"Hey Coach," Leslie McDonald says as nearly two dozen Tar Heel basketball players mill around on the floor of the Smith Center, "are we playing with our ball or their ball?"
The recipient of his question is Roy Williams, who is standing near the sideline observing the collection of talent for the first edition of the 2013 camp game at his eponymous basketball camp. This particular game, pitting the current players against any Tar Heel alumni players who happen to be in Chapel Hill, is one of the highlights of this week's camp, which runs from Sunday through Thursday.
The equipment question might seem simple, but it's not. College players want to play with the college ball. Pro players want to play with the pro ball. There's a difference, and because the players involved care a little more than you would think about what might appear to be a simple pickup game, the choice of ball matters.
Williams quickly settles the dispute.
"We're playing with our ball," he says. "It's our gym."
And that's how an alumni team stocked with three current NBA players (Kendall Marshall, John Henson, Ed Davis), six other former national champions (Deon Thompson, Marcus Ginyard, Quentin Thomas, Mike Copeland, David Noel, Reyshawn Terry and Jawad Williams) and one of the program's all-time leading three-point shooters (Shammond Williams) came to be the road team in a gymnasium where they've played a major role in hanging some very important banners.
This game, played before approximately 700 campers and any of their parents who can get off work for the rare chance at watching nearly two decades of Tar Heel basketball history, has quietly been an important part of setting the tone for the Roy Williams era. At the very first camp game of his tenure during the summer of 2003, the current team took a desultory loss. Once word reached the head coach, he pointedly informed his new players that if they were going to play a game--even an exhibition pickup game in front of a group of kids, some of whom who weren't old enough to remember when the players involved actually wore the argyle jerseys--they were expected to compete.
The result of his lecture was a much better effort in the summer's second camp game (there are two sessions of camp and two separate camp games), and a pattern being established of the coach demanding that his players compete to the best of their ability any time they took the floor.
That year, players might have thought they could coast because NCAA rules prohibited the coaching staff from observing the offseason games. Since then, NCAA rules changes have permitted two hours of summer instruction, and the staff is choosing to use this week's game as their two hours--which means they can watch.
Williams finishes his traditional afternoon address to the campers by telling them that he has high expectations for the game they are about to watch. "All of these guys will play Carolina Basketball," he says over the PA microphone. "They will move the ball, they will get good shots, and they will do the things we've talked about at camp this week."
That's a little more pressure than your typical have-to-win-by-two pickup game. This game is played in two halves, with halftime coming when the first team reaches 35. The veterans--or, depending on who is telling the story, "the old guys"--are undeniably coasting in the first half, expending the minimum amount of effort necessary to keep the game close. The current team, meanwhile, plays about as close to its potential as it can without the services of James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston and Joel James, all of whom sit out the game for precautionary health reasons or other commitments.
Desmond Hubert slams home a dunk to take the game to halftime with the current team leading, 36-31. As soon as the 60-second halftime break is over, the intensity of the game changes. Spurred by Copeland's constant shouts of, "Yeahhhhhhh!" (even more effective when echoed by seemingly every camper in his group), the alums start cutting into the deficit and have soon taken the lead.
It's not hard to see why--they can make plays such as Marshall whipping the ball one-handed crosscourt to Jawad Williams for a three-pointer, or Henson posting up Hubert and finishing with that familiar half-hook.
Marcus Paige helps keep the current team closer than you might have expected given that they're missing three rotation players, and even punctuates his second half with a pretty driving, arching bank shot over Henson. But when Ginyard hits a three-pointer, it's 69-63 in favor of the former players.
After a miss, the alums try to win the game with Marshall backing Paige down into the paint, but Paige stays strong--Jonas Sahratian would be proud--and forces a miss. But the alums simply have too much firepower, and Shammond Williams swishes a three-pointer for a 72-66 win.
The two squads gather for a complete team photo. Now that the game is over, there's less friendly trash talk than there was before. But everyone involved also has learned from past games that it's better to save any grand pronouncements until later--there's another camp game next week.
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly.