By Adam Lucas
The first text message arrived at 5:57 this morning, waking up Carolina's director of player relations, Eric Hoots.
It read, "Have you heard anything yet?" It was from Sean May, the Most Outstanding Player in the 2005 Final Four, who is currently playing in Paris. May was the first of dozens of former players ("Marvin Williams has called three times," Hoots said) to check on the health of Roy Williams today.
That process was set in motion last night, when Hoots began trying to call all of Williams's former players before this afternoon's press release sent out the official news of the surgery to remove the coach's kidney tumor.
This is the reality Williams, and those like him, live in. They need to tell the people who inhabit their close circle of friends...but they can't tell people too soon, lest it leak too quickly and a loved one find out the wrong way.
Thus the small window of time Hoots had to contact all the bold-faced names from the past decade of Carolina basketball. Williams wanted each of them to hear it from the basketball office before they heard it anywhere else. "I don't know if people realize how much Coach means to those guys," Hoots said. "They were really shocked. The way they reacted-it made it a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be."
The current Tar Heels had the benefit of having the rest of the coaching staff easily accessible for any questions or concerns about the health of their head coach. Assistant coach Steve Robinson, who has parented three college-age children, had a sage take on the way the players would process the news, which Dexter Strickland called "very emotional for me."
"In a situation like this, where someone has to undergo surgery, kids are going to be concerned until they know the outcome," Robinson said. "There's an initial shock that we'll work through with them. Then they need to know that everything is OK, and then they're going to move forward."
To that end, the first stop for the Tar Heel players on Wednesday afternoon was near court level, where they recorded individual "get well" messages for Williams that will be collected, burned to DVD and delivered to him soon. Then, they gathered on the court for one of the NCAA-permitted light workouts, taking the focus away from the basketball office and putting it back on the basketball court, where Williams doubtless wants it.
Now that the news is out and the surgery is completed, everything begins to get a little easier-for everyone except one person.
"We know what to do and our team knows what to do," assistant coach C.B. McGrath said. "We can function and the program can function in our normal lives, just like he has taught us to do. But I'm not sure he can function without his normal life."
Which brings up an interesting question. Williams proclaimed before the surgery that he expected to be released on Thursday, which seems a little optimistic for a significant surgical procedure. But even after he's released, he's been told to expect spending up to a week at home without coming into the office. A selection of basketball staff and players were asked what they think their head coach will do with all that free time. Managers Maggie Wooten and Teon Watson predicted puzzles, along with perhaps a dose of New York Yankees baseball (Williams is a big fan, proving everyone has their flaws). Other Tar Heel guesses about the head coach's use of a free week:
James Michael McAdoo: "By the time he gets back, I bet he's game-planned every game we're going to play this year."
Strickland (who spoke like a man with only one season left to play for Williams): "Get on his wife's nerves? Seriously, knowing the type of person he is, he'll probably be doing something to help us. He'll probably watch film or scout some other teams."
McGrath: "He's going to drive everybody crazy. He will probably be the worst patient of all time. I feel bad for the nurses."
Former video assistant-turned-UAB director of operations Bobby Frasor: "He's going to eat well, I know that. It'll probably be ice cream and brownies every night. He probably needs to catch up on his movies. The last one he has seen might have been Moneyball (note: Moneyball was released a full year ago), and that's just because it had baseball in it."
Reggie Bullock: "He's going to think about us every day. He's going to wonder what we're doing and if we're getting better as a player. Are we buying in, are we listening to the assistant coaches? He's not going to think about that surgery at all. He's going to be more worried about this team. Helping us become better basketball players is what he loves to do."
Former assistant and current UAB head coach Jerod Haase: "He'll watch every Clint Eastwood movie. Then he'll read each book. He might learn how to use an iPad. Then he'll use Skype for a second time (Harrison) to talk to his grandkids. Finally, he'll draw up plays for UAB."
Leslie McDonald: "Coach is such a passionate guy and basketball is his life. Sitting at home doing nothing is going to be hard for him. I guarantee he's going to end up doing something connected to sports."
But, Leslie, aren't you worried he might end up making a list of every mistake you've ever made as a Tar Heel, and he's going to come back with a lengthy to-do list for you?
"Look," McDonald said, "I don't care if Coach comes back with a long list of multiplication tables, as long as he comes back as quickly as he can."