I first met Roy Williams when I was 14. Well, I shouldn’t really say I met him — all we did was shake hands and pose for a picture together at a Tar Heels basketball camp. To me at 14, Coach Williams was this larger-than-life guy to me. I only knew him from TV. And I had this one specific image of him — wearing his blue blazer during the 2009 Final Four, looking so serious and pacing the sidelines. The man was all business. So professional. I was a 10-year-old going crazy in front of the TV at home.
Instagram/@jjacks44I remember rooting for that team — Ty Lawson, Danny Green, Tyler Zeller and everybody else — and when the Tar Heels won the national championship, it was glorious.
So to be 14 and playing on the same court that those guys had played on — and to see Roy Williams in real life — was pretty surreal. During the camp, I naively believed that Coach Williams would notice me out of the crowd of hundreds of kids. Maybe he’d pull me aside to chat one day, or single me out in a drill for having made a nice play. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only camper who thought that.) But that’s not how it went down for me. I never really got to have an actual conversation with Coach Williams, but I did get to observe him when he was giving speeches and running us through drills. And I left camp with a new impression of him: He just seemed to love coaching. He was smiling all the time. He was so good-natured.
I remember thinking: Man, what a nice guy.
I was one of three freshman at UNC in 2014. Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and I arrived in Chapel Hill with plenty of buzz. We were ranked as one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. Each of us was a McDonald’s All-American, and we had all won a bunch of individual awards in high school. And there we were, freshmen at North Carolina, playing for Coach Williams — the nicest guy in the world.
But Joel, Theo and I had overlooked one simple thing.
We didn’t really know Coach Williams yet.
But we saw another side of him my freshman year. At a practice in early January 2015, one day after we had lost 71-70 to Notre Dame in our second ACC game, Coach was fired up. He was yelling at us, imploring us to push as hard as we could.
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Coach blew his whistle — and I’ll never forget what happened next. He was standing there with his hands on his hips. We all turned to him, expecting him to call out names for a scrimmage or something. But instead, in front of the entire team he pointed at us. Me, Joel and Theo. The freshmen.
It got real quiet.
And then he asked if we wanted to go home.
Not like go home as in leave practice early and head back to the dorm.
Like home home.
Then he asked us again.
“I’ll send you guys back home right now,” he said.
Everyone was staring at us. I could feel it. I looked down at my feet, hoping not to catch anyone’s eye. I wanted it all to end.
But Coach wasn’t done.
“You don’t believe me?”
I glanced up. I can still see the look on his face. It was piercing.
“It doesn’t matter to me. It’s your choice. You can either work harder or go home.”
I tried to act cool. But it hit me right in my gut. Coach blew his whistle, and pointed to the end line. More running.
I guess everyone has a Welcome to College moment.
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Before practice ended, I remember looking up at the ACC title banners hanging from the rafters of the Dean Smith Center. Up at the NCAA championship banners. Up at the beautiful blue and white. At the banner with the number 23 on it.
This school, this coach, this court — the same one I first played on when I was 14 — there was a legacy at North Carolina that was way bigger than us — bigger than a few knucklehead freshmen who had won some high school awards.
And that’s when I realized something that was eye-opening: I needed UNC way more than UNC needed me.
I’m not sure that just a nice coach could have made me see things that way.
I was homeschooled for most of my childhood. People are always surprised to find that out. From the fourth grade through high school. And I loved it. It was such a good experience.
But right now, I know what you’re thinking. I hear it all the time.
Homeschoolers … they’re quiet … they’re weird … they’re antisocial … they’re just … different.
It’s true that every home-school program is a little different. And every homeschooler is different, too. But there are a couple of stereotypes that I gotta debunk — like the assumption that we barely go to school, or that we get to do our schoolwork in pajamas, or that we have all the time in the world for just chilling or playing video games.
In high school a normal day for me started at 6 a.m., when I’d wake up for basketball practice. (Yep, homeschoolers have our own teams.) I would go to our local gym and play with a good amount of other homeschoolers. Practice would go from 7–9 a.m., after which I’d shower and have some breakfast at home. Then I’d head over to a home-school co-op — a makeshift classroom, usually in a church. I’d sit in class with 10 or so other kids of different ages. If the teacher gave us homework, we’d have to get it done by the next class period. From this, I learned how to work with classmates of all different ages, each of whom had their own set of skills and experiences. Because of that environment, I got pretty good at doing assignments quickly, in a short amount of time, which has really helped in college.
But other than those differences, school for me usually ended around the same time that the public schools let out. And I did what most kids did after school — hung with my friends, played basketball, watched TV, that kind of stuff.
One thing that made it a little difficult, though, was how often my family had to move. For as long as I can remember, my dad has worked as a commodities trader, which required our family to move a lot. I was born in Texas, but when I was really young, we moved to Oklahoma. Then to Ohio. Then back to Texas. Just recently my parents moved again — hopefully their last stop for a while. For me and my younger brother and two younger sisters, it sort of felt like we could never get settled. And it’s one of the reasons we were homeschooled — my parents saw it as the best way to maintain the consistency of our educations. Which is why I valued — and still value — the close relationships I have with my friends and family. When you move around a bunch, you need a tight inner circle of people you can rely on. By the grace of God, I’m lucky to have that.
A lot of people might be wondering how a homeschooler got recruited to a program like UNC, but what I went through really wasn’t that different from what anybody else experiences. I wouldn’t say that I was good at basketball until probably the seventh or eighth grade, which is when I started to grow a bit taller. That’s when D-I schools started to take notice. In high school, I got some exposure playing for a team in Texas called the Homeschool Christian Youth Association. I’m telling you, there are entire leagues just for homeschoolers … and we’re pretty good.
Throughout my recruitment, the word home kept popping into my head. It was a word that a lot of coaches used to describe their programs. “It feels like home,” they’d say to me and my parents.
When Coach Williams visited me and my parents, I talked with him about the things that were important to me: family, relationships and faith. I was always a bit shy when I was growing up. I always had a small circle of friends. I told Coach that I wasn’t a social butterfly, that I was confident but naturally a bit quiet. I told him that I wanted to put my trust in a program and a coach who would understood me for who I was and what I valued.
I think Coach understood all that from the get-go. He wanted to make me feel welcome and accepted for who I was: a humble homeschooler who liked to play a little basketball. And in my time here at UNC, I’ve realized that that’s just who Coach is. He was in my corner from Day One. And I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
He made me feel like North Carolina was everything I had ever dreamed of. He convinced me it would be like a home.
He wasn’t wrong.
Let’s talk about last year’s NCAA championship game for a second. I’d rather not, but I need to. What happened in that game is still fresh in my mind — and in the minds of every other player who was there. The disbelief. The sadness. The anger. Those emotions have been with all of us since last spring.
People say it was one of the most memorable games they’d ever seen. And you know what? I agree.
But probably not for the same reasons.
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For us, that game — that loss — was so important … because it wasn’t just any old loss. If you play a sport, you win games and you lose games. And then you move on. But that loss — losing in that way, in the final game, right after Marcus’s game-tying three — is burned into us. I hope that it’s toughened us up. I think it has. And I know this for sure: It’s a daily reminder that Tar Heel Nation has unfinished business. We want a championship.
And while we continue to work toward our ultimate goal of winning a national title, this group of guys want to make our families and classmates and this university proud. Personally, I play to glorify God. I write message in Sharpie on my shoes — and also on my Instagram and Twitter accounts. I’m truly defined by my savior. And I’m so grateful to my parents who introduced me to my faith because I believe it’s kept me grounded and shown me what’s really important in life.
I also play for someone special. Her name is Brooke Copeland, and if she can put up with me a little bit longer, I hope we will get married one day. We’ve been together for a couple of years now, and I’ve been blessed by God to have her in my life. She’s an incredible person — she’s set to graduate from Florida a year early! — and she’s an amazing basketball player, too. She’s taught me the importance of humility and has made me realize how meaningful it is to be a good friend. She’s also moved me closer to God.
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And to think, all those years ago I was just a kid trying to get Coach’s attention at a basketball camp. Heck, I didn’t really know much back then, including who Coach Williams really was. Just because I had played well in high school didn’t mean as much as I thought it meant to Coach. But I feel like I’ve learned a lot since then. What mattered to him was the work. The effort. The dedication. The sacrifice. He made me realize how badly I wanted to be a Tar Heel. He made me realize how special it was to be a student at North Carolina.