You might expect that Roy Williams, a man who loves surprises so much that he never wants to know what’s happening at his own eponymous Late Night until it’s actually taking place, had a few tricks planned for Halloween. But this one was impressive even by his standards.
On the one night per year that Franklin Street is stormed for non-basketball reasons, as the rest of town put on their best/most questionable costumes, Williams and Tar Heel video coordinator Eric Hoots were flying to Phoenix. That’s where Harrison Barnes and the Golden State Warriors were playing their season opener against Kendall Marshall and the Phoenix Suns. Neither player had been told their former head coach was coming, which is exactly the way he likes it. Remember, Williams is the self-described “corny as all get-out” coach who loved hiding Easter eggs for his children to find…well into their 20s.
So you know he loved it when he and Hoots were able to walk onto midcourt at the US Airways Center an hour and 45 minutes before tipoff to watch the Warriors warm up, and Barnes had his back to them. The highly focused Barnes was going through his usual pregame shooting routine, happened to catch a glimpse of the visitors out of the corner of his eye, and lit up with a big grin as he walked over to greet them with a hug.
Marshall had called Williams at 2:27 p.m. Wednesday afternoon—if you want to know whether the coach matters to his players, just consider that less than five hours before his first NBA game, Kendall Marshall wanted to hear his voice—but the call went to voice mail. The point guard didn’t think, though, that meant Williams was 40,000 feet in the air on his way to the Pacific time zone.
“I had no idea,” Marshall said. “A couple months ago, he said something about coming to see me play, but I didn’t know it would be like this.”
Williams and Hoots didn’t come empty-handed. They brought the two stalwarts of the 2012 club their ACC championship rings, which Williams was wearing on his right ring finger. They picked up with the duo much like that group was still together, laughing about peach cobbler and listening to Marshall describe the differences of life in the NBA.
One of the biggest?
“The other day we were supposed to have practice at 10, and it started at 10:04,” Marshall said with a laugh.
Needless to say, nothing starts four minutes late in Chapel Hill.
Williams and Marshall went through a detailed x’s and o’s breakdown of how some of the Tar Heel principles compare to the way the Suns play. There still is an element of coach and player there. Watching them chat on the sideline in a slowly filling arena, you could almost squint your eyes and picture them having the same conversation during a free throw at the Smith Center.
There are those who will be skeptical about these trips, say that they’re easy. Williams isn’t exactly sitting in a middle seat in coach on most of his trips, and pro team personnel take very good care of him, from tickets to parking to even food. But those who would be skeptical have never made a fuel stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as part of a journey that requires ten hours on an airplane to watch two hours and 30 minutes of basketball.
What Williams has figured out, in this age of texts and easier remote communication, is that it might matter even more that he’s there in person. He keeps close tabs on all his players in the pros. Even as he watches Barnes and Marshall in person, he’s noting that Ty Lawson went for 16 points and seven assists, or that Brandan Wright had 15 points for the Mavericks. But from making these trips repeatedly over recent years, he knows the players appreciate seeing him in person, that they understand the effort required.
And he is right. When the game is over and the Warriors get the two-point win, it is clear that Marshall, who earns a Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision for what is probably the first time in his life, is disappointed. He looks forlorn in the hallway outside the Suns locker room. But there is his college coach, the voice he wanted to hear this afternoon before the game, and the voice he wants—or maybe needs—to hear now.
Williams asks a television cameraman who is inserting himself into the Williams-Marshall conversation to turn it off. He pulls Marshall aside and provides a brief pep talk. Eye-to-eye, the point guard nods. This is exactly the kind of conversation that is not as meaningful on the phone. Making the effort to have these talks in person is exactly why the Smith Center fills up in the summer with former players, the pickup game rosters sometimes so deep that two courts are required to allow everyone to participate.
Down the hall, Barnes is happier after his victory. He scored eight points, got the start and his team is 1-0.
“Thanks for coming all the way out here,” he tells Williams.
“That look on your face when you went out there was worth it,” the head coach says.
Five minutes later, the Tar Heel travelers are headed to the exit. “Did the Jazz win?” Williams asks as he pilots the rental car out of the parking deck. Hoots, as usual, has the answer, and replies in the affirmative, that the Marvin Williams-led Jazz (21 points) did indeed defeat the Mavericks, 113-94.
Very shortly, they are back at the airport. It is 1:25 a.m. Eastern time as the head coach settles back into his seat for the four-hour flight home.
“Now,” he says, “I can get tomorrow’s practice plan done.”