Superheroes tend to have the most unexpected origin stories. Spider-Man was a nerdy high school student. Superman a journalist by daytime.

The Crime Stopper, known in his everyday life as Aquille Carr, was once the biggest superhero in Baltimore, despite being small in stature. He earned the moniker after reports that violent crime rates in East Baltimore dropped significantly during his high school basketball games. The explanation for the drop in crime was easy—there was nobody around to commit crimes, everyone was too busy watching him in sold-out gyms across the city.

At only 5-6, Carr seemed a longshot to dominate a high school league that produced Rudy Gay and Carmelo Anthony. But the diminutive Carr racked up scoring records and multiple area-MVP awards while leading Patterson High School to its first-ever state championship in 2012 as a junior. The crowds Carr drew were so large that Patterson had to relocate games to nearby Morgan State University eight times during his sophomore season. He was offered a $750,00 pro contract from an Italian club that year, and his highlight tapes were viewed millions of times on YouTube.

“He completely changed basketball around here,”says Glenn Graham, who has covered prep sports in Baltimore City and its five surrounding counties for the Baltimore Sun for 25 years. “I’ve been with the Sun since 1990 and for the past nine years I‘ve run all the high school coverage, and I’ve never seen anything like him. This is a kid where people were waiting in line for hours to watch him because he was so unique and so special.”

“Without a doubt in all my 25 years, no one was even close to generating as much hype as he did,” says Graham, making sure to mention times Aquille dunked on or crossed up older, top-ranked local players like Nick Faust and Josh Selby. “To go see Aquille Carr play, you had to show up before the JV games to get a seat.”

By his senior season in 2013, The Crime Stopper was poised to become a household name. But that never happened.  The accolades and national exposure that seemed predestined at the heigh of his reign never came. Despite being a top recruit and committing to Seton Hall, Carr skipped college in the hopes of playing pro overseas before entering the NBA Draft. He bounced out of the D-League and was passed over in the NBA Draft. He lasted three months in Canada’s NBL before getting cut.

Now, just two years after he was on his way to take over the basketball world, the legend of The Crime Stopper is a memory. Today, Carr is back where it all began, in Baltimore—just another basketball player looking for a contract and a shot at redemption.

* * *

Carr, 21, sits in his grandmother’s living room in East Baltimore, as a college basketball broadcast plays out idly on the television next to him. It’s Selection Sunday, and the teams that will make up this year’s NCAA Tournament are currently being whittled down. Yet somehow, Carr is completely unaware of what’s unfolding on the television screen.

“Why they playing today?” he asks. I tell him it’s Selection Sunday.

“So then, is this the Tournament?”

It’s a bit mind-blowing to think that a former high school phenom has no clue how March Madness works. But then, it hints at a larger character trait, a trait that is perhaps the biggest reason why Carr never became a full-blown national obsession: all he knows is basketball and Baltimore, and not necessarily in that order.

Carr says he skipped out on his commitment to Seton Hall in order to make money to support his newborn daughter, Averi. Yet when he was offered a contract by a top Chinese team, he turned it down. His reasoning was simple: he wanted to be closer to his daughter—in Baltimore.

After that came a stint with the Delaware 87ers of the D-League. He lasted 10 games there. Despite some solid play, disagreements with coaches strained his relationship with the organization, and when his father Alan fell sick, he says he asked for a release to be with his family back in Baltimore.

“I think it’s safe to say he’s obviously very tight with his family as well as his friends in Baltimore, but Delaware was as good as it would get for professional basketball, and if he wanted to play pro he would have to learn how to live away from Baltimore,” says Graham. “It just doesn’t seem he was ever prepared for the obstacles he faced.”

Carr then joined the Saint John Mill Rats of the Canadian National Basketball League. For three months he vacillated between electrifying and underwhelming. Then, tragedy struck. Carr’s cousin was murdered, another life claimed by Baltimore’s streets. The crafty guard lost his mental edge, and struggled to control his emotions. The Millrats cut him. Once again, Charm City’s finest found himself back in Baltimore.

Questions about his maturity have always followed Carr. He struggled to adjust to life away from Baltimore. At times, the easy smile he carried on the court disappeared into fits of anger in an instant. In high school, he was arrested on domestic assault charges for an incident with the mother of his daughter; that case was dismissed after he completed community service, but the distractions continued. His temper hurt his relationship with the 87ers and led to multiple suspensions in Canada.

“People say I’m not a professional,” Carr admits, looking around his grandmother’s room. “Maybe they’re right, I wasn’t disciplined. But I never got the opportunity to mature and learn like others did in college. I had to learn it all on my own. Yeah I made some mistakes, but I did it all on my own.”

Asked if he has any regrets, specifically about Seton Hall—like, Does he ever second-guess his decision to not go to college?—Carr says, Yes.

“I think about Seton Hall,” he says, his voice softening. “I think if I had just gone to college it would make all this a lot easier, so I kind of regret that. But it goes both ways; I had to provide for my daughter, and my decision allowed me to travel the world and make money.”

Carr says the past two years have forced him to mature. He says growing up as a superstar in the city came with too many people looking to just cling on to his fame, and that he’s had to cut down on his entourage.

“I’m either at my house or the gym; I’m too big to be walking around in the streets out here,” Carr says. “I can’t even play at the local parks, cause somebody is always gonna try to take a run at me to prove something. Plus if I’m around the city too many people start asking me to come around, so I just keep to myself and workout at the gyms.”

His agent, Daniel Hazan of Hazan Sports Management reiterated Carr’s worries about the distractions that come within Baltimore.

“He’s young, so there’s a big learning curve,“ Hazan says, referencing the perceived immaturity that has hampered Carr’s young career. “But I don’t think there’s any issue with his skill or his ability; he’s always been able to play. I think it’s more of a challenge for him to be able to stay put with other things happening back in East Baltimore, like the shooting. He’s had to overcome all of it. On top of that, when you’re young and you have a lot of fame and everyone telling you how great you are, if you don’t overcome that challenge and handle it the right way it can be your downfall. But he’s cut down on the hanger-ons and I’m confident he’ll have a pro contract before the end of summer.”

To his credit, Carr has a naturally welcoming personality; it’s easy to see how he might have allowed too many hangers-on to ride his coattails in the past. He keeps a close inner circle of friends now, most notably his childhood friend Devon Allen—who never seems to leave Carr’s side. All he talks about during our interview is basketball and his daughter, and while he admits he doesn’t know where Averi’s mother currently lives, he seems sincere in his devotion to basketball and Averi.

“I’m still chasing it, I still want to be in the League,” he says, “I know it won’t be a straight road, but I’ll be on my way. I know I can still play.”

* * *

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Three days later, at the Bluford Drew Jamison Academy in Baltimore around 9 p.m., Troy Parker, a former AAU teammate of Carr, is putting Aaron Davis, a 19-year-old local prep school prospect, through a workout.

Carr enters the gym, covered head-to-toe in brand new neon Under Armour gear. As he makes his way to the court, he walks past Devon and his 32-year-old older brother, Alan Jr., who’s wearing a shirt that reads “Crime Stopper” across the front. He daps up Raheem, Davis, and Parker, and when he sees Davis wearing an older pair of Nikes, he laughs.

“We need to get you into some new shoes, but not that brand,” he jokes, referencing the contract he signed with the Baltimore-based Under Armour in 2013. He reaches into his gym bag and throws Davis a new pair of fluorescent UA sneakers.

In seconds, Aquille is on the court. He navigates orange cones with a series of crossovers and behind-the-back dribbles, his handle lightning quick and impossibly low. There’s no doubt: watching Carr play basketball is mesmerizing. His jumper can be inconsistent, and at times he seems distracted, but watching the YouTube sensation in-person is exhilarating.

The next time the rest of the world will get a chance to watch him will come this summer, when Carr suits up with TeamBDB in The Basketball Tournament (the Finals of the $1 million summer tournament will be broadcast on ESPN) alongside Selby and a handful of other Maryland natives. And while participating in TBT is no promise of making it back to the NBA, Carr will once again be where he feels most comfortable: in the spotlight.

“People say he’s too cocky, or too immature, but that’s unfair to him because he’s tough as nails.” says his 32-year-old older brother, Alan Jr. “People are just intimidated by our family, by the people we come around with. But it’s all family; everyone we roll with is family. People won’t give Baltimore a chance, which isn’t fair, because there’s a lot of good people out here that aren’t given a chance to succeed.”

Alan pauses.

“Nobody can ever bring that life to Baltimore like Aquille did. It’s always positive with him, people just need to come see it.”

Photos + words by Robert Pursell