CHESTNUT HILL--At one of the world's biggest basketball programs, on national television, in what has become the multimillion dollar business of college sports, Tuesday we were reminded that this game we believe is so important is still very simple: those superheroes in the Carolina blue argyle we obsess over and idolize and criticize are someone's children.
P.J. Hairston went down with 4:04 remaining in the first half of Carolina's road game at Boston College. At that time, he was "as hot as I've ever seen him," according to Roy Williams, and had already pumped through 14 points. He was sensational. He was the fuel for a hundred talk radio and message board arguments.
And then, after a collision with Dexter Strickland that left Hairston crashing to the ground, we were reminded of something else: Hairston is talented and is having a breakout season. We will shout his name and roar with approval the next time he drops in another three-pointer that whispers through the net without even touching the rim.
But he is, despite all that, only this: he is Wendy Mailey's son. No matter how big he gets, and no matter how much he swaggers around the hardwood, she still sees him, somewhere in her heart, through the lens every mother everywhere uses: as her little boy.
That became obvious as Hairston struggled to find his feet. As he lay, face down, on the Conte Forum court, first there was Tar Heel trainer Chris Hirth, summoned by a nearby official who noticed Hairston wasn't immediately hopping up. Then there was Roy Williams, who squeezed Hairston's hand in a touchingly reassuring move. And then, less noticeably, there was a woman clad in mostly brown--Hairston's mother, Wendy Mailey.
It was such a fundamentally human moment. Think about it. This is North Carolina. We are not exactly unaccustomed to watching seasons end on the court right in front of our eyes. Less than ten months ago, Kendall Marshall went down and we never got to see him in a Carolina uniform again. A few months earlier, Strickland went down in pain at Virginia Tech. We know what this looks like.
This does not appear to be one of those situations (here I expect you to join me in knocking on wood while throwing salt over your shoulder and rubbing a rabbit's foot). But it felt right with her out there, and it was so universal. I can't relate to Hairston soaring above the Florida State defense to slam through a one-handed dunk. I can't understand what it must be like to get the ball at the top of the key, barely glance at the hoop, and fire in a three-pointer over a Boston College defense that was trying intently to stop him from doing exactly that.
On Tuesday night, though, for a few minutes, it was just one mother and one son, and all of us have been there, in some way or another.
Maybe you've been the player, the one prone on a basketball court or a football field or a baseball diamond, hoping your mom doesn't come out there and embarrass you but simultaneously secretly wishing your mom would come out there right that very second to make it better.
Maybe you've been the mother, the one who has to sit, helpless, in the stands while your son or daughter thrills you on the playing field while they are simultaneously terrifying you. It doesn't even have to be sports. It could just be that first day of kindergarten, and you're the mom who has to send her child off to school, that first real day when someone else is responsible for them for eight long hours.
Our seven-year-old son plays baseball. On multiple occasions, we have seen an overzealous mother come out of the stands and go onto the field for nothing more than a bad-hop grounder that caroms off a shin.
I have scoffed at these mothers.
"If Asher gets hurt," I have told my wife, "you stay off the field. They will tell you if they need you."
"If Asher gets hurt," she has replied, "I would like to see anyone try to keep me off the field."
Wendy Mailey had that same reaction on Tuesday night. Mothers just know. I don't know how they know, but they know. From two rows behind the Carolina bench, she could tell this was not a normal fall. She knew this was not just a bad-hop grounder off a shin. That knowledge told her, without a doubt, that she needed to be on that court by her son's side.
Imagine that. The instant Hairston went down, before we knew how serious it was, you and I wanted him to stand back up because he was hot and because he has been one of Carolina's best players and because we need him. To play basketball.
It's a little jarring to remember that every time someone goes down, there's someone, somewhere, who wants them to get back up because they need them. Not to shoot three-pointers or provide scoring punch off the bench. But because they need them.
Mailey and Hairston have an uncannily close relationship. They talk to each other more like friends than like mother and son. When Hairston decided to attend Carolina, Mailey, a lifelong Tar Heel fan, told her son, "Don't go to Chapel Hill and mess up my team."
That was the tough love.
This, in Chestnut Hill, was the mom's love.
With Danya Abrams--who infamously hammered Derrick Phelps out of the 1994 NCAA Tournament and forever changed the complexion of that Carolina-Boston College game--looking on from his courtside perch as a Boston College radio analyst, the Tar Heel program went through eight to ten of the scarier minutes in recent history. It wasn't necessarily the collision that was so frightful, it was the way Hairston responded.
"P.J. had a concussion before, in high school," Mailey would say later. "But I've never seen him respond that way."
Hairston's teammates initially thought he would bounce right up after collecting himself. "At first, we were like, 'You're good, P.J., hop up," said Desmond Hubert. "He's a big dude. But then, when we saw him try to walk, it got scary."
Hairston's attempt at mobility, even when assisted by a pair of his teammates, went poorly. He was moving--barely--but he wasn't opening his eyes, and the movement seemed to tax him. With the encouragement of his mother and Hirth, plus the Boston College team doctor, Hairston sat back down on the court and tried to clear his head.
He eventually had to be carried off, one of the very rare Tar Heels to ever leave on a stretcher, and perhaps the first since Phelps in that Boston College game in 1994. Down a back hallway of the Conte Forum, doctors diagnosed him with a concussion, and he slowly started to regain some of his awareness.
Hairston eventually improved to the point that he wanted to go back onto the court with his teammates, who by this point had come into the locker room for halftime and gone back out for the second half. "I can't see the game in here," said Hairston, because the sports medicine room where he was located didn't have a television. "I need to go back out there."
So he tried--gingerly. He covered his head in a towel and sat on the end of the Carolina bench, with Hirth carefully monitoring his every move. The trainer, who is well qualified to do exactly what he was doing, needn't have worried--there was someone else watching Hairston just as closely.
From her seat, Mailey watched her son's every move. The players (the Tar Heels were on the way to an 82-70 win that felt inconsequential) on the court ran down to the other end of the floor--her eyes stayed locked on her son. "I'm worried about how this noise is going to affect him," she said four minutes into the second half. She was right--the loud brass of the Boston College band soon was rattling around Hairston's head. During a media timeout, with the Tar Heels gathered around Roy Williams in the huddle, she approached the bench, where Hairston sat alone in the very last chair on the end. From behind, she wrapped one arm around each shoulder and whispered into his left ear.
She thought he might feel better in the much quieter locker room. By now, if you've ever been a mom, or ever been a son or a daughter who has a mom, you already know that she was right. Of course she was. Hairston got up, towel still on his head, and walked very, very carefully to the locker room.
Hairston was expected to fly home with the team and will have three days to be evaluated before Carolina hosts Virginia Tech on Saturday. By the time he'd boarded the bus to go back to Hanscom Field for the plane trip home Tuesday night, he'd already received hundreds of supportive tweets, and was at least feeling well enough to share a joke with Strickland in the UNC locker room.
In the days to come, he'll have the full resources of the Carolina medical staff at his disposal. They will eventually nurse him back to health, and when they do, he'll have them to thank.
But he'll also have one more person to thank, the one who was almost immediately by his side as soon as his legs couldn't support him, and the one who watched him intently, oblivious to the lights and sounds and distractions of an ACC basketball game. The one who, on a Tuesday night, found her way to Boston on her own dime for a 9 p.m. tipoff just to see her son, because where else would she possibly want to be.
"There is nothing," Desmond Hubert said, "like a mother's love."