I was beat.
It was only my first day of practice.
I didn’t think it’d be that tough. I ran track and played basketball in high school. So my first practice at North Carolina was going to be just fine, right?
The practice started off easily enough, just learning Coach Williams’ system. Then we shifted to conditioning drills, and I realized just how wrong I was.
Even though I was a two-sport athlete, I never did much conditioning, aside from playing pickup with my friends every now and again. So, needless to say, I didn’t do very well in that first drill. In fact, it was the worst I’ve ever done at anything related to sports.
I called my dad that night and told him I didn’t think I could do it. I wanted to come home.
“You have to keep going,” he said. “You can’t give up, and you can’t come home. I didn’t raise a quitter.”
I know, it sounds kind of harsh. But trust me, it was just a little tough love. And it was nothing compared to coach.
It’s hard to get national exposure when you’re playing in a small town like Cordova, S.C. I averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per game during my senior year, but I didn’t know if anyone noticed.
Coach Williams did. He came to my school senior year and sat down with me and my dad. He said he wanted me to play for him. I didn’t need to hear anything else. But man, I really had no idea what I was in for.
After one of the first practices of my freshman year, I was still struggling, so coach sat me down and said he was going to be really hard on me.
“I see a lot of potential in you,” he said. “But I’m going to make sure you work for it.”
He wasn’t joking. All day, every day, for four years straight, he’d yell at me, hound me, tell me how legends like Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough would have done it better. Nothing was ever good enough for him because he knew I wasn’t even close to tapping my potential. I never took it personally, though. I knew he was just trying to make me the best I could possibly be.
I started to find a groove around my junior year. Midway through that season, I became a starter and never looked back. Still, even though I averaged almost 13 points and eight rebounds per game, there were a lot of questions surrounding me before I began my senior season. Would I put in the work? Would I be consistent? I heard all of them. Here’s the thing about me, though: I don’t tell people when I’m going to the gym. I just go.
And on January 4, 2016, all of those questions were answered, and all of coach’s yelling and screaming finally paid off. That night, playing against Florida State, something just clicked. Thirty-nine points. Twenty-three rebounds. It summed up everything that makes me who I am, and everything I worked for.
Coach called it one of the best performances he’d ever seen.
It’s definitely going to be weird not having to look over my shoulder every three seconds and having him in my ear constantly. Then again, he’ll probably figure out a way to get in touch and yell at me no matter where I am.
Because of my teammates and the entire UNC community, I’m going to play in the NBA. And because of coach, I’m going to enter the league as a man.
Playing at North Carolina was always my dream, but these past four years have been beyond anything I could have imagined. The Final Four run, beating Duke, winning the ACC title and tournament, even having Coach Williams screaming at me every day.
I mean, I’m blessed to have just played a game in the Dean Smith Center. The first time you run out of the tunnel, or right before the ball is tipped, 22,000 people standing, screaming, cheering for you — it’s surreal. And that’s just for your everyday game. When we play Duke, it’s deafening. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, especially if you get a win.
It’s funny, it was only four years ago, but I realize now that I was really more of a child when I first arrived on campus. I didn’t really say anything to anybody or ever open up. In fact, I didn’t even talk to my teammates at all the first time we met. They probably thought I hated them, but I was just shy.
It would have been easy to not include me, but instead they welcomed me with open arms and brought me out of my shell. You’ve probably heard a lot of players say that their teammates are family. Trust me, it’s not just a line.
Marcus Paige isn’t just my friend, he’s my brother. We ate together, lived together, went through so many ups and downs together in our four years at school. Sure, we get on each other’s nerves (like when he treats me like a little brother, even though he’s the small one), but that’s just what brothers do. I love him to death. Marcus, thank you so much for some of the best memories of my life, on and off the court.
That’ll be the toughest adjustment for me next year in the NBA. Not the faster pace of the game, not the 82-game schedule, but being on my own again without my family.
I’m going to be a rookie, and I know I’m going to be treated like one. My new teammates will be five, six, maybe even 10-year veterans. They don’t have to hang out with me. So it’ll be on me to carve out a new life for myself and meet new people. But wherever I am, I know that I’ll always have a family in Chapel Hill, thanks to all the players, coaches, teachers and students who made the past four years unforgettable. I might wear a different uniform, but I’m always going to be a Tar Heel.