When I was a little kid, my mom turned to me one night and told me I was going to play for Carolina someday.
“You know, Jay, I believe that you’re going to be a Tar Heel,” she said, as we were watching a game on TV. “You’ll be wearing that jersey and you will be playing for that man right there, Roy Williams. I can already see you out there playing in that jersey, boy.”
At the time, I was just like, “O.K., mom,” not really believing in what she was saying.
But if there’s one thing that everyone close to me knows about me, it’s that I’m a momma’s boy. (Proud of it, too!) And something I believe with all my heart is that I can always trust my mom when she tells me something, so I never really forgot that moment. I didn’t necessarily believe that what she said would come true, but I didn’t completely ignore it either. I always just kind of remembered that conversation and let it drive me toward what she already knew was in my future.
Courtesy of Joel Berry II
So, fast-forward a decade or so and, of course … my mom was right.
My journey at Chapel Hill turned out to be an amazing four years that included two ACC titles, two trips to the Final Four, and a national championship. In addition, I accomplished a feat not matched by many when I passed Michael Jordan (also known as the GOAT) on the all-time UNC scoring list.
Most everyone will remember me for the accomplishments I just mentioned, but they don’t know about the road I had to take to become the player who achieved those things; because despite how much my mom believed that Chapel Hill was the place for me, during my first year I struggled to share the same vision.
Early on, being in Chapel Hill without my family was really tough. At one point during my freshman year, I remember actually feeling like playing at Carolina was not for me.
We were playing an early-season game down in the Bahamas against Butler and it seemed like I couldn’t get anything right at the time. I had come into the program as a five-star recruit and, for whatever reason, I was feeling like I had never picked up a basketball before. I made a bad turnover and I immediately knew I was coming out of the game.
My head dropped. I ran over and just flopped myself on the bench.
I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself and, without intending to, I just started to cry. I put my face between my hands because I didn’t want anyone to know how overwhelmed I was, and all of a sudden I felt Coach Williams grab me by the arms and say, “Look at me, son. Look at me.”
It was hard to look at Coach because I felt like I had let him down.
I had come into the program wanting to be a big-time player for myself and for him. I didn’t want my coach, who trusted in me and believed in me, to see me crying; however, I eventually just accepted it and looked at him with tears rolling down my face.
He said to me, “Son, what can I do to help you to just go out there and be a player — to be the player that I know you can be?” At the time, I didn’t have a reasonable answer, so I just said to him, “Coach it’s not you, It’s me. I have to do better.” Once I said that, he just tapped me on my head and went back to coaching.
Shortly after, I ended up getting injured, and during that time I had a chance to actually sit back and tell myself to stop blaming the coaches for how I was playing and just do what I needed to do in order to be the player that I wanted to be for this program.
After taking that advice from myself, it was like I all of a sudden remembered how to play at the high level that I was capable of.
While I was hurt, I worked hard with our strength and conditioning coach, Jonas Sahratian, and spent a lot of time watching and learning and studying the game.
I had hit a low point, yes, but I knew that I was going to bounce back. When I returned from that injury, everything was different for me.Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune
Coach Williams has definitely been one of the biggest influences and best mentors I have ever known, but he was certainly not the only person who helped me to get through the tough times early on and develop as a player and as a person during my time at UNC.
Carolina has seen so many great leaders during my time there, but the one who had the most influence during my earlier years was Marcus Paige. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever been around, and from the moment I set foot in Chapel Hill, he went out of his way to help me learn, adapt and improve.
Marcus always kept a positive vibe no matter the circumstance. He never got on me or made me feel bad when I made a mistake; instead, he always just tried to help me recognize the mistakes I had made and what I could do the next time to avoid them.
Marcus showed me what it truly means to be a leader on and off the court, and for that I can’t thank him enough. My appreciation is unending for all he has done to help me become not only the player that I wanted to be, but also the leader that I needed to be.
I know that when people ask about the most memorable moment from your college career, you’re supposed to say that there are too many great ones to choose from, and that to pick just one would be nearly impossible.
But in my case there is actually one that I can say I will remember the most.
April 3, 2017, Phoenix, Arizona. We were playing a one-loss Gonzaga team that a lot of people (other than us) had thought was destined for the national title. It was a hard-fought game all the way through, but with 7.2 seconds left, something happened that I will never forget.
I was standing on the foul line getting ready to shoot some free throws, tears rolling down face.
We were up by five points, and I knew in my heart that we were about to win the national championship. It was definitely one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced.
So, as I stepped up to shoot, all teary-eyed, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that one of the refs was approaching me. I had no clue what he was about to say, so I made sure that I kept my mind on preparing to make the free throws and finishing out the game.
When he got to me, the ref said, “Your coach wanted me to ask you if you needed a timeout.” And as I was standing there, a part of me wanted to just tough it out and shoot the free throws right there, but I was losing it on national television. I was having a tough time keeping my composure.
Coach was just being who he is; always putting others before himself. In that crazy moment when everyone was so emotional, he was just thinking about me, and what he knew was best for me in that moment.
I thought for a second and then turned to the ref and said, “Yes, sir. I need a timeout.”Tom Pennington/Getty Images
What’s funny is that the timeout didn’t help me get myself together one bit. I went back to shoot the free throws and my eyes were still full of tears. It was so bad that I couldn’t even see the rim. I mean, if you haven’t had that happen to you, I’m going to tell you right now: It’s pretty tough.
Somehow I managed to get it together and make the second shot. A few moments later, I was covered in confetti and celebrating a national title.
While crying on national TV isn’t always the best look, thinking back, I wouldn’t change a single thing about that moment, because in a lot of ways, I feel like it sums up what is so special about UNC basketball — the immeasurable love that the players and coaches have for Carolina and for each other.
The other biggest support system that I had during my time in Chapel Hill was, of course, Tar Heel Nation.
I couldn’t forget you all.
I never knew why my mom loved Carolina basketball so much when I was a little kid. I mean, we lived in Apopka, Florida, not too far from Orlando, so she could have rooted for any school in my home state.
Instead, it was all Carolina.
Whether it was the colors or something else, her loyalty was with Carolina. From even before middle school, she and I would sit on the couch together in our living room and watch Carolina play. We never missed a game, unless I had a game of my own. And as we watched those games, my mom would never miss an opportunity to yell at the TV.
My dad couldn’t tolerate watching the games with my mom and I. He would say to my mom, “Kat, why are you screaming at the TV like that? You’re not playing in the game.”
But that didn’t stop my momma at all. She kept right on.
My mom’s favorite player was Sean May — also known as Big Baby May — and she loved Big May to death. What she admired most about him was not his athleticism, but instead how he used his body while he played. To this day, I can still hear her in my head saying, “Uh-huh, that’s how you use your body to get them up off of you. Keep doing it to ’em.”
I’m telling you, she would yell at him like he was one of her own kids.
As for me, I loved every bit of what my mom would do during games, and I would be right there beside her getting all fired up. I truly believe that’s where I get my competitive nature from — my fire and my drive.
So as my Carolina-obsessed mom in small-town Florida showed me back in the day, it’s so much more than just the players who put on that uniform and the coaches who stand on the sidelines — Carolina fans are a Carolina family.
David J. Phillip/AP Photo
There are thousands and thousands of Tar Heel fans all over the country, and as a player, no matter where I go, I am very aware of that love.
There is not a day that goes by where I take for granted the love and loyalty that the fans have for us.
And to me, what really shows the depth of our fans’ support is how everyone acts when things don’t go our way. Anyone can support a team when everything is going well, but you find out who the true fans are during the times when things aren’t so great.
I have come to see how blessed we really are that our fans truly love Carolina basketball day in and day out. They’re there to share in the good times, but they’re there just as quick to pick us up when things don’t go how we had hoped.
I remember my sophomore year after that brutal last-second loss to Villanova in the national title game, that was one of the hardest times for me and my teammates. I can still recall how tough it was having to feel that confetti fall over me as I made my way into the locker room, and how heartbroken all of my teammates were, especially the seniors who had just played their last game.
There was also the feeling of being shocked by how the game had ended. We were so miserable that when Michael Jordan walked into the locker room to talk to us, not one person in there moved a muscle to look up.
Even saying that sounds crazy, but that’s how terrible we felt — not even Michael Jordan could take that pain away from us.
When we got back to Chapel Hill that next day, though, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that we had just lost a title game. Our fans welcomed us back with open arms. And fans from all over the country were sending their thoughts and congratulating us and making sure that we knew that, even though we hadn’t won it all, they still appreciated the incredible season we’d had.
That is real love.
Having that feeling and knowing that everyone had our backs during a time like that was incredible. I can only hope that we were able to make up for it by going back out there the year after and getting redemption.
Mark Humphrey/AP Photo
Our fans continue to amaze me, and they did it again in Charlotte this year during my final game against Texas A&M.
That game didn’t turn out like anything we had hoped for, and to end our season in that fashion was tough on all of us. For me, knowing that performance would be the way my Tar Heel career would end was devastating.
The whole second half, we couldn’t buy a shot. And by the time we got to about the seven-minute mark, it was obvious that we just couldn’t get anything going at all. It became a little hard to maintain focus and keep my head in the game, as I knew that it was going to be the last time I would play in that Carolina jersey.
When Coach took me out of the game with about a minute and a half left, I found myself really struggling to keep my composure. I never want to show anyone that I’m down, that’s just who I am. But all of a sudden, I heard this loud noise, and it just kept getting louder and louder and when I happened to catch a glimpse of the stands, everybody in the crowd started standing up and clapping.
It was truly special to see, because the fans understood how much I cared about not just the basketball program, but for Carolina as a whole.
And our fans did the same for my boy, Theo Pinson, which was just as special because he, too, feels the same as I do about Carolina.
That last game will be something I’ll always remember. Just seeing and hearing that ovation and feeling that love and knowing that maybe I left a legacy here at Carolina that people were thankful for and will remember … it was just beyond special.
So with that being said, I applaud you all right back. We’re all in this together, and I am so proud to have played for you during my time at Carolina. I could not be more appreciative and thankful.
Like my mom said, I was truly meant to be a Tar Heel, and it really has been a dream come true for me.
Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune
One last thing, though: This is not goodbye.
Not even close!
Some of you may have seen that I recently proposed to my fiancée, Kelsey Porter, right at center court in the Dean Dome. She’s another proud Tar Heel. She loves this place — our school, the tradition — and the people here just as I do.
We might take a look at some places here in Chapel Hill as potential wedding locations, and we are always talking about the things that we might do when we come back to visit in the coming years. Because….
We will be back.
I can promise you right now that I’m always going to be a part of this program and do all that I can to help us continue our tradition of excellence and to show my appreciation for all that UNC has meant to me.
I mean, what can I say? Mom was so right.
Thank you all for being so great to me over the past four years.
See you soon, and … Go Heels!