WALLACE — Davis Lee was ready to tee off at River Landing last Saturday when M.L. Carr walked up wearing cut-offs, a white T-shirt, a black cap turned backwards, and P.F. Flyer sneakers and asked if he could caddy.
Lee thought Carr “had lost his mind” decked out like that on a golf course. Carr hadn’t.
The former Boston Celtic was re-creating a scene from 50 years ago when he first approached Lee wearing similar attire at Wallace’s Rockfish Country Club and asked to carry the older man’s bag.
“Son, do you know anything about caddying?” Lee asked way back then.
“No, but I’ll do it a month for free if you’ll teach me,” Carr offered.
“With your attitude and my billfold, we can make a good partnership,” Lee quipped.
That marked the beginning of what Carr calls a real “Blind Side” story, drawing on the movie title. Hollywood’s “Blind Side” shows a Tennessee couple, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, giving African American youth, Michael Oher, a quality home life and putting him on track toward an NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens.
Lee took a special interest in Carr at a time of racial injustice. He bought him his first pair of Converse tennis shoes and guided him on a course that led to basketball success at Wallace-Rose Hill High, Guilford College and the NBA.
“I had a great family. My mother and father were outstanding people,” Carr, 62, said. “(But) If it hadn’t been for Davis, this wouldn’t have happened, none of it. I don’t know which direction I would have gone.”
Ever grateful, Carr honored his mentor, friend and longtime business partner with a surprise 50-year celebration before family and friends at River Landing Saturday night. Mayor Charlie Farrior proclaimed it “Carr-Lee Day” in Wallace.
Surprise? Lee, 73, had been led to believe he was coming from Alabama to a friend’s birthday party.
“I don’t know why Davis had an interest in me; it wasn’t a popular thing to do in the ’60s,” Carr said, recalling the country’s turbulent racial situation. “But I’ve seen him help people from all different backgrounds. He has a heart bigger than his body.”
Lee’s philanthropic philosophy is “See a need, fill a need.” As a result the needs of many have been filled through his numerous charitable endeavors.
Carr and Lee still work together in the Huntsville, Ala., area with Davis Lee Companies, which consists of several diverse businesses such as poultry processing, insurance, energy and education.
Carr is president of The Dream Company, which offers affordable insurance coverage and legacy giving. Liberty’s Legacy, another of Lee’s companies, provides programs for teachers to promote patriotism in schools.
Rewind to the 1960s, back to the Rockfish golf course, back to relationships.
As Carr reached high school age, Lee encouraged him to enroll at Wallace-Rose Hill and help integrate the school.
“No, I’m not going,” Carr said but later yielded to Lee’s persuasion.
One of 27 African American students at W-RH then, Carr was engaging, possessed leadership skills and helped break down racial barriers. In basketball, he was the lone black athlete in area gyms, not exactly a cozy feeling.
“All you need to do is score 25 or 30 points and win the game; Keep your cool no matter what happens. If anything happens let me handle it,” Carr remembers Lee telling him.
Carr kept his cool. He didn’t dazzle on the court at first, however. So Lee gave him time off from his summer job at Rose Hill Poultry Plant and paid his way to Campbell College’s Basketball Camp.
He sharpened his skills there and met coach John Wooden and Pete Maravich, basketball icons who served as camp instructors. The star in Carr began to shine after that. He averaged 21 points his junior season, almost triple his sophomore production.
“That set the tone,’’ Carr said of going to Wallace-Rose Hill, where he played for coach Tom Edwards. “I made lasting friendships at Wallace-Rose Hill. Wallace was a wonderful community.”
Several major college coaches recruited Carr, but he chose Guilford, then a small, NAIA school.
“Coach Jerry Steele didn’t promise me but one thing – that he would do everything within his power to make sure I would have a degree,” Carr said, explaining his college choice. “Unlike some of the other schools, there wasn’t any promise of money or anything else. I liked and trusted both he and Coach (Jack) Jensen.
“I also liked the fact Guilford was small, well-respected academically and seemed nourishing.”
Carr flourished, making All-American and helping lead the Quakers to the 1973 National NAIA championship.
With a degree in hand he embarked on a pro career that included stops overseas, in St. Louis, Detroit and Boston. He made the ABA All-Rookie team, later earned NBA All-Defensive Second Team honors, contributed to two Celtics championships and gained further fame for his exuberant towel waving on the sidelines. Later he coached the Celtics.
HELP ANOTHER KID
Throughout their 50-year association, Carr has thanked Lee and asked how he could repay him.
“If you want to pay me back, give another kid a chance,” Lee said, according to Carr. “Don’t worry about color of skin, what he looks like.”
Using his basketball fame as a platform, Carr has helped kids – lots of ’em.
Some 250,000 youth at detention centers and other venues have heard his inspirational messages.
“It doesn’t matter what background you are from,” Carr told them. “All of us are different. God made all of us special. Black, white, Hispanic, urban, country. The beauty is all make a very special community. You can become a good citizen.”
With a “it’s better to give than receive” attitude like Lee’s, Carr started a WARM2Kids program that provides educational opportunities and support for Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and other organizations.
He also created the M.L. Carr Scholarship Foundation at Guilford in 1986 and the John Henry Carr Alzheimer’s and Aging Foundation in 1991in memory of his father.
Never too busy to help, Carr has served on numerous corporate and charitable boards as well, authored three books, and been honored multiple times for community service.
“To whomsoever much is given, much is expected,” Carr said, quoting a Bible verse he and Lee apply.
Living far from Wallace now and having reached heights that once seemed unattainable, Carr remains loyal to his hometown, Wallace-Rose Hill High and Lee.
“It all germinated with Davis saying, ‘You can caddy for me’ and convincing me to go to Wallace-Rose Hill,” said Carr, acutely aware of how one kind, nurturing and benevolent man can make a difference.