Lets be honest Tar Heel Nation, there are not many of us who would think we would be watching our Heels play for a National Championship this season. They had their ups and downs throughout the season, and we have had our doubts as fans, but they have persevered. What makes this team special to me is the group of seniors they have leading and it’s that leadership role began this past offseason.
Just like every summer in Chapel Hill, the Smith Center becomes a battleground for former and current players to test themselves out against each other and become better players. It also gives the alum a chance to past down valuable lessons to the new, up and coming guys in the program.
This summer wasn’t any different from summers of the past, we the alumni, were all in training and preparing for our upcoming seasons by beating up on the young guys in pickup games. In these pickup games, the former players always play the role of the bully-ish big brother. We play very physical, we talk trash, we blatantly cheat, and most importantly we win. Playing like this as an alum, is something I couldn’t wait to do when I was in school. The older guys like Shammond Williams, Makhtar Ndiaye, Antawn Jamison, to name a few, did us the exact same way. They would beat up on us, but we couldn’t touch them without a foul being called. They talked reckless trash to us, but out of respect for the guys who paved the way for us, we never said much back. One thing these summertime games did for us was, prepare us for the upcoming season. We knew if we could hold our own against the UNC pros, we could dominate any collegiate team we would face.
One day this summer, we all met up to play our normally scheduled pick up games. As usual we dominated the games, sometimes cheating to do so, but oh well, we earned the right to get away with a few calls. One current player got mad because of a turnover that should have given them the ball with a chance to win the game, but Ray Felton and myself were not going to let that happen. One of the current guys became furious and said he quit because he was tired of being cheated and left the gym. His departure from the gym triggered a firestorm of criticism, from us former players. We let the young guys have it! We told them how soft they were, how they hadn’t earned the right in the Smith Center to leave because things didn’t go their way, we even questioned who was the team leader that allowed this behavior. After our rant, I was on the sideline getting dressed and here comes Marcus Paige who sits besides me and asks “Wad how do you lead, and get everyone to follow you”? First off, I was honored that he came to me for advice; he was the All American, not me, but I was one of the senior leaders/ captains of a super talented team. Secondly, it showed how much he wanted to win. My advice to him was just do your job to the best of your ability so that no one can criticize you and because you have the accolades and experience everyone, else would fall in line.
To see where these guys are today is amazing to me, because I was able to witness this process that started last June. I saw Joel Berry grab the gun after pickup games to get up extra shots. I watched Theo fight hard to get back from his injury. I’ve seen all the big men meet up with Coach Hubert Davis to get in extra work. I have also witnessed the guys who never really get to see the floor come game time, in the gym after hours working on being the best possible players they can be to help the team. We all have witnessed the monster Brice Johnson has become and Marcus Paige is the leader that keeps this team going.
As they prepare to play for a National Title tonight, one of Coach Williams’ quotes of the day pops into my head… “Everyone has the will to win, but Champions have the will to prepare to win.” This is the perfect quote to describe this 2015-2016 Tar Heels team because they put in the work and are now reaping the benefits. I just hope the seniors get the proper send off, by winning their final collegiate game.