A Seat at the Table


Dear Tar Heels,

Remember last year’s Final Four week?

It was the best week of our lives.

I remember getting off the plane in Houston, and seeing our bus — Carolina blue, ready to take us to our team hotel. We all loaded on, and for a minute we just sat there in silence. For a minute there, our coaches had nothing to worry about.

Then, out of nowhere … Brice Johnson whips out a Beats Pill. And just like that, “Hey Ya!” is blasting. A huge dance party pops off, with the players, the managers, everyone going crazy and just rambling around the bus. Some of the coaches and trainers looked back at us for a second, like, What are they doing? This, again? (We may have gotten out of hand a lot.) But then I saw Coach Williams with the biggest grin on his face, cracking up. Theo Pinson, by far the wildest guy on our team, was right in the middle of it, leading the chaos.

Throughout the season, that was our thing — we’d dance. We’d crank it up and just let go of all our anxiety. After big wins, like the regular season win over Duke at Cameron, we’d mosh in the locker room. Coach, who’s had all these knee operations and is pretty beat up at this point, he was moshing too — he was playing it off like his knee wasn’t killing him, but we all knew it was. We were about five minutes deep in the mosh (we’d go hard) when I saw Coach Williams limp off, as if we wouldn’t notice he wasn’t throwing down anymore. (We noticed.)

Grant Halverson/Getty Images Sport

But that’s Coach — he gets so happy for our successes, and he cares so much about us, that he doesn’t care about anything else — not even how bad he’s hurting. Well, for a couple of minutes, anyway.

And it was moments like those when I’d think: This is Carolina.

At UNC, you’re constantly surrounded by greatness. For instance, right after I got to campus I met Dean Smith. And I was freaking out like, Did I just meet Dean Smith? This was the guy yelling at Jordan in all those videos you binged growing up. This was the guy who taught Coach Williams everything he knows, and who convinced him to come home so he could pass the torch to him. This was DEAN SMITH. This was history.

But nothing prepares you for how much UNC shows out at the Final Four.

That’s when you realize that you’re not just playing for yourself — you’re playing for this fraternity of former players and coaches that’s unlike any other in the country. I remember landing in Houston and hearing right away about how the alumni guest list was filling up. I believe we had 51 or 52 former players show up, including Harrison Barnes, Bobby Frasor, Tyler Hansbrough, Antawn Jamison and Kendall Marshall. Vince Carter, my favorite player of all time, was there, too. I’m lucky I didn’t see him in the stands — I don’t know what I would have done.

Oh, and Michael.

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

This is Carolina.

I always think about, if we had won the ’ship last year … man. We could have hosted the greatest Tar Heel party of all time.

But the last 4.7 seconds did not go our way.

If you were on the team last year, you remember that gut-wrenching feeling. After I made the shot to tie it up, I was 99% sure we were going to win — we had rallied from down 10, and you know Villanova wasn’t trying to see us in OT. We were so close to having a seat at the table with other Tar Heel champions — every day I think about how it could have been.

  1. 1982. 1993. 2005. 2009 … 2016.

Every day I think about how, if I could go back and do it again, there’s no way we would have lost that game. We were so close, as close as you can possibly get to winning. It’s so hard to get to the Final Four, and we were right there.

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

So, to my guys who remember exactly what it was like to have a championship taken away from you in 4.7 seconds….

As you go into this weekend’s games, my biggest piece of advice is this: Don’t ever forget that feeling.

I know it sounds clichéd, but unless you’ve been a player, you don’t understand what a nurturing atmosphere there is at UNC. Last year, when I was really struggling with my shot, I was in Coach Williams’s office a lot. Coach always had my back — when I started at the point guard spot my freshman year, people were complaining that I’d never be as good as Kendall Marshall. (Gonna go ahead and guess the same thing happened with Kendall, who had to replace Ty Lawson.) But Coach’s faith in me never wavered — I knew I could get through any rough patch with his guidance.

This is probably something that anybody who knows Coach well will tell you, but….

Coach repeats his stories. He repeats his stories a lot.

I remember sitting in that office, talking about how to break the slump I was in. My senior year, I was playing off the ball a little more, and I wondered aloud whether I should move back to PG in case that might straighten me out. Coach said, “Marcus, when I was at Kansas, I played three point guards together: Jeff Boschee, Aaron Miles and Kirk Hinrich, and we went 16–0 in the Big 12 and made the Final Four.” I’d heard this story before, as a junior — not a junior in college, but as a junior in high school. I’d probably heard that story 50 times before. But I never said anything.

He also loves this one story about Phil Ford. “Phil Ford was so tough,” Coach Williams would say every time, “that one time, he jumped on a loose ball and smashed his face into the court. He came up with it, though. As he dribbled back down the sideline in front of our bench, he handed a tooth to an assistant.” I was like, Gross! But he loved that story because he said that’s how he wanted his guards to play.

But coach doesn’t tell these stories over and over because he loves the stories. He loves the people in them, and that’s why he busts them out whenever he can. That affection and trust trickles down to his players.

Gerry Broome/AP Images

During this past regular season, I had so many text chains going. We’re all still so close. I had one with the guys in my recruiting class — J.P., Brice and Joel James. And then Brice and I had one with some of the current players — Kennedy Meeks, Justin, Joel Berry and Nate. (When those guys got back to their phones after a game, they’d have like 15 texts each from us that were all like, “GO OFF SON.”) And then I also had one with just Brice, where we usually just talked about life — and about how much better at defense our team was than this year’s team.

And of course I was checking my Snapchat stories nonstop — where I’d get my updates on Theo leading the dance revolution for this year’s team. (I approve. I loved that.)

But whatever it is, and whoever is involved … that’s just the fraternity that UNC creates. We’re locked in. We’ll always have these friendships.

To the guys in Phoenix, you’ll be playing for each other, of course, but also for something much larger too. And before Saturday rolls around, I have a few final thoughts.

First of all: It’s come to my attention that the UNC student union has scheduled the annual Jubilee concert to be held at the same time as our semifinal against Oregon. To the featured performer, I’m begging you — 2 Chainz, you gotta move that set time, man. It’s the Final Four and this is Carolina.

Secondly, to my guys on the team: The level of energy is going to be insane — you’ve been in louder stadiums before, but the intensity of the Final Four is something else. Take a moment to remember, this is Carolina. You’re out there in Jordans, wearing the cleanest uniforms in college basketball, playing for a school that’s synonymous with winning. Something I like to joke about is that, if you stay at UNC long enough, you’ll end up in a Final Four eventually, no matter how good you are. I’m kidding of course, but it’s true. That’s the kind of tradition you’re working with here. You’re playing for the biggest name on the biggest stage.

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

Last, and possibly most important — remember to eat as much as you can. As a guy playing in the D-League right now, let me assure you that no one eats better than UNC. Rendezvous for ribs in Memphis. Ruth’s Chris for steak in any city that has a Ruth’s Chris. You don’t know where life is going to take you next, but you’re never going to eat like you do with Coach Williams.

You know why? This is Carolina.

You want a seat at the table?

Pull up a chair.