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Theo Pinson’s Senior Night absolutely wrecked me

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A heartbreaker of a game followed by a heartbreaker of a speech

NCAA Basketball: Miami at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The SB Nation Network’s theme for this week is “Sports Moments that Made You Cry.” This one will start us off.

Before I get into this article, I need to establish two facts about myself. The first is that I’m not a crier. I don’t say this out of machismo or insecurity or sociopathy - I’m not afraid to say that I feel strong emotions pretty regularly - but as a biological fact: the kinds of emotions that seem to get a lot of the people around me sobbing never quite reach my own tear ducts. I don’t know anybody who watched Coco and didn’t physically cry, except for myself, even though it absolutely devastated me. So that’s what we’re going with.

The second is that I have never been the type of college basketball fan whose attachment to players is directly correlated to the amount of time they spend in college. I understand people for whom that is the case, but I’m just not into the idea that a team’s players are instruments to my team’s success rather than ends in and of themselves. That means I’ll follow one-and-done players from UNC into the NBA and keep rooting for them there, getting to know them as much as any front-of-the-jersey-not-the-back fan gets to know a four-year player who doesn’t go visibly pro. It also means that my favorite players are first and foremost the players I most enjoy watching play basketball, with their personalities backing it up. I’ve never been into the idea of how well players represent their school; to me, they represent themselves. Coby White and Nassir Little will be Tar Heel favorites of mine just as much as Marcus Paige, Kendall Marshall, Justin Jackson, and Raymond Felton.

...And Theo Pinson. But not for the usual reasons, I think. Pinson was a fan favorite in Chapel Hill before he ever got on the court, being a borderline five-star talent from Greensboro who committed to UNC pretty early on. Roy’s tradition of getting the highest-rated player in North Carolina every year he can manage it has resulted in some really early fan favorites regardless of play, including Pinson, White, Isaiah Hicks, and a few others. And people really got into Pinson because of his infectious personality and jack-of-all-trades play, playing great defense and putting up points/rebounds/assists totals very close to each other. I liked Pinson a lot for those reasons, too, but his play left me wanting a lot more: he was supposedly one of the most talented players in the country, with a decent shot at the next level, but was playing at the level of a role player, until his senior year. I wrote about it at the time, but something transformed in Pinson over the course of his final collegiate year, turning him from role player into bona fide star, a triple-double threat every night who did everything he’d already been doing, but better (well, except three-point shooting). More than a slightly regressed Joel Berry, more than a suddenly-star-turned Luke Maye, Pinson was the team’s engine, facilitating like the team’s best point guard, slashing like one of its best wings, and rebounding and defending like one of its best bigs. Opposing fanbases were starting to mark him as the team’s most dangerous player. This was the guy that recruiting services had tapped as one of the best prospects in his class, with all the energy and good vibes that had endeared him to the fanbase already just as present as ever.

And then, Senior Night happened - a back-and-forth affair with Miami that ended with the second desperation buzzer-beater Pinson had been on the wrong end of in his career, this one from halfcourt from the hands of Ja’Quan Newton. Pinson and Berry both had excellent games, Berry leading all scorers with 31 points while Pinson scored 12 points and handed out 11 assists. It seemed almost cruel to have them have to speak to everybody watching and listening as they wrapped up their college careers, having played on Roy Williams Court for the last time. But that’s how we do things, so off they went. Berry held himself together remarkably well, giving a heartfelt but mostly pretty standard farewell speech, thanking his guys, his coaches, his family, and God.

And then...

I mean, the guy was crying even before he started. He goes down the line, with his family first and then his team, being nice to some and roasting others (my personal favorite is his telling Steve Robinson he could be his second dad because he’s bald, too), struggling to get through all of them because he’s overwhelmed with disappointment that he couldn’t help get us the win just minutes prior. It’s already super emotional. And then he gets to Roy Williams, and the fight against tears gets even harder, as he goes back reminiscing about how Roy told the team after Dean Smith’s passing that you should never fail to tell somebody you love them, and how he’s been scared that he won’t get the chance, in a non-insincere way, to tell his coach how much he’s meant to him - for tolerating and celebrating his Theo-ness, for sticking by him through all the injuries, for being the best coach in the country.

It is one of the many failings of the English language that it doesn’t have more than one word for love, like Ancient Greek had eros, agape, philia, storge, and philautia, or even modern Spanish’s delineation between te quiero (which you’d say to a friend or family member), and te amo (which you’d say to a romantic partner or maybe your mother, if she’s being especially affectionate). I think we’re starting to see a cultural shift in the acceptability of men platonically saying “I love you,” (the “no homo” age was rough) but the effects of machismo are hard to overcome, especially in sports culture. Maybe you’ve felt that tension before, that of trying to tell a guy friend or a father or anybody, really, that you love them, but being scared that it’ll be taken the wrong way or mark you as “weak” or “soft” or whatever, or just change the dynamic in the relationship: now you’ve opened the door to feelings? And while Pinson’s not scared to throw around “I love you”’s early on in the speech, like when he’s addressing his family and teammates (a chosen family), you see it get tough for him when he’s addressing his coach, where, I think, he genuinely didn’t expect to develop the kind of relationship with an authority figure that he did with Coach Williams. And he can’t quite spit it out, even after telling all of us what he’s going to say. I don’t know. There’s just something about seeing that struggle, of seeing somebody growing up and forming bonds and verbalizing and failing to verbalize them in such a real way, all while being unapologetically himself, that got to me the way that not a lot of things do. I genuinely don’t remember if I cried watching it or not, but I certainly remember the outsized emotional impact.

Pinson wasn’t the Heel I was sorriest to see go (that was Marcus Paige), or the one I most closely identified with (that’d be Justin Jackson), or the one I liked watching the most (Kendall Marshall). I didn’t graduate with him, either; I’d left Chapel Hill a year earlier with Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks. But his combination of growth on the court and everything about himself and ourselves off the court he represented in that one final farewell moment made me, personally, more emotional than just about anything else I’ve seen from UNC. Sports hit the hardest when they’re teaching us about us.