By Adam Lucas
The very best family gatherings have a little bit of everything. And Tuesday night's Carolina basketball awards ceremony was most definitely a family gathering.
This is the event that used to be known as the team banquet. There's still food, but calling the nearly four-hour event at the Carolina Inn a banquet doesn't feel quite right. A banquet sounds stuffy, with everyone trying to figure out how they can sneak out the side door.
Tuesday night, no one wanted to leave. Even after the event concluded, players and family members and coaches stood around, taking one last picture or telling one more story.
It wasn't because there was a lack of memorable moments during the ceremony. Hosted by Jones Angell and featuring a speech by Eric Montross—who told the 2017 champions, “It's been 24 years since I was part of a team like this with the 1993 team, and 24 years later people still remember what we did. And they're going to remember what you did”—the night had bountiful laughter and numerous tears, sometimes within seconds of each other.
Roy Williams specifically addressed each of the five seniors, each of whom gave their final senior speech. At least three of those speeches included the seniors struggling to speak through tears.
But this was family, the ones who make you laugh moments after they make you cry. So one second there was Nate Britt looking at Williams and saying, “I never got to meet Coach Smith. But I can only imagine how happy he is with the job you've done with this program.” And then, moments later, Britt was confessing to riding ATVs with Kanler Coker, a joyride he admitted they kept “on the low” from Williams.
One sentence into his speech, Kennedy Meeks was already in tears. That drew catcalls from Justin Jackson, because this was family. Don't make a mistake around this group, because they'll remember it. When Isaiah Hicks stepped to the podium to accept an award, he drew applause from most of the room but mostly just commentary on his skinny pants from his teammates.
No one—absolutely no one—was immune. Williams stood at the podium telling a story about a Final Four practice that featured the head coach taking an errant basketball to the lip. As Williams was describing the pain of turning his head when suffering a subsequent vertigo attack, Theo Pinson stood up and imitated Williams' stiff-necked gait for the entire room to enjoy.
Maybe it starts with the head coach, who can also dish it out. Former assistant coach (that still sounds weird) C.B. McGrath gave an emotional speech that ended with him saying, through tears, “I put my heart and soul into this program for 14 years so Coach Williams would be proud of me.” McGrath, the new head coach at UNCW, stepped off the podium and was greeted with a tight bear hug from Williams.
The Tar Heel head coach then took the microphone. “Not everyone was sad to see you go, C.B.,” he said. “Within 30 minutes after you took the job, Sean May came to me and asked if he could have your office.”
The room broke up into laughter. “I told him he could,” Williams said, “and he said, ‘That's good, because I've already moved in.'”
The night featured an epic season highlight video put together by Josh Reavis and Jon Leggette and the GoHeels Productions staff. That video will eventually make its way online, but it was a joy to watch it as the players saw it for the first time. They laughed when Joel Berry danced on stage in Maui, “Ooooooohhhh”ed when Brandon Robinson shook a defender and swished a jumper, roared when Justin Jackson talked a little trash in the regional final and, of course, shouted “Luuuuuuuuke” when Luke Maye hit the game-winning jumper against Kentucky. It was easy to imagine them having just as much fun watching that same exact video in five or ten years, when they'll pick up exactly where they left off on Tuesday night. “I thought a lot about what to talk about,” Britt said during his speech, “and all I could think of was family.”
On this night, the family laughed and cried together one more time. Williams used to say he “hates cool.” This group wasn't too cool to talk about what they meant to each other, to prod each other and to appreciate each other. They are--were, I guess, but does it have to be over?--just a really good group of guys, the kind you'd want to, yes, sit down for dinner with one more time.
That's why Meeks could say, during his speech, “Joel was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, which he deserved,” even knowing Meeks himself would have been a defensible choice for that rafter-worthy honor.
The 2016-17 Tar Heels have been together virtually every day for the last six months. There's still Williams' annual year-ending fish fry, but there's a chance Tuesday night might very well have been the last time the 2017 national champions are together as a group for weeks or months or maybe even longer.
If that's the case, Williams ended it perfectly. After the awards and the senior speeches, the head coach took the podium once again. He told a couple humorous stories, and then he spoke from the heart. “If you're not as proud of these guys as individuals and people as you are for them winning that trophy, there's something wrong with you,” he said. Then he provided a glimpse into the final postgame locker room of the season in Phoenix.
“After the last game, we said what we usually do, and I said, ‘We realize we are more fortunate than others,'” Williams said. “And I added something. I said, ‘Thank you, Lord, for letting me be associated with this group.'”