One of the best things about coming to "work" at the Smith Center (it's in quotes because it's such an absurd idea, for Carolina Basketball to be work) is that every single time, you get to see someone, somewhere in the building, have a moment they'll never forget.
Sometimes it's the dad up in section 208 who brings his son to his first game. Sometimes it's the family in section 124 who brings three generations to a game. Sometimes--every time, really--it's the procession of people in the hour before a game who snap a quick photo on the court to prove that they really did stand on the Smith Center court. Get there early sometime so you can see it. It's kids and teenagers and couples and grandparents, all wearing the same I-am-walking-on-the-Smith-Center-court grin. I bet the Smith Center ushers (they're friendly, go ahead and ask them) have taken more photos than Ansel Adams.
And sometimes, when everything goes right, the person who has that moment is sitting on the Carolina bench, wearing a suit.
Can we be honest with each other for just a minute? Carolina's 87-62 win over Wake Forest on Tuesday night was entirely forgettable. It was the rare time that fans bolted early for the exits--and it was hard to blame them.
Sometimes, though, you get rewarded for sticking it out. With 2:07 left, Roy Williams walked down the Tar Heel bench and motioned for his reserves to check in. This is a moment those players simultaneously relish and dread. "In the first half, I'm good," says Denzel Robinson. "But in the second half, if we're still up by 20 or 30, as it gets down to four or five minutes left you start getting nervous. When I go in, my mouth always gets dry and my throat hurts."
Eight times this year, Robinson had experienced that dry mouth. Of all his teammates among the walk-ons, he should be the most accustomed to it. After all, he's sat on that bench more than any player, because he first began sitting there when Steve Robinson came back to Chapel Hill with Roy Williams in the spring of 2003. Williams has often said he regrets not letting his own son sit on the bench when he was younger, and even when the crowd confused Denzel for a recruit, he had a permanent place at the Smith Center.
It's hard not to notice the relationship between the walk-on and his dad. Especially after Robinson shaved his head earlier this season, teammates like P.J. Hairston have been known to spy them together and then announce, "Hey, I didn't know we had twins on the team!"
You know how difficult it is to coach your son or daughter when he's little? You want to praise them, but you don't want to praise them too much, but gee whiz they are pretty good, but what will the other parents and kids think? It doesn't get any easier when he's a 21-year-old member of the University of North Carolina varsity.
"When he's out there, I'm probably 80 percent Coach Rob, and 20 percent his dad," says Steve Robinson.
And now, against the Deacs, Denzel was indeed out there. Countless times, father and son had watched this exact same scenario. The crowd urging every walk-on Tar Heel, "Shoooot!" The Tar Heels on the floor battling dry mouths. The Tar Heels on the bench standing up at every good scoring opportunity, ready to explode with any basket.
Robinson hadn't scored that basket yet. Until, that is, there were 23.3 seconds remaining. That's when he caught the eye of Luke Davis, who was about to inbound the ball underneath the Carolina basket. They'd done it plenty of times in practice--but never with seven-foot Demon Deacon defender Andre Washington standing there.
"I saw it developing," says Steve Robinson. "I saw him make the cut, but I didn't know if Luke would throw it or not. Denzel caught the ball, and I saw he had a seven-footer on him. I thought, 'I don't like these odds.'"
Then, Denzel Robinson did what he's done thousands of times before: he put the ball in the Smith Center basket, banking it home and setting off a towel-waving, fist-pumping celebration among the Tar Heel players and coaches.
"I can't put it into words," Denzel said. "It happened so fast. It's so special that my dad was here to see it, because he's seen me go through my ups and downs with basketball. Later tonight, maybe it will sink in. Right now, I still can't believe it."
When it happened, Hairston took a step down the bench and delivered a boisterous high-five to Steve Robinson, who was off the bench and grinning as broadly as he has in ten years in Chapel Hill.
You have to know Steve Robinson to really appreciate the moment. This is someone who is probably the coolest person on the Carolina team--and that includes the players who are the toast of Chapel Hill. He is always dressed impeccably. He is always in control. Except, that is, when his son--who he's essentially watched grow up inside the Smith Center--scores his first points as a Tar Heel.
"I don't know if I can find the words to describe it," Steve Robinson said. "It's one of those moments that I'll remember for the rest of my life. You think back to all the years that he played basketball, all the things you've been doing together. For him to get a chance to score in a game, words can't describe it."
In the life of a coach, there is always film to grade and a next game to consider. In the life of a dad, though, there is only one play like that.
As soon as Robinson converted the hoop, his teammates lobbied their assistant coach. "That's got to be on the training tape!" they urged him. "That goes on the out of bounds underneath training tape!"
They meant the play was so textbook--from Davis's vision to Robinson's cut to the conversion--that it should be shown to subsequent Tar Heels as the perfect way to execute the play.
So, will it make the cut?
"We'll have to see when we grade the film." That's Coach Rob talking. Then he paused half a beat, and there was that same smile he'd shown on the bench. Coach Rob was gone. This was Dad talking.
"It probably will," he said. "That 20 percent might come out on that decision."