McAdoo following familiar footsteps to UNC

Staff WriterJune 26, 2011 

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CORRECTION

A headline on the front page of Sports on Sunday incorrectly characterized the family relationship between incoming UNC basketball recruit James Michael McAdoo and former UNC star and NBA Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo. Bob McAdoo is second cousin to James Michael McAdoo's father. Captions:

****** First in a series about the incoming basketball recruiting classes at the Big Four schools.

Norfolk Christian's coaches were rising off the bench last February, preparing to congratulate Cape Henry on winning the conference championship. But as the clock ticked down, senior James Michael McAdoo stole a deflected pass, dribbled to the top of the key, and released a tying 3-pointer that sent the game to overtime - and to an eight-point Ambassadors victory.

"The year before, I don't think he would have made that shot - because I don't think he would have wanted the ball in his hands," McAdoo's dad, Ronnie, said earlier this month. "But he's more mature, more confident ... and that's one of the reasons we're glad he chose not to leave for North Carolina a year early. Because now he is more prepared to help (the Tar Heels) as a player, and he's more prepared for college as a person, too."

It was a year ago that James Michael, whose father is second-cousin to former UNC All-American and NBA Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, seriously considered graduating after his junior season, and moving on to Chapel Hill to help bolster the Tar Heels' thin frontcourt. Playing for a high school that had been known more for cheerleading championships than basketball titles before he arrived, the then-17 year old wondered if he had outgrown his competition, and needed a new challenge.

But as he and his family gave a News & Observer reporter and photographer a tour around his favorite Tidewater hangouts earlier this month - the rec center where he first played youth-league basketball, the barber shop where he goes twice a month to keep his afro-fade just so, the cheesesteak shop in Virginia Beach where he often stops off before going tubing with friends on Linkhorn Bay - it was easy to see why it was so important that he chose to stay home for one more year.

"I would have missed a lot of things ... and I would have missed some growing up," said the 6-foot-8, 220-pound James Michael McAdoo, who finally moved to Chapel Hill two weeks ago to take summer school classes and play pick-up ball with his fellow incoming freshmen. "This year has boosted my confidence a lot - mentally, physically, spiritually. If I would have gone down there (to UNC) a year ago, I would have gotten pulled in a lot of different ways. Now, I'm comfortable with my game and who I am, on the court and off the court."

Early talent

Since he was a 5-year-old pee wee player - slightly nervous, he remembers, walking into the old rubber-floored Huntersville Rec Center, because so many people would be watching him play - McAdoo has rarely been uncomfortable with a basketball in his hands. It was just a matter of growing into his genetic gifts.

"Even at 5, he was taller than most kids," said Greg Johnston, who coached McAdoo on the Pacers rec league team. "But at 7, he was head and shoulders above all the other kids, and it never failed: every game, the parents (on the other team) would complain to the refs to check his ID card ... because they couldn't believe he was in the right age group."

Basketball was an inevitable passion.

His parents, Ronnie and Janet, met when they were both power forwards at Old Dominion in the late 1970s and early '80s. At 6 feet 6, Ronnie McAdoo used his muscle to move foes around the lane. Janet, at 6-5, was the No. 1 center in the country - and played on the Monarchs' Final Four team her freshman season.

James Michael McAdoo's older sister Kelsey also carried on the family tradition, playing at Charlotte.

"I never felt any pressure to play basketball, and I played other sports - baseball, football, soccer," said McAdoo, who still holds a Norfolk Christian record for interceptions, although he stopped playing football several years ago. "But I just figured out that basketball was my best."

He started playing on the Norfolk Christian varsity team as an eighth-grader. But Ronnie, an assistant coach there, didn't recognize his son's full potential until McAdoo made the Norfolk Express AAU squad as a 13-year-old.

"You've got to understand that Norfolk Christian at that time was not known for basketball," Ronnie McAdoo said. "The coach on that AAU team was a friend, so I asked him to give him a tryout, and when he cut him to do so kindly. ... After that tryout, the coach came up to me and said, 'Cut him? Are you serious? He's going to start for me!' And that's when I realized that this kid was better than I thought he was."

As James Michael McAdoo's skills grew, so did the attention around him. Division I coaches flocked to see him play. At 16, he became the youngest player ever to win the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year award.

"That was the first big one for me," Janet McAdoo said. "That's when I went 'Whoa,' - and as a parent, I was worried for him. Winning that award puts a lot of pressure and expectations on someone so young."

His parents worked to keep him grounded during the recruiting process - emphasizing schoolwork, reminding him to take out the trash, asking him to cull his list of potential schools to 10 early-on.

Despite his last name - and the fact that his dad grew up a UNC fan in Mebane - McAdoo wasn't a lock to commit to the Tar Heels. He still had trips planned to Virginia and Duke when he attended Carolina's "Celebration of a Century" alumni game in 2009. But after watching legendary point guard Phil Ford flash four fingers as he brought the ball down the court, and cheering as Sean May and Raymond Felton - who he used to play on PlayStation 2 - took the floor, his decision was made.

Robert "Doc" Butler, his barber and confidant at Kuttin' Edges, remembers McAdoo coming back and telling him the news.

"I was surprised, because I knew he had another couple of trips planned ... but he just said it felt right," Butler said, smiling. "He made me a fan of high school basketball, when I hadn't been one before - and not just because of how he played, but because of how he is as a person. That day, I became a UNC fan, too ... and I can't wait to watch him on TV and say, 'I'm the one that makes him look good.' "

Uncertainty

Even after his verbal commitment, though, it wasn't clear how quickly McAdoo would become a Tar Heel.

Last summer, after David and Travis Wear suddenly opted to transfer from UNC, leaving the Tar Heels with only two returning big men and one transfer forward, McAdoo approached his parents, and then the Carolina coaching staff. What about the possibility of finishing high school with a summer school class, and going to college a year early, he asked?

UNC coach Roy Williams cautioned that it would mean missing so many things high school seniors enjoy: prom, friends, and in McAdoo's case, the McDonald's All-American Game.

Still, Janet and Ronnie McAdoo said, they were convinced their son had made up his mind to head to Chapel Hill early when he left on a 12-day mission trip to Managua, Nicaragua, last June. There, among other things, he helped put new plastic on the roofs of corrugated metal dwellings in a former dump, and delivered goods to orphanages - sometimes in a Tar Heels T-shirt.

Helping others was the best part of the trip, McAdoo said. But with no cell phone reception, he also had plenty of quiet time to think and pray.

"I'd done a lot of things," McAdoo said, including winning state championships and being named a Parade All-America and a Gatorade All-America. "And I had to think about whether there was anything left for me to accomplish here (in high school). And I just decided that God was not finished yet with me at home, or at Norfolk Christian. And I knew I wanted to stay."

Working hard

At peace with his decision - one, he said, that Williams supported - McAdoo went to work enjoying his senior season, and improving his game.

Off the court, he served as the Norfolk Christian football team's chaplain. He attended a Sadie Hawkins dance and prom. He went on his senior trip, and signed almost everything that fans sent to his mom at school.

When not on the court or studying, he could often be found at nearby Virginia Beach, riding the waves on an inner tube on a back of a friend's boat (after stopping off for the "best cheese steak in town" at Philadelphia Cold Cuts.)

He and his family also rekindled their relationship with cousin Bob McAdoo, who has expressed his excitement at watching his nephew play at his alma mater.

And just recently, the five-star recruit also decided he wanted to use "James Michael" instead of "James" to commemorate those he was named for: James and Michael McPherson, close friends of his father who died in a car accident on U.S. 58 near South Hill in 1979.

It was another example this year, Janet McAdoo noted, of her son showing his growth.

On the court, meanwhile, McAdoo hit the weight room with his dad, putting on an extra 20 pounds that helped him become co-MVP last month of the McDonald's High School All-American game.

During the season, he watched the Tar Heels win close games by making clutch shots, he did the same thing - establishing his offensive authority and becoming more of a go-to guy when his Ambassadors needed him, including during the TCIS title game.

"I've always told him, 'James, one of the things I want to see from you ... is to know it's OK to turn to the coach and say, 'Give me the basketball,' " Ronnie McAdoo said. "And I saw that in him this year ... and I'm not sure he'd have that right now if he had made the other choice (to go to UNC a year early)."

By waiting a season, the bigger, more confident McAdoo will join a deeper, more confident UNC team that is expected to open 2011-12 with the No. 1 ranking, and as a Final Four favorite. He said he looks forward to the challenge of trying to prove himself while backing up starters Tyler Zeller and John Henson, while improving his game every day.

"A year ago, I don't know if I was ready,'' he said. "Now, I know that I am."

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944.

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