By Adam Lucas
Understand this: King Rice has a lifetime pass in the Smith Center if for no other reason than he owned Duke’s Bobby Hurley.
That’s enough credentials for a Tar Heel lifetime. Maybe some of you don’t remember. But Hurley was Grayson Allen before Grayson Allen was even born, and just like Allen, Hurley complicated matters by being very good.
Hurley was also a winner. He won a pair of national titles for the Blue Devils…but Rice was his kryptonite. Even in two seasons when Duke was generally acknowledged as being better than the Tar Heels, Rice held the head-to-head edge, 3-2, including a 22-point victory in the 1991 ACC Tournament title game.
From the duo’s very first meeting—a 19-point Carolina victory in this same Smith Center in January of 1990—you got the sense that Rice just annoyed Hurley. This was especially sweet as a Tar Heel fan, because generally Hurley (“HURRRRR-LEYYYYYY”) was the one annoying everyone else. Duke came into that first meeting ranked eighth in the country and left with a shellacking, with Hurley committing ten turnovers and Rice scoring 13 points, two of them coming while Hurley was trying to slap the floor, only to watch Rice zip right past him.
Did I say "owned"? Rice darn near came as close to making Hurley cry as anyone has ever made another college basketball player sob.
“I thought he was one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around,” Roy Williams said of Rice.
And here we are more than 25 years later, and Rice still has that edge. You saw every piece of it on Wednesday night, as his team collected three technical fouls—including one on Rice—in the first three minutes of the second half. This was a welcome distraction from a game that was not particularly beautiful, featuring three five-for-five substitutions by Williams in the second half alone, multiple missed layups and 17 Carolina turnovers…but still a 102-74 victory.
Rice somehow managed to show every single side of the personality that has gotten him to where he is as the head coach of a Monmouth program that has made a habit of beating marquee teams over the last two seasons. Part of his team’s frustration against Carolina, it seemed, was that the Hawks truly expected this to be a much closer game. That alone should tell you what kind of job Rice has done with his team.
But for the final 20 minutes on Wednesday night, the game got away from them. It happens to everyone. Rice did it to Hurley when he was a player.
“We started being foolish at the end,” Rice said. “When you get your fifth foul and you’re out already and you turn back and scream something at the official…we don’t do that.”
When the Hawk in question did that, Rice--wearing a Carolina blue tie--quickly barked, “Do not embarrass me in this place.”
This wasn’t just a typical late December nonconference game. This was a game in Rice’s place, in a spot that still matters to him, on a night when he had fellow UNC point guard Jimmy Black and former Carolina teammate J.R. Reid and former assistant coach Phil Ford on hand to support him.
“Our players know how much this place means to me,” Rice said. “Sometimes you have to hit them with that and say, ‘How are you going to act that way here?’ We don’t act like that.”
Here we have exactly what made Rice who he was as a Tar Heel. This should not have surprised anyone who saw Rice play a single minute wearing Carolina blue. During the game, despite wearing a suit and despite being more than twice the age (King Rice is 48 years old, which is depressing news for those of us who remember arguing over whether he or Derrick Phelps should get more playing time) of anyone on the court, Rice was as competitive as anyone in the Smith Center.
How competitive is he? Williams called him “a competitive rascal,” which is just shy of “tough little nut” as the ultimate compliment from the head coach.
But by the time the game was over, by the time Rice had seen Ford and Black and Reid and thought about what they meant to him, he was in tears before he ever spoke to the media.
You should really listen to the full press conference via the Tar Heel Sports Network here to get the full sense of how Rice said it. In case you can’t, here are some of the words:
“I want to start off by saying thank you to Coach Williams. He treats me like I’m one of his sons. He has always tried to take care of me since I was a kid. I’m the luckiest guy that in 1987 Coach Smith gave me a scholarship, and it’s made me have a great, great, great life. Sometimes I still let things bother me but I’m the luckiest man that I got the chance to play at North Carolina.”
Rice went on for several more minutes, with some introspective comments about his growth as a coach and as a person. You walked out of that room feeling that King is still very much King, which is exactly why his Monmouth team is so dangerous and also why he may not be on the 2017 Christmas card list from Wednesday’s officials. But you know what? He's our King, which is why, before he left, he stopped by the UNC basketball office just to speak to everyone one more time.
“Sometimes you have to write it as a learning experience,” Rice said.
Yes, even when you’re 48, you’re still learning. But you know what else?