By Adam Lucas
Ellis Paige has been in the building when his son won an ACC championship. He’s been there when his son earned a trip to the Final Four. He’s seen his son make game-winners.
Saturday night, he saw Marcus Paige’s jersey honored in the Smith Center rafters. “This one,” Ellis Paige said of his evening, “was the best one of all time.”
The elder Paige stood on the Smith Center court at halftime with his wife, Sherryl, his daughter, Morgan, his son, Marcus, and Brice Johnson and Brice’s father, Herman. A video played on the arena video boards, and a sellout crowd roared for Marcus and Brice—they’re going to be Marcus and Brice to us forever, just like Antawn and Vince or Rasheed and Jerry—one last time.
You wondered what a parent thinks about at that exact moment. This isn’t a perfect attendance award at elementary school. This is one of the ultimate honors at one of the ultimate programs at one of the ultimate levels of the sport.
“What I thought,” Ellis said, “is that his dream came true.”
“It was such a long process for Brice,” said Herman Johnson. “It was such a long road. All I wanted for him was to be prepared for life when he left school, to get an education and be prepared. And I really can’t believe that all the rest of this happened.”
It happens without warning. Lost to history is the fact that Marcus Paige went home for Christmas during his freshman year not completely certain he could play at this level. He shot 1-for-5 against East Tennessee State, 2-for-6 against East Carolina, and 2-for-8 against Texas. He had more turnovers (seven) than baskets (five) during that stretch.
Brice Johnson, who had one of the most dominant senior seasons in Carolina basketball history, did not score in double figures in the final 21 games of his freshman season, and scored four or fewer points in the final 11 games of that campaign.
It was fitting, then, to have them sitting courtside watching this year’s iteration of the Tar Heels, as Justin Jackson demonstrated all the ways he’s the latest Carolina upperclassman to blossom under Roy Williams’ tutelage. The junior from Texas slithered his way to 20 points and six assists, marking the first time in his UNC career against an ACC opponent he’s scored at least 20 while handing out a half-dozen assists.
Jackson spoke earlier this year of the game slowing down. Saturday night, he illustrated it. “I really felt it with some of the curls,” he said of the play where he’s become lethal knifing into the lane. “They do a great job of their big man helping on the curl. Tonight, I was able to pause and let the big man run back to his man, and then I attacked. Before, it would’ve been a turnover. With little things like that, the game feels a little slower and a little more comfortable.”
Jackson has scored at least 20 in eight ACC games this year, and the 14 shots he attempted against the Cavaliers were the second-fewest he’s needed to reach that mark. Most impressively, when his shot wasn’t as pure in the second half (he hit just one of six field goals in the final period), he found other ways to contribute. In one gorgeous stretch after the Tar Heels had stretched the lead to 25, he delivered back-to-back assists—first rewarding Isaiah Hicks for running the floor hard by finding the senior for a dunk, then spinning a perfect post feed to Kennedy Meeks for an old-fashioned three-point play. Four of his six assists came in that 1-for-6 second half, the mark of a player who found other ways to help his team.
Every college basketball program has its own approach. There’s not necessarily a right way. But there can’t possibly be a more satisfying way than what Roy Williams has working in Chapel Hill, where players visibly grow, improve and mature while also happening to win a bushel full of games.
If you’d walked into the Smith Center in the spring of 2013 and pointed to the rafters and told someone, “That’s where Brice Johnson’s jersey will be one day,” they would’ve thought you were delusional. Marcus Paige wasn’t completely sure he could even contribute at this level; now he’s one of the 51 greatest players in program history. It's not just raw skill. It takes a special kind of dedication to persevere and find a way to excel against some of the best competition in the game; that commitment eventually turns into confidence, which becomes excellence.
Jackson may be the next to make that type of jump. He’s right there, right on the cusp of turning a really nice season into a great season. The games left in this season give him the stage to prove it. He’s always seemed more mature than his age, and he scores 20 points with the same facial expression that he used to have when he was shooting 4-for-13. Midway through Saturday’s first half, he roared after converting a hoop and drawing a foul and it required a doubletake, as if the Mona Lisa had jumped off the wall and pounded her chest.
It’s an incredible gift to have the type of player who comes into college basketball, streaks across the stat sheet for a year, and then departs for the next level. But it’s even more fulfilling to have the type of person who you get to watch struggle a little (easy for us to say—we don’t have to live with the struggle) and emerge on the other side. Sometimes you even get to watch them stand on the Smith Center court with their families and look up at their jerseys.
You get cheers at a moment like that when fans appreciate the player. You get loud, sustained roars—and maybe a few tears, as the video set to “I’m Coming Home” played over the PA—when fans appreciate the person.
“We saw Marcus grow up here,” Ellis Paige said, gesturing back at the Smith Center court. “It wasn’t just basketball. It was as a person.”
On his way off the court after the win, Johnson was receiving the usual photo and autograph requests. He stopped when Lennie Rosenbluth offered a handshake and a pat on the back, two peers recognizing the contributions of the other, ready for whoever the next addition might be to their very exclusive club.