At some point, Leslie McDonald expects he will be able to talk to his mother about his graduation from the University of North Carolina.
Right now, though, Wanda McDonald can't quite do it.
"Every time we start talking about graduation, she starts crying because she's so proud of me," the Tar Heel senior said in the days leading up to Sunday's commencement.
McDonald, who earned a communications degree on Sunday morning, is the first member of his family to receive a college degree. He arrived in Chapel Hill with very concrete basketball dreams and very little idea of what a diploma might actually mean to he and his family.
Over the last five years, though, he's gained a new appreciation for what being part of the Carolina family will mean to him later in life. Part of that has happened on the basketball court; he's the last player who was on campus for the 100 Years of Carolina Basketball celebration and associated festivities, and like most people who attended any of those events, he still recounts some of the highlights with wide eyes.
But he's also been around for parts of five summers now, and he's seen the seemingly endless procession of players from around the country who always manage to make their way back to Chapel Hill. There are pros, like Marvin Williams, who found a new place to call home all the way across the country from Bremerton, Washington. And there are players like Melvin Scott, who decided Chapel Hill and the Triangle area felt like the right place to call home.
"You don't really understand the Carolina family until you get here," McDonald says. "When you see all these guys come back, you see how comfortable they are here. This is a place where people know who you are for a long time."
It's easy to imagine the congenial McDonald being a familiar face around the Smith Center in the future.
It's likely, though, that like most of today's graduates, he won't immediately put down roots in Chapel Hill and stay here for a lifetime. He has basketball dreams and plans to pursue them this summer and fall, whether that keeps him stateside or sends him overseas. Original classmate Dexter Strickland has already experienced both--having played both overseas and in the NBDL--and is a ready source of advice, and McDonald realizes his basketball career is finite.
"When you get to college, you think you're going to be a basketball player forever," he says. "I know there is more beyond that now. I want to be involved in the game for as long as I can in any way that I can, because I love it. But there are also other things I know I can do."
One of those has been developed at Carolina--McDonald is a gifted artist and recently contributed some work for the end-of-year Rammy Awards. It's easy to imagine his career path being similar to another Tar Heel of the Roy Williams era: Quentin Thomas, who set his artistic talent (music) aside during his basketball career, but then successfully turned it into a productive "real world" job when his time bouncing a ball was finished.
McDonald knows he enters that real world today with significantly more options than he had when he arrived in Chapel Hill as a freshman.
"You can't explain what having a college degree from Carolina means to me," he says. "I'm just a kid from Memphis, and a lot of kids from Memphis never even have any hope for achieving something like this. No matter where I go, I can tell people I'm a Carolina graduate. It's a very proud day for both me and my family. Carolina has changed my life."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.