On Saturday night, the Tar Heels drew plenty of attention for their giving nature, handing out 30 assists on 31 field goals and spreading the scoring across 11 different players.
But the program quietly showed generosity in other ways last week. Last Wednesday, the entire roster made its annual shopping trip, a tradition started by Roy Williams at Kansas and imported to Chapel Hill. The assignment is simple: with the help of several local organizations, each player is given a wish list from a needy local family. Their job is to fill that wish list while staying under the $70-per-person spending limit. Money from Carolina's annual sale of autographed basketballs provides the funding.
Shopping for total strangers can be a challenge, but the players--some of whom aren't much older than the people for whom they're buying gifts--have a way of making it enjoyable. Williams constantly reminds his players that they are more fortunate than many others--locally, nationally and globally. "Help a teammate" is a constant Tar Heel point of emphasis; shopping is a subtle reminder of the importance of helping more than just a teammate.
That lesson isn't lost on the Tar Heels. It's an especially personal reminder for some of the players. "To be able to give back to families who are needy is a heartwarming feeling," said Joel James. "I've always been on the receiving end (of similar gestures). I've never been fortunate enough to go out and buy things, especially for other people. It was a great feeling.
"From a personal standpoint, I know how it feels to be on the receiving end. To go to sleep not expecting something under the tree, and then waking up and finding something given to you on that day makes a big difference."
Later last week, the rest of the Carolina family was given the opportunity to contribute. For the second straight year, the Smith Center hosted a massive Toys for Tots drive. All attendees at the East Tennessee State game were invited to bring a new, unwrapped toy, and fans responded with 805 toys. This year's event saw significantly more promotion than last year's effort, and the result was more than twice the 354 toys donated in 2011. Overall, Orange County Toys for Tots wants to collect 5,000 toys for needy children this holiday season.
The strong turnout on Saturday night made a tangible difference for the organization. "I would estimate that if we had to buy that many toys, it would cost about $10,000 to $12,000," said Sharron Hinton, one of the local Toys for Tots coordinators. "Having a connection with UNC basketball is a huge benefit for our campaign."
For what was likely the first time in his life, current Tar Heel Sports Radio Network analyst and former Carolina center Eric Montross was able to play point guard...at least, in terms of the project. After being contacted last fall by Toys for Tots, big double-zero coordinated much of the effort on the UNC side, and he has also received help from--among others--Rick Steinbacher, Michael Beale, Angie Bitting and Ginny Ellis. The biggest assist, of course, came from the Carolina fans who made the event a success, with the potential for even more growth in the future.
Fans can still contribute to the Toys for Tots drive. Visit the organization's website for a list of toy collection sites or to make a donation.