Joseph “Smokey” Carson would regularly say to me “my daughter is going to be the best basketball player boy or girl, man or woman to ever come out of the city of Paterson.” We lived around the corner from each other in the 90’s and I would often go sit with him on the porch and we would talk for hours about sports and his daughter.
A star athlete himself, (Paterson Eastside HS) he would often speak of his daughter Essence’s many talents not only on the basketball courts but in the arts. He once invited me inside his home to hear Essence practicing on the piano at the age of 10 and I was blown away by how flawless she played.
Unfortunately, Joseph Carson passed away and did not witness what he so passionately said of his daughter’s many talents but perhaps he spoke her greatness into existence.
The Essence of Carson is transcendent and is a great example of a renaissance woman of this modern era. Just like her fellow Rutgers University alum the late great Paul Roberson, she possesses many extraordinary talents beyond her athletic prowess that serves as a great example for the young girls and women of color from her community and across the world.
I recently had a chance to sit down with the WNBA and Rutgers legend Essence Carson to discuss her career and her journey.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Paterson, NJ. I attended Rosa L Parks School of Fine and Performing Arts while competing athletically at Eastside High School.
Talk about some of your influences growing up in Paterson, NJ.
Some of my influences growing up in Paterson were simply the culture. The blending of African American, Caribbean, and the LatinX diaspora influenced much of who I was as a growing child. Music, food, and sports can all be tied back to these cultural influences.
Ultimately, my biggest influences were my grandparents who instilled the mindset of using your mind + hard work to elevate and my mother who showed me perseverance.
When looking at life through the lens of sports and entertainment there are many influences as well; Vanessa Paynter, Larry Doby, Rory Sparrow, Peter Nelson, and Just Blaze to name a few.
I’d also like to note there are MANY teachers that influenced my outlook on life. Many of these teachers do not receive the recognition they deserve, so I’d like to use this space to remind them they are not forgotten. Teachers have a huge role in the success of many children. From Martin Luther King Jr School (PS 30) to Rosa L Parks and Eastside High, each teacher, counselor, and front office helped me get where I am.
When and where did the love for sports begin?
The love of sports began in my neighborhood in Paterson. With basketball being the top sport in the city at the time, it created a genuine camaraderie among many of the youth. Sports was a healthy outlet for all, bringing joy to the forefront of an often time gloomy and limited perspective.
Prior to stepping outside the door of my home, the love of basketball ran through my veins since birth. My father, Joseph Carson, was a three-sport athlete at Eastside High and was noted as an athlete with tremendous ability. My uncle, Richard Blake (Grey), was a known and respected youth basketball coach in the city of Paterson.
Was there one sport more than the others that you gravitated towards growing up?
I gravitated towards basketball because of a general liking of the sport and my family history. Basketball brought joy to so many faces. I loved the way it made me feel. As a child growing into adolescence, I would hear that consensus in Paterson.
To those who were not Patersonians, the stance was never positive. It was never welcoming and warm. On the other hand, basketball showed me that those of the city could come together to share happiness and joy by the way of sports. It showed unity of some sort when others insinuated we could not accomplish.
You played Basketball at Rutgers University. You had an outstanding career playing for Hall of Fame Coach Vivian Stringer, talk about that experience and the impact Rutgers and Coach Stringer had on your career?
I had a wonderful experience playing at Rutgers University under Coach C. Vivian Stringer. It was an opportunity to bring the pride of New Jersey back to New Brunswick/Piscataway. That opportunity turned out to be even more fruitful than anticipated. The knowledge of the game of basketball and life that Coach Stringer passed along was/is priceless. It prepared me for everything I’d encounter as an adult and professional in the world.
You were selected 7th overall in the 1st round of 2008 WNBA draft by New York Liberty, what was that like and talk about your career in the WNBA.
My career in the WNBA was full of experiences. From being drafted at number 7 overall, becoming an All-Star, having one of the league’s most sold jerseys during my New York Liberty stint to winning a championship with the Los Angeles Sparks, was nothing short of amazing.
I’ve had to chance to play many roles throughout my career, but also play alongside many greats. Having a chance to call two of the world’s most famous arenas home (Madison Square Garden/Staples Center) was something I didn’t consider when dreaming as a child, but it falls short of nothing. I’ve had the privilege to play for several organizations that allowed me to continuously live out my dreams; New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks, Pheonix Mercury, Washington Mystics, and Connecticut Sun.
You have seen and been a part of many decades of collegiate athletics and professional sports, which decade was the most impactful and why?
Having a career that has spanned decades is a blessing. Of those decades, the years 2007-2017 stand out. During that time, I was able to win a WNBA championship, play for a NCAA national championship, win the Big East championship, become a WNBA All-Star, win several championships while competing abroad, and make an impact on how society views Black athletes in America.
You attended Paterson Eastside High School (Paterson, NJ) which was made famous by Joe Clark the principal (Movie: “Lean on Me”) talk about your experience and its impact.
I attended Rosa L Parks School of Fine and Performing Arts while competing athletically at Eastside High School. If I spent 6 hours at RPHS I would spend an additional 4-5 hours at EHS. It was a good experience for me. I had a perfect balance of the arts, academics, and sports. Although RPHS was a separate campus, you did not escape the nuances of living in Paterson, NJ. Most of my friends from my neighborhood attended EHS, so my integration into the school was seamless.
What was your most memorable moment as a HS, Collegiate and Professional Athlete?
My most memorable moments as an athlete are (no particular order):
-Winning the Passaic County 800m championship after missing my 400m race because of scheduling conflicts with a recital. Prior to this I never competed in an 800m race.
-Defeating Duke University in North Carolina to advance to the Elite 8 after previously losing to them by 40-points at the RAC.
-Being the underdog was an understatement. -Winning the WNBA championship in 2016 in a memorable series to top off a historic season.
Many people do not know you are a very talented musician, when did the love for music begin and which instrument(s) do you play?
My love for music began as a child in my grandparents’ house. Their love for Jazz, R&B, and Gospel music influenced my early interest in music. Once I got a hold of Hip-Hop, my love for music grew even more. Over the years I’ve played the piano (classical, gospel, jazz, and contemporary), alto/tenor saxophone (orchestral and jazz), electric bass (jazz), and drums (contemporary/gospel).
My time at RPHS helped hone my crafts. People are unaware of the many talented musicians and instructors that have graced the city limits of Paterson, NJ. I am grateful for each of their impact on my life as a musician.
What are you doing now?
On the more corporate front, I currently serve as the Director of Label Operations & Distribution at Guin Records after serving stints at Universal Music Group’s Caroline Records (Virgin Music), Priority Records, Capitol Music, and Motown Records.
Separately, I’ve co-founded businesses aimed at consulting/developing creative and infrastructure for a wide variety of clients in entertainment, music, fashion, and retail.