The fan was mesmerized by the "I'm a Tar Heel" commercial on the Smith Center video board.
You know the one. Tar Heel legend after Tar Heel legend pops up on the screen during a timeout, repeating the same message: "My name is _______, and I'm a Tar Heel." The spot that ran Friday night during Carolina's 76-59 win over Gardner-Webb was a new one, led off by Kendall Marshall and featuring all four 2012 first-round NBA draft picks, plus a host of others.
The fan watched every second. He saw Marshall. He saw Ty Lawson. He saw Sean May. So many great players in one place, and they all were Tar Heels, and can you believe that they all went here and...
"JOEL, pay attention!" barked Roy Williams.
And that's when the fan, who you might know better as Joel James, who posted six points and four rebounds in his Carolina debut, had to stop watching the video board.
"I almost got in trouble," said James sheepishly, and it is not easy for a 6-foot-10, 260-pound 19-year-old to do anything sheepishly. It is like watching thunder try to whisper. But he absolutely did. He lowered his already baritone voice another notch, as if to make sure Williams couldn't come bursting through the door and hear him relating the story.
"We were in the huddle, and Coach was talking," James said. "They were playing that, 'I'm a Tar Heel,' on the video board. I looked up, and I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'What am I doing in North Carolina's gym right now?'
"That was when Coach said, 'Joel, pay attention!'"
What is he doing in North Carolina's gym? You can tell it's almost impossible for him to believe. But he is an important piece of the next generation of Tar Heels. James, and Marcus Paige, and J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson-right now, you might still need the roster to know who is who. Soon they'll be as familiar as those faces that dot James's new favorite Smith Center video.
Eventually, we'll know them by their games. James has a deceptively soft touch around the basket, and had one very nice catch and conversion in traffic in the second half. Johnson came in for his first action and immediately tossed in a hook shot. Paige, who said this summer he wanted to work on his defense, was disruptive on a couple of second-half Gardner Webb possessions. Tokoto had a two-handed breakaway dunk.
And about that dunk. On the J.P. Tokoto scale of incredibleness, it barely registered. He was out in front of everyone, with Paige probably the closet player from either team, and he did something you or I could do (well, let's imagine I could do it). Tokoto was a terrific defender in high school, and Williams recently said he had a chance to be a standout offensive rebounder in college. But his fame has come from some incredible dunks. And in the open court in his college debut, we got...a pedestrian two-hander?
"You've got to get the first one down," Tokoto said. "It was kind of a close game, and I didn't want to do something crazy and miss a dunk. Because then Coach gets mad, and we want Coach to be happy."
You assume that this has probably been discussed, this easy method of keeping Coach Williams happy. At some point in these first 20 practices, you figure the coach might have mentioned that there are times and places for fantastic dunks. "No, he hasn't mentioned it," Tokoto said. "That's something you should probably just know."
Yes, probably you should. But not everyone does. That's what you may eventually enjoy the most about this group of freshmen. They have a certain savvy that's a little disarming in a group of rookies.
Johnson, for example, shook hands with everyone in the media crowd before beginning his first postgame interview. Tokoto recently chased down Eric Montross in a Chapel Hill restaurant for the express purpose of shaking his hand. They had met roughly five days prior for the first time. "Mr. Montross," the freshman told the 1993 national champion, "I just wanted to tell you it was great to meet you the other day."
Before you think it's quaint that Tokoto would call Montross "mister," consider that the freshman from Wisconsin was not born when Montross cut down the nets in New Orleans. Yes, that just happened yesterday but it also happened more than a Carolina basketball generation ago.
Paige, meanwhile, was so composed it was hard to tell if he'd just come from a midday snack at Sutton's or a basketball game in front of 16,430. "Coach Robinson and Coach Williams have let me know that there is going to be a learning period and a time of adjustment," he said. "We want to make that as short as possible. I have to handle the highs and the lows because those are going to come during every game."
When Paige finished his interview, he went to find his parents, Ellis and Sherryl, who are in Chapel Hill from their hometown of Marion, Iowa, this weekend. They are celebrating their anniversary and watching their son start at point guard for the University of North Carolina as a freshman.
You think they're having a good anniversary?
Eventually, you know that all of these individuals will be accustomed to being a Tar Heel. But it sure is a lot of fun to watch them get used to it, and watch everything about it be new. They're not cool to it yet, and they are absolutely delighted with it.
It's pretty simple: it's fun to watch people have fun. There will be time to talk about their shot or their defense or their stats. Right now, four people just lived a dream. For one night only, that's enough.
And then there was James. He was in the corner of the Carolina locker room, with ice on his knees. It was pointed out to him that he had just played his first game as a North Carolina Tar Heel and that he was, in fact, a Tar Heel, just like those players he saw on the video board.
I wish every Tar Heel fan could have seen the look that came over his face-and sometime this year, I bet you do get to see it. It was pure, unadulterated joy. He was absolutely gobsmacked by the reality of being a Tar Heel.
"I know," he said, and he let loose with a big, room-shaking laugh. His eyes went wide--really wide.