When playing hoops runs a distant second

Colleges: Temple's Mark Karcher, from St. Frances, is a powerful presence on the court, but off the court, he feels powerless to help his daughter, who has sickle cell anemia.

February 12, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- When the game is on the line, Temple's Mark Karcher knows the ball will be in his hands.

He can drive to the basket, spot up for a three-pointer or try a pull-up jumper from the foul line. So many options, so much control.

But there's another side to the former Baltimore high school basketball standout, a personal ordeal that has left Karcher feeling powerless.

His 17-month-old daughter, Aria, has sickle cell anemia.

It's an inherited, chronic disease in which the misshapen red blood cells function abnormally and lead to sudden, painful episodes affecting the bones of the back, chest and abdomen. According to the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, sickle cell is primarily found in people of African heritage.

Karcher, 21, keeps close ties and lives only three minutes from Aria, who stays with her mother, Jessica Blanding, who is also a student at Temple. Karcher takes Aria for her regular checkups twice a month and remembers vividly the several nights last year that his daughter had to be rushed to the hospital when she became ill.

"You just sit there and don't know what to do," Karcher said. "I don't like to be in those types of situations. I'm sitting there and she's got the IV needles in her. And she's looking at me with those tears in her eyes. I just feel lost."

Aria is expected to be in the stands tomorrow, when No. 19 Temple plays host to No. 23 Maryland. Twenty-five other relatives will be there to see Karcher, and many beyond his family circle have seen him grow up on the court.

By age 15, Karcher was gracing the front of the sports pages and had college recruiters following nearly every game. At St. Frances, he scored a school-record 3,100 points and became The Sun's first two-time All-Metro Player of the Year in more than a decade.

As a high school senior, Karcher was being interviewed by ESPN and had city basketball enthusiasts arguing: Who was the best player to ever come out of Baltimore, Karcher or Skip Wise?

"Everyone always knew how great he was," said Karcher's grandmother, Eunice Lewis, who raised him from a baby. "I didn't know until I saw all the trophies and MVP awards he kept bringing home."

Right now, the only question that keeps popping up is: Will Karcher turn pro this year?

The junior forward has topped Temple in scoring the past two years, averaging 14.2 points for his career, wowing NBA scouts despite his lack of flash.

With his 6-foot-5, 220-pound stature, Karcher has the size to score inside, complementing his three-point shooting. He can muscle to the basket with a simple power dribble or fire long-range shots after curling off screens without a dribble. And he possesses unique ball-handling skills for his size.

So Karcher's got game, but maybe not the desire just yet.

He admits to never being a pro basketball fan, saying he prefers the college game. He also fears leaving without a degree would disappoint his grandmother.

Still, will the condition of his daughter sway his decision on whether to stay in college or pursue the millions an NBA contract could bring?

"Somewhat," Karcher said. "Like I told my family, I'm not going to rush the situation. If I were to go, it would help my daughter and her situation out a lot. That's what I want to do.

"But God knows what's best for me and my daughter," continued Karcher, who has a four-inch tattoo of a cross on his right bicep with the words, "Only God can judge me" around it. "When it's time to make a decision for my daughter, my family and me, I'll go with my gut feeling."

Weighty issues

Because he didn't qualify academically under NCAA guidelines, Karcher had to sit out his freshman year. Falling about 100 points shy of a qualifying 820 SAT score, he had to forget about his dreams of playing for either Maryland or Georgia Tech. Atlantic Coast Conference rules prohibit teams from signing non-qualifiers.

Karcher gained 50 pounds that first year at Temple. He also gained two children.

On Jan. 23, 1998, Karcher's son, Equan, was born. He lives in Baltimore with his mother. Seven months later in Philadelphia, Blanding gave birth to Aria, who was soon diagnosed with sickle cell anemia.

"He comes with a lot of baggage in terms of the problems that he has," Temple coach John Chaney said. "But he's strong enough to overcome it. The worst thing that happens is when anyone says to Mark: No, you can't do it."

Karcher surrounds himself with thoughts of his children while delicately balancing a full college course load and basketball.

In his locker, he has two pictures of his son and daughter tucked in the corners of his mirror. On his right forearm, Karcher has his son's name tattooed along with his birthdate. He keeps tabs on his son through his grandmother, who takes Equan on occasions.

Because Aria lives near Temple, Karcher visits her every other day for a couple of hours. He sings the alphabet with her and plays her favorite game -- hide-and-seek -- which is a bit challenging for a 6-5 father.

"They're my whole life," Karcher said.

Shaping up

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