By Adam Lucas
MEMPHIS—Now this can be told.
The scene is Roy Williams’ den on Selection Sunday. Carolina has already been announced as the top seed in the South Regional, and they’re watching the other teams fill the 16-team region.
Greg Gumbel’s presidential voice intones, “And the number two seed in the South is…Kentucky!”
In the den, there are murmurs, and an “Ooooooohhhhh” undercurrent. They remember. But one player leaps out of his seat, clapping his hands and cheering. It’s Theo Pinson, who didn’t play in the December game when the Wildcats defeated the Tar Heels. He was miserable during that game, having to sit and watch the type of game that was one of the primary reasons he came to Carolina.
Now, perhaps, he was going to get another chance.
“He talks about Kentucky all the time,” said his roommate, Joel Berry. “He was more hype than any of the rest of us. He knew that he might get another chance.”
Maybe he would.
It didn’t go very well. Not for the first 35 minutes. Pinson was pressing, and he committed a couple early fouls that landed him a spot on the bench, and he took arguably a bad three-point attempt that missed, and he had a couple of bad turnovers.
But this is what happens. Players mature. There was a time when any one of the turnovers Pinson committed in the second half would have resulted him in being yanked out of the game. This time, Roy Williams looked at his junior, held his palms down as if to settle everyone down, and allowed him to keep playing.
Coaching is coming up with trick defenses and calling plays. But maybe, sometimes, it’s just holding your palms face down and believing.
Suddenly, Pinson started making plays. You don’t have to remember them. All you really are required to remember is Luke Maye’s incredible game-winning jump shot, the most fantastic Tar Heel NCAA Tournament game-winner since at least Rick Fox in 1990 against Oklahoma. But this one was to go to the Final Four. This one beat Kentucky, 75-73, in a virtual road game. This one was our way over their way, the right blue over the wrong blue and one final reminder that sometimes the birds sing and the skies are blue and the right thing happens.
In 1990, 27 years ago that feels like about 27 days ago, I watched Fox’s shot with my dad in our den in Cary. After the game, the Tar Heel Sports Network went to commercial and we turned up CBS. The host—at this point I can’t remember who—said, “And the Tar Heels beat the top seed in the region, Oklahoma.”
My dad shook his fist at the television. “Not just the top seed,” he shouted at the screen. “The top team in the whole country! We just beat Okla-dang-homa!”
Our younger daughter watched the game with my dad on Sunday evening. On the way to the airport after the game Sunday night, I called her and asked her what he said. I was guessing there might have been a Ken-dang-tucky in there somewhere.
This is what they did, granddaughter and grandfather, in the den in Cary: “We jumped all around the den," McKay told me, laughing. "He kept going, ‘Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!’”
I hope you got to do that. Whether it was your first Tar Heel miracle or your 20th, they never get old, and you never forget them. I’m telling you this right now: in 27 years, you might not remember your third-grade teacher’s name or the lyrics to that song you think you’ll never forget, but you will remember where you were and who you were with and how you celebrated when Luke Maye beat Ken-dang-tucky.
So if anyone doesn’t understand your obsession with the Tar Heels, tell them this is what Carolina basketball does for us. It gives us those unpredictable moments that we never, ever forget. Twenty-seven years ago it was Rick Fox. Tonight it was Luke Maye. In ten years it will be someone we haven’t heard of yet. It will never stop being one of the very best parts of our lives. Even when it’s painful, it’s pretty great. And when it's great, man, it is a highlight of our lives. This is not just some kid throwing a ball through a hoop. It's granddaughters dancing around the den with grandfathers, and brothers calling sisters just to celebrate together, and...well, it's Carolina basketball. You understand.
I am old, and I remember very little about what led up to Fox’s shot. You don’t have to recall what led to Maye’s shot. But for the record, it was a whole lot of Pinson. It was Pinson who made an impossible driving shot coming out of Roy Williams’ timeout with 5:09 remaining, a basket that cut the Tar Heel deficit to three points. It was Pinson who defended the lightning-fast De’Aaron Fox with Carolina holding a one-point lead, stifling Fox’s drive and then grabbing the defensive rebound. It was Pinson who challenged a Malik Monk three-pointer with 1:02 remaining, and Pinson who made four straight free throws in the final 3:30, including a one-and-one that gave the Tar Heels back the lead for good.
And it was Pinson, history may possibly note, who recorded the assist on Maye’s game-winning jumper.
Kentucky denied Joel Berry the ball on the game’s final possession.
Oh, sure, Joel Berry. Perhaps we should say a word about him. Perhaps we should say hundreds of words about him. Perhaps we should mention the player who sprained his ankle less than five minutes into the game. He went into the Tar Heel locker room with trainer Doug Halverson, cried a little because he thought he was letting his team down, and then ran back onto the court and played 33 minutes, more than anyone else on the team.
Think about that for a minute. He was in such pain that after he snipped his part of the regional championship net, he had to hobble back down the ladder, getting a helping hand from Pinson just to make it down the three steps. This is the person who played more minutes than anyone, being helped down a ladder. And he didn’t just stand around the three-point line and chuck jumpers. He drove to the basket, time after time, including an amazing hoop with two minutes left.
But on the last possession, he couldn’t get the ball. So it found Pinson, of course, because sometimes you just can’t write this stuff.
At that exact moment, Pinson says he thought the following: “I’m about to make a play and win this game for us.” Every player who is competitive enough to play at this level has that thought. It ends with him making the winning basket and national acclaim and people chanting their name. Freshman Theo…I think maybe freshman Theo takes the final shot no matter what.
But junior Theo knows a little more about basketball. “Making a play is not just about scoring,” he said. “Making a play can be for other people. And once I saw Willis commit to me, I pitched it back to Luke and he was wide open.”
And what did you do, Theo, when you realized that three months later, after battling through injuries and missing games and occasionally being despondent on the sideline, that you had finally beaten Ken-dang-tucky?
“I feel like,” he said, “I blacked out a little bit.”
The scene is just outside the three-point line at the FedExForum. It’s less than 20 minutes after Maye’s game-winning jumper. The Tar Heels are climbing a ladder, one by one, to cut down the nets. They are the South Regional champions. They get to keep playing basketball.
Hugs are being exchanged. Larry Fedora is standing just outside the arc with his cell phone, taking pictures of the Tar Heels celebrating. He is just a fan.
Off to the side, completely alone, stands Roy Williams. There are very, very few times in his life when no one is talking to him. Someone always wants to congratulate him or tell him how much they love him or ask him about calling timeouts.
But right now, at this moment, he’s just standing there, watching his players cut down the nets. He shakes his head a little. He blinks once, twice, and then he wipes away a tear.
You can take the coach who is cooler, or who does more commercials, or who tweets and pods and blogs.
I’ll take the one who is going to the Final Four, and who is so emotionally invested in University of North Carolina basketball that it moves him to tears to watch his players succeed.
“You did it,” he is told.
“No,” he says. “We did it.”