Leslie McDonald's laughter fills a back hallway at the Smith Center for seven full seconds--count it off, it's a long time to laugh--when he is asked how the Dexter Strickland he knows today is different from the one he met on his first day in Chapel Hill.
"Wow," says McDonald, who entered Carolina in the same recruiting class with Strickland and John Henson. "Wow. Let me tell you like this. Dex has made a complete 180. The Dexter of the very first day at Carolina is completely, totally different from the Dexter of today.
"All of us change. It comes with maturity and life experience. But trust me, we laugh about it now."
That Dexter, the one who showed up in the summer of 2009, was a little wild. It's easy to forget sometimes that basketball picks up 13 individuals from all corners of the United States, drops them into Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and tells them to start a life. It's an easier transition for some than for others. Marcus Paige had to deal with a few changes when he moved from Marion, Iowa, to Chapel Hill.
But Strickland? He brought most of Rahway, New Jersey, with him to campus and quickly discovered everything was different. Not just the basketball. Bouncing the ball only took up a few hours each day. He was dealing with a completely different life.
"Where I'm from, you get a little bit of a hardcore mentality," Strickland says. "You've grown up in the streets and that's the way you think. When I was a freshman at Carolina, the things I was experiencing every single day were a whole new world to me. It changed my life."
At Carolina, strangers say hello on the sidewalk. This was a natural fit for Strickland, who is more likely to lose a footrace than meet a stranger. Everyone wanted to talk to him...and he wanted to talk to everyone. He has turned strangers into new friends at the bus stop. He has given his cell phone number to kids at a basketball camp and invited them to contact him. He has been one of the suspected primary orchestrators in a prank war with his teammates.
This new Chapel Hill life was great. Except, as he now realizes, the social aspects early in his college career may have distracted him from the basketball portion of his experience. It's hard to begrudge him, really. If you had a smile like that, and you were on a college campus where everyone knew your name, what would you do?
"What I've learned is that you have to work on your game every single day," says the older, wiser Strickland. "You have to take the game more seriously and it has to be an important part of your life."
Part of that lesson came the hard way, when Strickland tore his ACL last season at Virginia Tech and then had to watch from the bench as Carolina came within a breath of the 2012 Final Four. This year, after working his way back to health, he's been a more committed player.
A night out with friends in the past usually meant hitting Franklin Street. Now, it's not unusual to see him firing jumpers deep into the night at the Smith Center in the hours after a game, his girlfriend sitting on the basket support, watching him. This is life with Dexter Strickland now.
It has paid off. He has 31 assists and three turnovers in his last six games. As it has turned out, losing his blazing quickness for several months may have made him a better basketball player. In the past, he always knew he could beat his man one-on-one off the dribble with pure speed. There have been times this year that he's summoned that speed and found the well more shallow than he remembers--and that's required him to be a basketball player.
"It was so frustrating," he says of the times this year that he knows he could've beaten his man if he'd been at full strength. But he cites the game at Boston College as the turning point, as the first time this year that he felt like himself. The results since then have been impressive; Carolina is 9-2 since that game.
It will be a little strange to see him standing at center court tomorrow all alone (he is the team's lone scholarship senior; walk-on Frank Tanner will also be honored). Since he arrived, it's always been Dexter and...someone. First, it was the inseperable trio of Strickland, John Henson and McDonald. When Henson left, Strickland and McDonald expanded their circle to include Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, and now the quartet is constantly joking about something or someone.
Saturday, however, in the pregame before Carolina-Duke tips off at 9 p.m., Strickland will be all alone at center court. He expects to have nearly a dozen family members in attendance, along with approximately 21, 740 new friends who have watched the kid from Rahway go through the good, the bad and the painful.
To us, perhaps, the Senior Night version of Strickland looks very similar to his very first game against Florida International. Different jersey (he started his career wearing number-5), perhaps, but otherwise the same: same wide grin, same fast first step to the basket, same ability to finish on the break with a graceful finger-roll or even an occasional one-handed dunk.
But in those seconds at midcourt that he is going to remember forever, when we are all looking at him and he is looking back at all of us, Strickland knows he'll be thinking about all the changes he's undergone in four years. "I don't even know how to explain it," he says. "I'm so honored and blessed to be in this position. Carolina has made me a different person."