I can remember after the Tar Heels dropped two straight in ugly fashion to Miami and Wake Forest in January, I was ready to write this team off. I was frustrated, as I’m sure many fans were, and best believe I was screaming at my TV on many occasions. Given the fact that these players are 18-22 year old kids, I’ve never believed in taking to social media or any public platform to offer unhelpful criticism. That’s not how social media typically works, unfortunately.
This Carolina team, specifically those that have been around for a while like Leaky Black and Armando Bacot, has received every form of criticism you could possibly imagine. Black, specifically, has been subjected to some ridiculous slander over the years by many folks who claim to be Tar Heel fans. While, again, I would never put it out there for the players to potentially see, I’d be lying if I didn’t have those moments where I said some things that I regret saying, even if I were just venting to my brother.
That being said, I guess you could say I’ve had my own battles with adversity over the past months. In August of last year, my father passed away at the age of 61. He was the sole reason that I’ve bled Tar Heel blue since birth. But it wasn’t just that, it was his unwavering love and unbreakable commitment to the people he held closest in life that always proved analogous with everything that the Carolina Basketball Family stands for.
When my dad heard the news that Hubert Davis would be the next head coach, he was bursting with excitement. He had followed Coach Davis since his playing days at Carolina and always loved tuning into College Gameday to see that contagious smile and unapologetic favoritism towards the Heels. Our entire family was in consensus that regardless of success, there was no man better suited for this job than Hubert Davis. But of course, we also knew that no man would be as deeply committed to the success of these players and this program.
I believe a big reason my dad has always been drawn to Coach Davis is because of the similarities between the two. As a conservative radio talk show host, my dad was no stranger to doubters, haters, and slander. It’s to be expected in that line of work but he was ready for it, and even welcomed it. As someone who knew him about as well as anyone, I can say that he was as fair and open-minded as people come. My father had this positive outlook on life that was shatterproof, and there was nothing anybody on the outside could say that could deter him from achieving his goals, both personally and professionally.
Likewise, Coach Davis’ unrelenting positivity is what had Tar Heel Nation pumped to get this season underway. Of course, some bumps in the road led some to question if the first-year coach was the right man for the job. There were even “Fire Hubert” rumblings, though I refuse to believe those people were anything more than internet trolls who likely aren’t even fans. It sounded insane then and would be borderline psychotic to suggest now. Still, in today’s age, it’s nearly impossible to be oblivious to that noise, but Coach Davis kept his head down and stayed the course. His belief in his abilities as a coach never wavered nor did his belief in his players, and they bought in.
In the tournament press conferences, multiple guys pointed to the team meeting following the aforementioned Wake Forest loss as a turning point. The players expected Coach Davis to come in angry and upset, but he was peaches and rainbows. He simply laid out to the team that everything they wanted to accomplish was still in front of them. From then on, we got to witness a group come together unlike anything I’ve seen in my nearly 20 years of watching Carolina basketball.
Conversely, as I said earlier, my attitude wasn’t so positive at this juncture of the season. Selfishly, I felt like I somehow deserved for this team to be successful, but it was tough not having my dad there every step of the way to offer his perspective. He was an expert at managing passionate fandom in that he could always back away and see the bigger picture when things didn’t go our way. Without that voice of reason, I felt my devotion as a fan start to dwindle a bit.
What I failed to recognize then, and what I know my dad would’ve reassured me of, is that there was a similar voice of reason lurking, and he’s the dadgum head coach of the Tar Heels. I wish I could’ve been in those team meetings to get a tangible feel of the confidence and belief Coach Davis instilled in those players. But maybe it’s better I maintained my vantage point as a fan, because these players and coaches have taught me invaluable lessons on patience, resiliency, and the power of togetherness.
Obviously, the ending is not what we were hoping for, but this team gave us one of the most incredible runs in Carolina basketball history. My dad was the only Heels (or Duke) fan I’ve ever known who actively rooted for UNC to meet Duke in the tournament, I thought foolishly. He wasn’t scared, though, he only ever saw it as an opportunity to achieve something incredible, and that’s exactly the mindset these players adopted. The Heels left everything they had on the court against Duke. They mustered everything they had left against Kansas, and came up just short.
Words cannot describe how proud I am of this group for what they’ve accomplished and the fight and toughness they’ve shown. They were called soft, people counted them out, but they refused to fold. For as long as I can remember, there’s one phrase my dad has repeatedly pounded in my brain. “Don’t let anybody define you.” These dudes didn’t allow any of the outside noise to dictate who they were as a team and they decided to write their own script.
With that, I’ll conclude with a special shoutout to Leaky Black. The ridicule he’s endured throughout his career is perhaps unlike anything I’ve ever seen with a Carolina player, but he’s stuck it out, trusted his game, and I’m just so damn proud of him. I think this interview clip sums it all up…but pay attention at 0:22.
Leaky Black: “It’s been a rough career … I wasn’t expecting to cry, but it just happened.” pic.twitter.com/Bcv486KBom— Josh Graham (@JoshGrahamRadio) April 3, 2022
”What they gone say now?” Tell ‘em Leak.