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An All-City basketball player who had to choose between getting athletic and academic recognition due to pandemic restrictions graduated Friday as valedictorian from the historic Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles.

When L.A. Unified allowed high school basketball to resume last month, Manual Arts decided not to field a team. Jay’len Carter was left to decide between transferring to a school with basketball — increasing his chances of being recruited into a college program — or staying to fulfill his dream of becoming valedictorian.

After receiving his diploma with a 4.2 GPA Friday, Carter said he feels secure in his choice.

“My main goal was to continue to be a student first, because I know one day basketball will stop,” he said. “That is my passion, but I know one day it will stop.”

Graduating the top of his class was always Carter’s main focus, even while putting a pause on his passion, said his father, Darwin Carter.

“It really affected Jay’len,” he said. “He had a really down period during this time, and just the fact that our school wasn’t hosting basketball, it killed the process of his recruitment.”

Jay’len’s family says he’s also the first African American valedictorian student-athlete in the more than 100-year history of Manual Arts High. The school, founded in 1910, is the third oldest in LAUSD and the district’s oldest school on its original campus, which now sits just south of the Memorial Coliseum and USC.

“To get that acknowledgement from a school that has so much history, for me to be a part of that, definitely will be memorable for me,” the graduate said.

Putting academic before athletics is something Jay’len’s family says they instilled in him.

“I’m ecstatic right now to be so proud of him, to know he came here and he accomplished so much,” his father said.  

Jay’len was accepted into Loyola Marymount University but is keeping his options open, waiting to see if he could still be picked up by a college during summer recruitment.