By Adam Lucas
FT. BRAGG—Carolina’s first road trip of the 2016-17 season wasn’t listed on the official schedule.
With only three weeks until the season opener at Tulane, the Tar Heels loaded the team bus on Thursday afternoon and traveled to Fayetteville, where Roy Williams had organized a tour of Ft. Bragg for his team.
The beginning of the afternoon had the feel of a typical basketball road trip—as players boarded, they realized the seats usually occupied by Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson were now available—but it turned unusual very quickly.
After pausing at the base entrance to allow a very hungry-looking bomb sniffing dog to go through the bus, the first stop was the Ritz Epps Physical Fitness Center, where Carolina would go through practice number 15 of the 2016-17 season. The trip was made primarily as an educational opportunity for the players and a thank-you to those on the base, so there was very little advance notice, leading to some surprised stares as the Tar Heels walked through the lobby.
While it was a standard practice right down to the seniors getting water first and end-of-practice sprint work, it was unusual in that fans don’t usually walk out to the court during pre-practice stretching to high-five Kennedy Meeks. “These are my boys!” a fan barked, then was greeted with a hug by Roy Williams.
As word spread through Ft. Bragg that the actual Tar Heels were really and truly going through a legitimate practice on the base, the crowd grew during the roughly two-hour session. With just a couple of minor tweaks—Hubert Davis had to work on close-outs at his defensive station with no goal because only two baskets were available, and the other two were already occupied with offensive drills—the soldiers got a very realistic look at a typical Carolina practice.
When one player didn’t sprint back upcourt during a full-court drill, Williams blew his whistle. “I know you had run up and down three or four times by that point,” he told the offender. “But what kind of break was that?”
“It was a slow break,” came the answer.
“Well, we run the fast break, so let’s go,” the head coach replied.
Practice closed with players being given an opportunity to sink a free throw to eliminate one post-practice sprint apiece. All six (Joel Berry II, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, Brandon Robinson, Stilman White and Kenny Williams) drained it, meaning there was just one final drill in practice.
“I need the freshman to go down and back, yelling all the way,” Williams said. With the rookies suitably both fast and loud, the basketball portion of the afternoon gave way to the educational segment. Players and soldiers interacted, and Williams became a t-shirt distributor, trying to match sizes of the Carolina basketball shirts to the wide variety of soldiers in attendance.
After practice, the Tar Heels shuttled off to 1BCT DFAC, better known as the Devil’s Den dining area. Dinner might have been the most enlightening part of the entire day, as the players spread throughout the dining hall to eat with soldiers from across the country. Just like last year at the Naval Academy, the similarities soon became very real--many of the soldiers in the dining hall who are charged with defending our country are the same age as the basketball players who marveled at their daily schedules.
Williams sat with a 20-year-old who had dozens of parachute jumps. At another table was Will Romer, a Bahamas native who has been in the service just over a year, already has 14 jumps and is going on a 15th Friday night after dark. “After awhile, your brain just shuts off and you don’t even think about how you’re jumping out of a plane,” he said.
The dining hall presented the Tar Heels with a cake, which Jonas Sahratian quickly ordered the players not to eat (no one is certain exactly what was in those carry-out boxes several members of the traveling party brought aboard the bus). Parked outside, the players found a pair of Polaris MRZR-4 vehicles, where they immediately began lobbying to get the first rides. The path included a high-speed dash through a muddy area. The players, of course, took appropriate safety precautions—in addition to wearing helmets, they also removed their brand new team-issued Jordan shoes. Can’t get them muddy, you know.
As the sun went down and the Carolina bus pulled off the 251-square mile base (“You can be here for months and never see a lot of the people who are here,” said Capt. Lisa Beum, who helped coordinate the Tar Heel trip), Roy Williams sat in his normal front right seat and reflected on the day.
“Our world is fantastic, but it has a few problems,” the coach said. “We are very lucky to have men and women like the ones we met today who do some great things and make sacrifices to allow the rest of us to do what we do. As coaches, we’re not responsible for just teaching kids how to box out and shoot. We’re responsible for showing them experiences that help them have an even broader perspective. That’s what today was about.”