Williams says the reaction from current Tar Heel players has been a source of strength for him.
Williams says the reaction from current Tar Heel players has been a source of strength for him.
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Lucas: Williams Focused On Season
Release: 10/05/2012

By Adam Lucas

It seems natural to ask Roy Williams about his preparation for the 2012-13 college basketball season. After all, he's spent the last 24 days concerned about his health, leading up to yesterday's welcome news that tumors in both his right and left kidneys are benign.

That's big news. But the season begins one week from today at Late Night. Is it possible to transition so quickly from potentially life-altering changes to reminding P.J. Hairston to follow through on his jump shot?

Williams grins. "During recovery, you're so limited in what you can do," he says. "They told me not to do anything physically. But because of that, I have probably done more thought and preparation for this season than any season before. Usually, I'm recruiting like crazy until two days before practice starts, and then we shut down recruiting for the first two weeks of practice. Since I couldn't do that, I've been doing lots of thinking and planning. I've been looking at old practice plans. I've been doing more of that type of thing than I've ever done before a season started."

His health scare didn't completely slow the Carolina recruiting machine, however. One hour after Williams heard a doctor tell him he might have kidney cancer, the head coach visited the home of a prospect. The next morning, he visited a high school.

Since the surgery, however, the usually full-throttle Williams has had to do something unusual for him: slow the tempo. He's been in the office every day except one since he had surgery on September 19.

"People say, 'Oh, Coach, you're so tough, you're still working,'" he says. "It's not that I'm tough. It's that when I sat there by myself at home, I was scared."

He's been buoyed by the approximately dozen letters he's received from strangers who have experienced kidney cancer--Williams's tumors were eventually diagnosed as benign, but that wasn't known when the letters were written--and lived through it. He's also drawn strength from the coaching community, which can be incredibly cutthroat while also being incredibly insular.

Former Stanford coach and current Cal boss Mike Montgomery has called three times, as has Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger. Jerry Tarkanian sent a hand-written note. Closer to home, every coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference has either called, texted or written. And what makes Carolina-Duke different from so many other rivalries? Duke's Mike Krzyzewski sent two notes and phoned Williams. Former Blue Devil point guard Greg Paulus, now on the staff at Ohio State, left three notes and messages.

"The former players, the coaches, the Carolina friends, the Kansas friends, everyone that I have heard from has been overwhelming," Williams says.

Now, as he sits in his office on a Friday morning, things are slowly returning to normal. He's added a handful of photos to his office, including a portrait of Tyler Zeller to his "Academic All-American shelf," as Williams calls it, which already had three members from Kansas. Although he tried to lobby his doctors for a full clearance on recruiting, he's still restricted from flying. But today, on October 5, he's markedly ahead of where he thought he might be.

When the situation was first explained to him in mid-September, the possible timeline called for the first surgery, then a four-week preparation for a potential second surgery, and then at least two weeks after that surgery when he would have been very limited. That means some unfortunate doctor would have had to tell Roy Williams he couldn't go to practice. And, even more unthinkably, "The timetable was going right to the wire about whether I could make the trip to Hawaii," he says.

That's right. When the diagnosis was still uncertain, it was possible Williams might have had to miss his favorite trip of the four-year preseason tournament cycle, the Maui Invitational. In 24 days--roughly the full length of an NCAA Tournament--he's gone from hearing the words "possible kidney cancer" to "Congratulations, Coach." That's a big step.

"At first, we were trying to escalate the timetable as much as possible just so I could coach," he says. "It was devastating. But I've been so lucky, and my doctors have done such a great job. The fact that they are so good at what they do and understand so much about what they are talking about enabled me to have tremendous confidence in what they were telling me. That gave me a great deal of peace."

That peaceful feeling may not be unanimous in the Williams household, however. The coach's wife, Wanda, has suddenly seen more of her husband this fall than she ever has before. He has not always been a model patient.

"Wanda always tells me she wants me to retire," he says. "But after 17 days of being with me 24 hours a day, I think she's fine if I want to work a while longer."

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.

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