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End of an Era

This season capped an end to an unforgettable era of UNC basketball

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NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Charlotte Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Two days after a sudden end to UNC’s basketball season, the immediate shock, surprise, frustration, and sadness has started to fade away. Most of us are coming to terms with the fact that some nights, no matter how hard a team plays, shots just don’t fall. Every now and then, the other team just plays better. The enemy gets a vote.

This one hurt. Not quite as bad as April 4th, 2016 — no game can ever hurt like that—but pretty damn close. As I read the post-game analysis and the inevitable, absolutely deserved, tributes to Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, only one consistent thought ran through my mind.

This is the end of a golden era of UNC basketball that spanned from the fall of 2012 to the spring of 2018. From Marcus and Brice starting their careers in Chapel Hill to Joel and Theo ending theirs, and everyone in between.

I’m not going to overstate the importance of a basketball season or the score of a game. Considering the history of UNC’s basketball program, this may barely make the list of top 3 of all-time great UNC runs. Undoubtedly, there have been many golden era’s. The 1990’s and 2005-2009 come to mind. There will be more.

However, right now in this moment, none of them felt any more important to the legacy and future of North Carolina basketball than the last six years. And yes, you can probably pick any six year run in UNC history and make a case. I’ll stand by this sentiment.

Sunday night was about more than just Joel and Theo finishing their careers earlier than expected. It was about a period of time that saw the players and coaching staff endure some of the most intense, insane, and at times malicious, scrutiny from the media, rival schools, rival fan bases, and even their own brethren. Players had to endure nauseating levels of ignorance and vitriol because of actions by the university’s AFAM department, despite never even being on campus when those events took place. Even with all of those distractions, they returned UNC to the greatest heights of the sport.

While there is no need to rehash those events, it’s always important to point out the times that the media and other NCAA institutions directly and indirectly attacked players and coaches. How could we forget Pat Forde’s attempt at humor at the expense of Marcus Paige? Or Pete Thamel’s, um, questionable reporting last fall and Doug Gottlieb’s statements on Roy’s pending retirement in 2016? Even other university presidents got in on the action, as Maryland’s Wallace “Double Idiot” Loh called for the “death” penalty.

None of that factors in the questionable facts the local newspaper spouted off, seemingly every day, or the unquantifiable abuse the players received on social media. That’s why every Tar Heel fan whose heart bleeds Carolina Blue nodded in fierce understanding when they heard or saw Coach Williams’ words from the post-game press conference.

Those tough times began during Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James’ freshman season in 2012. They continued as Berry, Pinson, Justin Jackson, Nate Britt, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks (to name a few) joined the squad over the next two seasons. The newest All-American, Luke Maye, was willing to walk on for his freshman season in 2015 as the extracurricular noises grew louder. In 2016, Tony Bradley solidified UNC as a prime destination for top recruits.

Along the way the two architects of the modern day UNC program, Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge passed away. Woody Durham followed along earlier this month. Many of the Tar Heels from yesteryear had started to fade away from younger generation’s memories. The pride and integrity that had defined the basketball program for decades was under attack. The product on the court was bordering on mediocrity as the 2012-2013 season came to a close, though that season was understandable after the exodus of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, and John Henson.

Yet, a permanent place in basketball purgatory was avoided. With a level of class, dignity, maturity, and grace that eludes even the most experienced adults, the Tar Heels over the last six years have ensured North Carolina remained on top of the basketball landscape.

Negative headlines have largely been absent. There haven’t been any on-court incidents that tripped up a reputation. Eloquence emanated from players at the most emotional times, whether that was during indelible Senior Night speeches or after season ending defeats. McDonald’s All-Americans continued to set foot in Chapel Hill — seven, to be exact, with two more on the way.

Not a single player transferred because they were unhappy or feared the program would receive a postseason ban. On the contrary, ACC opponents decided to transfer into the program, a la Cameron Johnson. Walker Miller and KJ Smith also followed their respective families’ footsteps to Franklin Street. Former players like Hubert Davis and Sean May came home to join the coaching staff and replace Jerod Haase and C.B. McGrath, who earned head coaching gigs of their own.

The Carolina Family did not, as some may have feared, fall apart. Instead, it grew larger, became stronger, and increased its influence.

None of that includes the basketball success over that time period. Consider:

  • Six NCAA tournaments
  • Three Sweet 16’s
  • Two Elite Eights
  • Two Final Fours
  • 2 Championship games
  • 1 NCAA title
  • 4 All-Americans (Paige, Johnson, Jackson, Maye)
  • 4 Jerseys added to the rafters (Paige, Johnson, Jackson, Berry)
  • 11 All-ACC selections (Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo x2, Marcus Paige x2, Brice Johnson x2, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry x2, Luke Maye)
  • 2 ACC Regular Season titles
  • 1 ACC Tournament title
  • Never finished worse than 5th in conference, despite additional expansion
  • 7 NBA draft picks (5 in the first round)

Those accolades are ridiculous for almost any school, and at UNC one could argue they are called “expectations”. But to accomplish all of that with the weight of the collective sports world breathing down your neck? When opposing coaching staffs are telling recruits that they would never play in one NCAA tournament if they committed to UNC, much less four? Let’s check on Louisville and Arizona in a few years, and see how they handle similar scrutiny and obstacles that will litter their path on the recruiting trail.

Perhaps most meaningful of all, was that as fans, we all felt like we knew this crop of players. According to Berry, that’s what he’s most proud of.

We swooned over Stackhouse and Carter. We were ready to run through a brick wall to avenge Montross and Hansbrough’s loss of blood. ‘Sheed told us that the ball don’t lie, and Cota made the impossible pass seem average. Jordan rocked us all to sleep against Maryland. Green gave us “Jump Around”, while Lawson and Ellington helped proved that 2005 was not a fluke.

But these guys? They embraced this city and the University of North Carolina in ways never asked or required of previous players. Many, if not all of us, wanted to stand in front of the players and coaches to deflect the journalistic hit pieces and misinformed insults hurled their way. Not because our every day lives were affected like theirs — such a comparison is laughable — but because we cared for them and they had done nothing wrong. Astonishingly, never once did they publicly complain.

If a fan saw them eating at Sutton’s and wanted a picture, they never said a cross word or acted annoyed. Sir or Ma’am punctuated almost every sentence. They were active and responsive on social media. Whether it was Paige’s broken hand, Meeks’ conditioning problems, Pinson’s broken foot, or Berry’s complete and rational reaction when losing a video game, we felt their anguish. When they announced engagements or births, we celebrated with them. And when they posted ridiculous videos of themselves dancing on Instagram or Twitter, a few of you (or your kids) probably tried to copy their moves.

Players from eras are mentioned by last names or nicknames. Just close enough to make us feel we knew them, but enough formality to remind us we certainly did not. “Big Game” James Worthy, Sam “Big Smooth” Perkins, MJ, Smith, Fox, Lynch, Phelps, Jamison, Cota, Haywood, Lang, Capel, Forte Felton, May, Psycho T, Lawson, HB, and Zeller are a few examples. Of course, whether it was Scott, Donald, Shammond, Jawad, or Marvin all previous UNC generations had a Williams. Coach Smith and Coach Gut were the continuity.

The last half-decade? Joel was Joel and Theo was Theo. They weren’t alone. Reggie, Marcus, Brice, Kennedy, Isaiah, Stilman, Nate, Justin, Kenny, and Luke are what immediately come to mind. Even Tokoto and Hairston were “J.P.” and “P.J.” to the most casual of fans. All were harnessed by Roy. Last names need not apply.

You enjoyed these guys not because they were athletes, but because of who they are as people. They were just so...normal. Fortunately, they also played some (really good) basketball.

We saw them struggle in 2013, squander a late lead against Iowa State in 2014, and just barely run out of gas against the 2015 runner-up Wisconsin. Each year, they were just a little closer to reaching that ultimate goal. When Villanova ripped their beating hearts out from their chest, our hearts stopped in unison. Yes, we were surprised and angry at the outcome, but we were hurt, sad, and devastated for the players. Always for the players.

Then, when Marcus Paige calmly answered questions in Houston in front of his locker, we all wanted to sit next to him. Not so we could give him the love and support he so desperately deserved but because we needed him to reassure us that UNC basketball still had a heartbeat. One year later Berry, Pinson, Meeks, Hicks, Britt, Bradley and Jackson proved to be the doctors that successfully revived Carolina’s championship aspirations. Our hearts started pumping again.

This season, after Sunday’s game, it was Berry and Pinson’s turn to face the post-game media after a sudden loss. It’s unsurprising they remained as poised and calm as Paige did that night in Houston. They had a good teacher.

In the current environment where the “best” teams see talent regularly leave after one year, regardless if they win a title or not, the past six years have just been fun getting to watch these young men grow and develop. Admit it. Despite the outside voices and detractors, never once have you been embarrassed to be a fan of these players. Whether it was Joel James producing another facial expression that would soon pop up as a GIF, Theo crashing press conferences, or Berry accurately pointing out that NC State is not a rival, they always had a knack for conveying exactly what we were feeling.

Truthfully, the pride, admiration, and respect the Heels have continually earned from fans, graduates, and strangers is so rare, I have to wonder if most of us realize what we witnessed. When is the next time UNC players receive the following shoutouts?

This game is a fun, exhilarating, exhausting experience. Sometimes we forget that the men in uniforms are not robots, but instead college students, trying to navigate their late teens and early 20’s.

The past six years at UNC have been a stark and refreshing reminder.

Now, it’s time to put an end to this era.

However, this is North Carolina. It’s a safe assumption that a new one is just around the corner.