CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams called a North Carolina team meeting for 10 on Tuesday night. He needed to tell his players something important.
“I was in my bed,” Dexter Strickland, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said Wednesday. “Got up and went to the gym, and he revealed it.”
Williams, 62, revealed that he needed surgery to remove a tumor from his right kidney. He had the procedure Wednesday morning at UNC Hospitals, where Dr. Eric Wallen led a team of surgeons that conducted a robotic partial nephrectomy.
The surgery “went well and according to plan,” Wallen said in a statement the school released. But now a precarious waiting game begins. Steve Kirschner, as athletic department spokesman, said it was unknown whether Williams’ tumor was malignant.
Doctors might need a week or more to determine that, Kirschner said. Williams might need another surgery, on his left kidney, next month. But Wallen expects him to coach this season.
“I fully expect him to coach this season and for years to come,” Wallen said. “He could miss some practice time if we perform another procedure sometime in October, but he would be able to resume his coaching duties prior to the start of the regular season.”
Before the surgery, Williams had been traveling on recruiting trips, as he usually does around this time of year, while preparing for the start of the season – his 10th as Tar Heels coach. He visited a doctor this month for a physical examination, and that led to the discovery of the tumor.
Signs were there
Before that, Williams had mostly seemed like his normal self, said Steve Robinson, who has worked for nearly 20 seasons as an assistant coach under him. Robinson said Williams had been fiery and jovial in recent weeks. Still, Robinson said, there were signs Williams was ailing, too.
“I think he’s felt a little uncomfortable over the last couple weeks and then felt like something wasn’t quite right,” Robinson said.
Williams told his assistant coaches this week that he’d need surgery.
“It was tough for him, obviously,” said C.B. McGrath, a North Carolina assistant coach who was a point guard for Williams at Kansas. “Once he started talking to us, you have all kinds of thoughts running through your head. It was emotional. But you know, an hour later, we were just going back to work like usual.
“And you do your job and act like nothing’s different for the most part, knowing it is.”
McGrath said Williams told him he hoped to be out of the hospital by Thursday, but McGrath indicated that might just be Williams being optimistic and anxious to return to work. Until the surgery, Williams hadn’t had to miss any time because of medical issues.
Still in charge
If Williams does have to miss practices – or games – it’s unclear who will assume his leadership role over the basketball program. Robinson, a former Florida State head coach who has spent 18 seasons with him at Kansas and North Carolina, said Williams’ assistants would likely work together, if necessary, to fill the void.
“I don’t think we have just one single person to say, ‘OK, this guy – you’re in charge of everything,’ ” Robinson said. “You know who’s in charge? Roy Williams. That’s who’s in charge.”
Members of the local and national college basketball community expressed support for Williams on Twitter. Steve Wojciechowski, the former Duke point guard and current Blue Devils assistant coach, wrote, “Duke basketball family wishing UNC Coach Roy Williams a speedy and complete recovery from his surgery.”
Bubba Cunningham, the Tar Heels athletics director, and Holden Thorp, the university chancellor, released statements offering Williams encouraging words. Thorp said, “All of us at Carolina are thinking about him.”
McGrath and Robinson said they last spoke with Williams on Tuesday night at the team meeting. Williams went into surgery Wednesday morning at around 8, and the procedure ended at approximately 11:30 a.m.
Williams was in a good mood Tuesday night, Robinson said, but apprehensive.
“I think he was just concerned,” Robinson said. “I think he’s concerned just because it’s surgery itself. And I think that this is a situation where he would certainly like for it not to have to happen. But I don’t know of anyone that’s pretty excited about having surgery and having somebody cut you open. But I think he can handle it.”
Previous health issues
Williams has experienced health issues before during his time at North Carolina. He has frequently been affected in recent seasons by vertigo, which has caused him at times to kneel on the sideline while attempting to regain his balance.
He had shoulder surgery in November 2009 and coached the first two months of that season wearing a sling. One of Williams’ most enduring characteristics is his strength, McGrath said.
“He’s never sort of been under the weather,” McGrath said. “He just fights through it. He’s always around. He’s the staple. He’s the one that says, ‘I’m here, you guys got to fight through your colds.’ ”
Strickland characterized the team meeting as “frightening” but said Williams “didn’t get into detail too much.” Strickland described the meeting as “heartbreaking.”
“Me being here four years and me and his relationship together, I look at him as a father figure and a coach,” Strickland said. “So, him telling me that heartbreaking news yesterday was emotional for me. Last night, I prayed for him.”
There were prayers to go around for Williams. While passing along his own, Cunningham said in a statement that Williams’ “health and prognosis are my greatest concerns.”
Cunningham said he emphasized to Williams the importance of not rushing back to work. Robinson and McGrath acknowledged how difficult it might be for Williams to slow down and stay away while he recovers from surgery.
Players can relate
Some of Williams’ players could identify with having surgery. Strickland, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald, the three players who spoke with media members, have had surgery during their college years.
“But when coach Williams has surgery,” Bullock said, “that’s like a father figure to all of us. So it’s something that we can’t put our heads down about.”
The team meeting was quiet and full of concern, Robinson said. Nobody spoke, Bullock said, besides Williams.
Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this report. Carter: 919-829-8944