By Adam Lucas
LAS VEGAS—If the Tar Heels earn biscuits, it’s usually been a successful road trip.
But that Bojangle’s-infused measure of a successful journey will need a slight addendum on this weekend’s trip to face Kentucky. That’s because after a series of logistical issues, Roy Williams’ team actually started this trip with biscuits before they ever took the court in Las Vegas.
The basketball program is extremely fortunate to travel via charter virtually everywhere they go. It’s easy to get spoiled…and then you have experiences like the last 24 hours.
The original itinerary had Carolina departing the Smith Center after practice on Thursday in the early evening, taking the long charter flight to Las Vegas and having a team meeting at 10 p.m. Pacific time. But then an equipment change with that charter flight resulted in a delay of a couple hours for the departure time.
No problem. The Tar Heels arrived at RDU around 7:30 p.m. The good news is that a plane awaited them on the tarmac. The only slight problem was that no pilots were on hand, and the scheduled pilots were in Milwaukee.
That’s great if they wanted to see John Henson play basketball, but not so great if they wanted to steer the Tar Heels across the country. They boarded a commercial flight bound for Charlotte, which would at least put them in the correct state. They arrived in Charlotte in a timely fashion but, well, have you ever been to the Charlotte airport?
A commercial delay and cancellation later, that’s where the pilots still were at 10 p.m. That meant players received an unscheduled study hall—many of them still have exams—in the airport waiting area.
By 10:15 p.m., with a planned four hour and 45-minute flight still looming, the decision was made to call it an evening and try again on Friday morning.
Some were philosophical. “Well, it’s out of our hands,” a member of the traveling party said to Roy Williams.
Some were not as philosophical. “If that travel company was in my hands, we’d have a strangulation,” he replied.
In perhaps the wisest move of the evening, the bus that delivered the team to the airport had never left the airport after dropoff, meaning it was available to whisk them back to the Smith Center. Most of the players and at least two coaches slept at the arena; strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian slept in the coaches locker room and covered the clocks with towels because he said they were emitting too much light. His sleep preferences, of course, then prompted Eric Hoots to give Sahratian an unscheduled wakeup call at 1:30 a.m. just to watch him suffer.
At 6:15 a.m., the team was back at the airport to make another attempt. You have to really understand the travel rhythms of the Tar Heels to fully grasp how strange it was to have an early morning departure. In the Williams era, the team has almost always attended class for a full day the day before a game, practiced at the Smith Center, eaten dinner at the arena or on the way to the airport, and departed in the evening. In the case of an early afternoon game, the team might be on the ground in the destination city less than 24 hours.
Some people are night people and some are morning people. The Tar Heels, for travel purposes, are a night team. Even in Hawaii, members of the traveling party lobbied Williams to move back a scheduled midafternoon departure so they could enjoy a little extra time in the islands. The redeye home eventually left at 7 p.m. local time and flew through the night back to RDU.
Friday morning’s flight pushed back from the gate at 7 a.m., but not before an ominous-sounding pilot came over the PA system. “Uh, folks…” he said, which is almost never good. “It looks like we’ve got some winds and we’re looking at a five hour and 20 minute flight.”
In the cabin, the 2005 MVP of the Final Four, Sean May, was walking through the aisle handing out Bojangle’s chicken biscuits. They were quickly devoured, and several players were asleep before the plane left the ground. Once airborne, assistant coach Steve Robinson delightedly walked the aisle videoing the players in all manner of unusual sleeping poses (just a guess: you’ll see that on Instagram).
The relatively early flight was necessary because the only available practice slot at T-Mobile Arena, a new venue with which none of the Tar Heels is familiar, was 2 p.m. Vegas time on Friday afternoon. That gives them just enough time to check into their rooms, get ready for practice, and head to the arena.
Departure time for Saturday’s charter flight home is 11 p.m.
The Las Vegas trip goes into the record book with some of the more memorable travel experiences of the Roy Williams era (we’re excluding some of Williams’ favorite pre-head coach at UNC stories, including bussing home from North Dakota to Kansas because of snow and flying back from Japan to open Christmas presents with his children before flying back out to Hawaii when he was a UNC assistant).
The all-time travel disaster champion in the current century is probably the trip to New York in December during the 2002-03 campaign, when weather forced the team to bus from Chapel Hill to New York. But most of the players were scattered for Christmas, so the bus made stops to pick up the stragglers. So after Hoots had purchased a variety of movies on VCR (it was 2002!) for the journey, the bus stopped to pick up a player around 2 a.m, only to discover that that particular player had another engagement and was not at home. That turned out to be the highlight of the trip, which also included a loss to Iona and a foot injury for May that knocked him out for three months.
This trip hasn’t quite descended to those depths just yet. Those in the Williams era that would be contenders for the travel struggle list (which, thankfully, is a relatively short one):
Jan. 28-29, 2014: The Tar Heels arrived in Atlanta just in time for an ice storm that completely paralyzed the metro area. The team bus couldn’t make it to pick them up at the airport, so the entire squad took the MARTA to the team hotel. Carolina won the game, 78-65.
Feb. 5-7, 2010: The latest incarnation of the storm of the century hit scenic College Park, forcing the team to arrive two days before the game. The team hotel ran out of food and had to plunder supplies for the Tar Heels from a canceled wedding reception. A brave College Park movie theater employee refused to show Avatar to Eric Montross. Maryland blitzed Carolina, 92-71.
March 1, 2007: Intense thunderstorms and winds were battering the Atlanta area after a Georgia Tech win over Carolina, and there was some doubt about whether the team plane would be able to depart. That uncertainty prompted Tyler Hansbrough—who hated to fly—to elect to ride the team bus home from Atlanta rather than getting on the flight. That meant he missed the bumpiest flight of the Williams era, with high winds in both the Atlanta era and again upon descent near RDU. At least one player became sick during landing, and once the plane was safely at the gate, Williams stood and addressed the team. “Tyler Hansbrough,” he said of his All-American who was currently slumbering peacefully somewhere on I-85 in the comfort of the bus, “is the smartest person on this team.”