
“In high school, we just didn’t have as much time to put into basketball,” Carmouche said. “All the things I was doing to my knees with playing and weights, I didn’t know what was going on. Then I kind of get it looked at.”
He was drawn to the Bluff City, where Memphis coach Josh Pastner was bringing in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. The arrival in May 2010 of Carmouche, who brought in 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds from the Privateers, wasn’t the chief boon for Pastner.
In his first season at Memphis, Carmouche proved reliable, starting 24 games and averaging 7.4 points and 4.3 rebounds. Against Southern Miss, he splashed through a 3-pointer from the left wing to lift the Tigers, who trailed by as many as 18 points, to a 76-75 victory.
Last season, though, his knees again proved nettlesome four starts into the season, as did a four-game suspension stemming from an improper charge he billed to his hotel room during the Maui Invitational in Hawaii. Tendinitis sat him for the rest of the season, with Carmouche’s last action a scoreless four minutes in a 69-51 victory over Tennessee.
“I’ve been dunking my whole career, and I can’t even touch the rim,” Carmouche said. “Not having that athleticism was crazy.”
Fourteen months later, Carmouche said the pain “was so severe and the worst it had ever been” and “only getting worse” when he returned to uniform. He consulted with doctors in Memphis and New Orleans before seeking a medical redshirt, which was granted in June 2012.
“They told me the only thing that can fix this is rest and rehab,” Carmouche said. “As much as I wanted to help my team, it was about what was best for me and best for the program.”
Injuries along with tendinitis had also limited his role after sitting at Georgia, where freshman guard Corban Collins started in his stead. Yet Collins suffered a concussion when he was kneed in the head diving for a loose ball late in the loss, sitting the next three games — a period when Carmouche and freshman Malik Morgan toggled in and out of the starting lineup.
During seven games leading up to a home victory over Mississippi State, Carmouche shot just 34.6 percent and averaged 6.6 points, another factor that cut into a case to insert him back into the lineup. The nadir arrived when Carmouche was benched during a road loss at Tennessee on Feb. 19 for arguing with assistant coaches on the bench.
“I had to stay focused, and that was a coaches’ decision,” Carmouche said. “I’m not in a position to challenge a coach who’s doing what’s best for the team. I just left it up to them.”
Curbing Carmouche’s minutes stemmed namely from him going “through a rash of injuries where he was a little banged-up, and we had to try to cut back his practice time,” Jones said, avoiding mention of Carmouche’s shooting woes.
Guard Anthony Hickey, who battled Carmouche in marathon one-on-one duels in the preseason and hoists up shots with him late at night, said Carmouche remained engaged and was far from a malcontent during the stint.
“You’ve got to stay engaged and, whenever your time is called, you’ve got to be ready,” Hickey said. “Your time will come, but just stay poised and focused. He’s stepping up right now and playing his best basketball.”
By now, Carmouche accepts his condition is “not really something that’s fixable.” The training staff has him stretch more on his own and icing more before and after workouts. The soreness, though, doesn’t temper the commodity Jones desired the most when Carmouche announced he’d join the Tigers in August.
“I don’t say too much, but I’ve always tried to be a leader, even through my struggles,” Carmouche said. “Even through my struggles, I know a lot more basketball than I can play.”