CHAPEL HILL — Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland forged a friendship that began before they came to North Carolina, one that grew stronger after they arrived.
I look at Leslie as my brother, Strickland said last week.
They have been classmates and as part of the same recruiting class began their careers with the Tar Heels in 2009. They have been roommates. And now they are a pair of upperclassmen who are assuming leadership roles while attempting to return from identical knee injuries.
McDonald tore the ACL in his right knee during a summer league game in July 2011. Six months later, on Jan. 19, Strickland suffered the same injury during the Tar Heels victory at Virginia Tech.
McDonald, a redshirt junior who has two years of eligibility remaining after sitting out all of last season, and Strickland, a senior, sat next to one another during each of UNCs remaining games. Both players dressed sharply, passing the minutes while they shared a joke, talked basketball or watched Roy Williams coach.
McDonald is farther along now. Eleven months since the injury, he said last week that he has fully recovered. Hes running and dunking again. Doctors have just cleared Strickland to start running, and while his teammates play pick-up games, he spends time doing rehabilitation work.
I was just telling him that hes going to go through some ups and downs, and the first thing he has to do is put in his mindset that hes going to work through it, and give it his all, McDonald said. You know, I told him right then that the surgery isnt the worst pain.
Its getting through the rehab, going through it every day, and going through it hard.
Thats where Strickland is now. Before spending about 15 minutes last week with a group of reporters, he had been in rehab. After he finished talking, Strickland went back for more rehab.
Strickland still cant do much. He spends his rehab sessions lifting weights, squatting and performing leg exercises in a pool.
Six months ago, the routine was the same for McDonald. Sometimes he felt down, he said. He admitted that he asked himself the question: Why me? He had been playing well in the summer before the injury. He described it as a freak thing.
But things happen, McDonald said. And Im just lucky that this is just a small thing. Because theres people out there that have way, way worse injuries than I do. And theyve overcome them.
McDonald and Strickland relied on each other before their injuries. They entered college as similar players who played similar positions, a pair of guards who shared both friendship and great expectations.
They followed a similar path during their first two seasons at UNC first as bit players during their freshmen seasons, and then as more dependable role players in their second year. Then came the knee injuries.
The loss of McDonald left the Tar Heels without their most dependable and proven perimeter shooter, and it was a void that UNC never filled last season. The loss of Strickland left UNC without its most reliable perimeter defender, and without an experienced backup point guard a loss that became magnified after Kendall Marshall suffered a wrist injury in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Now both players find themselves in the similar but somewhat strange position of assuming leadership roles while they attempt to rediscover the confidence they possessed before their injuries. McDonald, whose pregame dance routines before home games have become something of a Smith Center tradition, proclaimed last week that his confidence is back.
Hes trying to make sure that Stricklands keeps his confidence.
He gave me a lot of advice, Strickland said of McDonald. You know, obviously, he went through the same thing, and he just told me to keep my head [up] Im going to struggle with being frustrated, not being able to play and stuff like that.
McDonald and Strickland were close before their injuries and, if anything, sharing the same obstacle has made them closer. Reggie Bullock, a rising junior guard, suffered a similar injury in March 2011 when he tore the meniscus in his left knee.
The three of them have formed a kind of dubious club, said P.J. Hairston, the rising sophomore guard.
Leslie, Reggie and Dexter always kind of joke around, Hairston said. ...They kind of talk about each others knees all the time. So its kind of a funny thing. And Im always the awkward one around, because I never hurt my knees. So I just knock on wood every time Im around them.
Hairston, who is rooming during summer school with McDonald, said he and the rest of the Tar Heels underclassmen will look toward McDonald and Strickland for leadership. Hairston struggled with his outside shooting during his freshman season, and McDonald has already told him that cant happen this season.
Neither, Strickland said, can a repeat of the Heels 2009-10 season. Strickland and McDonald were freshmen then, and the Tar Heels had lost the nucleus that led them to the 2009 national championship. There was no Ty Lawson or Tyler Hansbrough, no Danny Green or Wayne Ellington.
Without those four, the Tar Heels slogged through a 20-17 season that ended in the NIT.
I feel like we had no team chemistry on the team, Strickland said. You know, guys didnt hang out with each other.
The Heels again have lost their top four players. But McDonald and Strickland, the final two remaining members of their five-man recruiting class, are confident things will be different this time.