DEAN E. SMITH CENTER/ CHAPEL HILL—"People have taken their chances and beaten up on us for quite a while, but we’re gonna survive this. I’m really proud of my kids."
That sounds like the sort of thing UNC head basketball head coach Roy Williams could have been expected to say after his team lost, glumly and weakly, to Miami last night on their own home court, 63-57. The Tar Heels fell to 0-2 in the ACC for the second straight year, but this time their prospects for improvement do not look as good.
But Williams wasn't talking about his basketball team when he said that. He was talking about a CNN.com article, published yesterday, about literacy in college athletics. The article led with an anecdote based on the testimony of Mary Willingham, a specialist in UNC's Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling.
She told CNN that a UNC basketball player came to her and asked for help: He couldn't read.
ABC doesn't just mean "Anybody But Carolina" anymore.
That's what Roy Williams was talking about when he said people had been beating up on UNC. Before that sentence, a visibly emotional Williams said this:
I don’t believe it’s true. It’s totally unfair. I’m really proud of the kids we brought in here. I’m really proud of what our student-athletes have done. That’s not fair. I’ve been here 10 recruiting classes, and we haven’t brought anybody in like that [i.e. illiterate]. We’ve had one senior since I’ve been here that did not graduate. Anybody can make any statement they want to make, but that is not fair. The University of North Carolina doesn’t do that. The University of North Carolina doesn’t stand for that. I don’t believe it’s true, and I’m really really bothered by the whole thing.
(A moment later, Williams concluded: "Every one of the kids we recruited the last 10 years, you’d take home and let them guard your grandchildren. I’m really proud of our kids." The low-hanging joke there is all yours, if you must pluck it.)
Williams's eyes became teary and he fought through a long pause during this speech. He blamed himself again, as he has already done multiple times this season. "I'm not doing a very good job with this basketball team," he confessed, and said that Miami's Jim Larrañaga had out-coached him. (He was probably correct. You may recall that Larrañaga also out-coached Williams as the former head coach of George Mason, upsetting and eliminating the Tar Heels from the NCAA tournament as an improbable, 13th-seed upstart in 2006.)
Williams did not even need to mention P. J. Hairston, the guard recently dismissed from the team for unspecified violations of NCAA rules, in order to make it clear that his being "really, really bothered" is about that, too. "For quite a while" refers implicitly but unmistakably to that long, drawn-out eligibility saga, which also included guard Leslie McDonald, since reinstated.
These are dark days at Carolina, and if you're watching the basketball games without attaching them to the bigger, very damaged picture, you might as well have followed the recent baseball Hall of Fame vote without thinking about performance enhancing drugs. The numbers, stats, wins and losses do not stand alone here. This is a program in serious, almost unprecedented distress.
"I do feel mentally worse than I’ve ever felt as a head coach right now," Williams said. Yet it was the silent part of that sentence that communicated its impact. Williams took a long, excruciating pause after the word "feel," and Williams's eyes grew extraordinarily vulnerable, as though he was diving down not only to the deep, rock bottom of his misery, but also down for the courage to admit publicly that his emotions had sunk there. (Jason King's recent article about him, a must-read for UNC fans, confirms that yesterday's gloom did not arise just from the CNN story.)
One hates to say it, but it seems appropriate that the basketball team's struggles are coinciding with those of the athletic program. If North Carolina was beating opponents senseless right now, the extracurricular news might seem like mere gnats of distraction, easily ignored. "Everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket," Williams is fond of saying. Successful outcomes can hide an awful lot of flawed process. The Tar Heels' current woes—they shot a miserable 31 percent last night, and under 40 percent in a loss at Wake Forest Sunday—are exposing the organizational armature around them.
When it's bad, everything goes wrong. Last night, big man Joel James returned after missing a few games with a knee injury. James is on the cover of the current edition of Inside Carolina magazine, almost literally the reigning poster child for the program. The words "Big Personality" are bannered across his wide body and smiling face. James started last night and came out with personality and bigness, helping the Tar Heels score the game's first eight points. (Miami would then outscore them 26-12 over most of the rest of the first half.)
Early in the second half, James waited for a rebound under the basket and had position on Miami guard Rion Brown, the Hurricanes' only returning player of note from last year's Atlantic Coast Conference champion. The ball did not carom toward James, but he threw a high elbow behind him and caught Brown under the left eye, knocking Brown to the floor and giving him a large gash. James was assessed a Flagrant Two foul and ejected from the game.
It's happening in tandem. Carolina looks bad on the court and off it. You put the guy on the cover as the face of the team and he winds up with egg on it. Things seem quite out of control all of a sudden, and what seems most out of control is information. Is it true or not true that a UNC basketball player couldn't read? Who is the player? Why was P. J. Hairston dismissed? Who is in charge, the NCAA or UNC? And as if the CNN story isn't enough, what about the recent New York Times article that took UNC's African and Afro-American studies department to task for sham classes apparently designed to hustle academically unqualified football players through school? Was the scandal really just the work of a couple of rogue employees, or was it operating with the knowledge of others on campus?
We don't know very much, really. (Note that the only thing of factual substance Williams managed to say was that only one of his seniors failed to graduate. That did not address the literacy issue.) Until then, we must refrain from blame, censure and attack. It befalls us simply to watch this unfold—on the court and off—and wait for answers, if any are forthcoming. This has all gotten far too complicated for any one person, program or organization to understand, let alone control.
If there is a place to lay blame, you may find it in a deeply buried lede in that CNN story, at virtually the very end of the piece:
U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania introduced legislation in the House last year that calls for a complete overhaul of the NCAA. When he talked to CNN, he cited the lack of consistency in the way recent NCAA investigations into various improprieties were handled at Auburn, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Ohio State and Penn State.
"I think (the NCAA) needs to be looked at. I think they need to be reined in," Dent said.
It should be easy to see that the NCAA is at this point a hopelessly outmoded governing body, vulnerable to exploitation and corruption, and no longer able to do the right thing by its constituent schools—and worse, by its constituent "student-athletes" (a dubious term that has taken on Orwellian menace). It is P. J. Hairston who takes the fall for the NCAA's sins of commission and omission. He was never allowed to make his own case for reinstatement, and the only thing he has been convicted of is speeding in a car. It is the illiterate athlete (if indeed he exists) who suffers, permitted to attend school essentially unlawfully, and unable to read, just so he can play sports to earn money and prestige for his university, not for himself. The kids getting credit for the basically nonexistent class in the African and Afro-American studies department learn that cheating is simply part of ordinary life, the way you go about your day. Worse, they learn that an education is really not important at all.
The NCAA either needs the overhaul Charlie Dent recommends, or it needs to be razed and replaced with something that works. If neither of those things can happen, we need to reconsider whether there can continue to be such a thing as college athletics.
After Williams's post-game media session ended, we reporters trudged into UNC's dark, sepulchral players' lounge (ping-pong table, big-screen TV, both dormant) to stick voice recorders in their young faces and demand that they explain their failure. Brice Johnson gave morose answers to numerous questions, but no matter they were about, he kept returning to the issue of turnovers. Every time UNC pulled close to Miami, it seemed, they would get careless with the ball and give it back to the Hurricanes, who would score and re-extend their lead.
In fact, Carolina committed only 11 turnovers, a respectable number, and below their season average of 13. And also in fact, Miami scored only seven points off those turnovers (UNC scored 19 points off of Miami's). It was the appearance of carelessness that was magnified. At this mishandled moment in UNC athletics—and not only UNC athletics, but other schools' athletics, too—cherishing the basketball becomes essential, urgent, even if only for its own sake, even if the mere numbers do not quite depend upon it.
That's why I would like to close with this piece of judgment, written partly as a columnist and partly as the son of a UNC-Chapel Hill professor who has spent a 40-year career making the world (and the school) a better place. That is, my dad's work, compensated by Carolina, gave me my life. I'm not a Carolina fan, but I am a Carolina citizen. Last night, the Tar Heels were down by seven points with just under three minutes to play. Their half-court trap defense caused a bad pass by Miami, but it went right through UNC guard Marcus Paige's legs to a Hurricane, who found an open teammate, Erik Swoope, for a layup. Swoope was fouled on the play by Brice Johnson, and made the free throw. That gave Miami a 10-point lead with 2:46 to play.
Fans started pouring out of the Smith Center. It had been a quiet, airless night in the building, even by the Dean Dome's rather genteel standards, and now the only sound was footsteps on the stairways.
A 10-point deficit with under three minutes to play is tough to overcome. But it isn't impossible. Think back to Jan. 18, 1997. The young Tar Heels, featuring Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, began the ACC regular season 0-3, and people were saying that Dean Smith was finished as a coach. (He retired at the end of the season.) At home that night against North Carolina State, UNC trailed 56-47 with just two minutes left to play, an even more onerous predicament than they found themselves in last night. They came back to win, scoring the game's final 12 points for a 59-56 victory. The triumph propelled them onto a 16-game winning streak that didn't end until the Final Four in Indianapolis.
The notion of the comeback is a deep part of Tar Heel mystique—but not just mystique. It's real. It's part of Tar Heel truth. It's what Carolina does, in actual fact. We know this. Ask anyone who follows the program about its greatest moments, its heart and soul, and one of the answers you will surely get—probably the first one—is the extraordinary eight-points-in17-seconds miracle against Duke in 1974. These rallies are legion in Tarheeliana. They are part of Carolina's genetic imprint, its national law.
Is this year's team as good as that 1996–97 team? No, of course not. Does that mean they could not have come back against Miami, a team that lost all five of last year's starters and was playing the last four and a half minutes of last night's game without its top rebounder, and with its leading scorer having four fouls? Those who left missed the Tar Heels repeated surges at the Hurricanes. They actually spotted Miami yet another basket, and trailed by 12 points with 1:17 to play. Yet when J. P. Tokoto let fly an open three-pointer about a minute later, had it gone in it would have cut the deficit to two points with 15 seconds to go and Miami struggling to handle UNC's full-court press.
The shot happened not to fall, and Miami won. They played better; they were coached better; they deserved to win. That is factual, healthy justice. Sports on the court, on the field, do teach us ethics. Even Camus said that. J. P. Tokoto was trying his hardest, he was not giving up, he was taking his best shot. If you're mad at him for missing, you're on the wrongest side of events.
But what's worse is if you had already gone home, or turned off the television, by then. The UNC athletic program is in a low place. It's in a low place because of turnovers, as Brice Johnson put it: that is, not taking care of the basketball, metaphorically speaking, in an environment when not enough concerned onlookers are looking on and demanding better rectitude, better team control. You may deplore the illiteracy, lament the loss of Hairston, or excoriate the NCAA. But you can't leave the building. If you do, you're part of what's beating up on North Carolina, as Roy Williams said. You're part of abuse by neglect. Take care of the basketball.
The Tar Heels travel to Syracuse for a Saturday noon game against the undefeated, second-ranked Orange, who are the new bullies in the ACC. Although UNC made a name for itself in November and December by toppling some highly-ranked giants, that seems like a long time ago now, and it's extremely unlikely that they'll win. The Orange play Jim Boeheim's notorious zone defense, and Carolina did poorly against Miami's lesser version of it yesterday. But if the improbable should happen and UNC should beat Syracuse, Tar Heels everywhere must not forget that while everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket, that doesn't mean it is better.