By Adam Lucas
Somewhere along the way, the Carolina Family became an actual family.
That's the overwhelming impression from a Wednesday afternoon on the sidelines at the Smith Center during the Roy Williams Basketball Camp. Nearly a dozen alums were in town for the game pitting the alums against the current players, which is annually one of the highlights of each session of camp.
Many current players often have contract restrictions that prevent them from playing (the Clippers, for example, don't want Brice Johnson playing in a glorified exhibition after he spent the season trying to get healthy). But those who are able to play take it seriously.
When Williams first came back to Chapel Hill, the sidelines at these games were usually reserved for friends or roommates. Now, there are almost as many kids bouncing a ball on the sideline as there are alums in the huddle being “coached” by honorary coach David Noel.
Noel just finished his 11th professional season and says his body may not allow him to play another season. Having just finished his 12th professional season, Marvin Williams is the longest-tenured veteran of today's group. He looks very much like the same Marvin Williams you remember hammering home a dunk over a helpless defender at Florida State…but then he walks to the sideline and grabs the hand of his daughter, Ari.
He walks to the basket opposite the end where he once made one of the most famous shots of the Roy Williams era, a comeback-capper against Duke on senior day in 2005, and lifts tiny Ari effortlessly into the air, where she leaves the first attempt a little short. No problem, as she is a quick study and has a good teacher, and slams through the second chance.
It doesn't seem possible that we are here. A camper asks Roy Williams if Sean May is going to play in the game. “Some bodies are built for speed and some bodies are built for comfort,” Williams says. “Right now, Sean is built for comfort, and he's doing a great job on our staff.”
Maybe so, but will there ever come a day when you look at Sean May and don't see 26 points and 24 rebounds against Duke, or 26 points and 10 rebounds against Illinois?
Today's most unbelievable stat is that almost half of this session's campers weren't even born when he played in those games.
May was an essential part of the 2005 team returning Carolina Basketball to the exalted place it occupied during the Dean Smith era. But that team did something almost as important as hanging a banner: they were (and are) one of the tightest teams in Tar Heel history. Bound together by Roy Williams--just as Dean Smith did it before him--they're the foundation of an essential core. Just as there would be no 2017 national title without Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and Joel James, there would be no Roy Williams era as we know it without the 2005 group.
Their bond goes beyond having played together. This is a group that has lived together. They've seen weddings and births and job changes, and if some of them are perhaps slightly slower or less bouncy than you remember, that banner in the Smith Center rafters never loses a step.
Several of the 2005 era Tar Heels have homes in Chapel Hill, where it's not unusual to see them hanging out together. They've followed each other's professional exploits and family additions. Earlier this spring, Marvin Williams made the trip to Serbia just to visit 2009 national champion Deon Thompson. That's a 5,000-mile trip, just to see a friend for a few days. The pair became close during summer workouts in Chapel Hill, and nearly a decade later, Williams was one of several Tar Heels who served as groomsmen in Thompson's wedding last summer.
This is why other places can't duplicate this relationship. It's not some made-up recruiting pitch. It's actual lives of actual people, and a connection that began with basketball but surpassed a simple sport many years ago.
On the court, most of the first group of the Roy Williams era are beginning to at least consider transitioning into another phase of their basketball life. They leave the fancy plays—like Kendall Marshall throwing a bounce pass through a defender's legs, reminding you he still sees the court differently than the rest of us—to the younger alums.
And when the game is over, there's Marvin Williams and Ari throwing down dunks while Jawad Williams watches his son, Nash, dribble across midcourt. Most have already worked out, some will grab dinner together tonight. They slap high fives with incoming Tar Heel freshmen who were just entering elementary school when the 2005 championship banner was hung.
They don't look that much different than the players you remember cheering for in those familiar Smith Center seats. It's just that now they've seen the world, had a family—and now they've come back home again.