For UNC coach Roy Williams, cancer scare alters perspective

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 12, 2012 

  • UNC academic review panel meets As a UNC system Board of Governors academic review panel met Thursday, Chairman Louis Bissette of Asheville said it is clear that more needs to be done to get to the bottom of problems at UNC-Chapel Hill. The five-member panel heard from university staffers and faculty members who wrote a report released in July that ignited two other reviews. Bissette said the panel is waiting on the work of one of those, led by former Gov. Jim Martin. Bissette said he expects that work to be “significant.” And he acknowledged that the situation remains a “continually moving target” as new disclosures have emerged in recent weeks. The panel questioned the dean now in charge of the academic support program for athletes – a program that is under scrutiny about its role in helping athletes. At one point, Dean Harold Woodard told the panel that tutors have in the past provided athletes with what he called “overhelp.” He said reforms are in place to prevent that, including eliminating undergraduates from serving as tutors. Under questioning, Woodard said that tutors who work with athletes file reports on every session they have with an athlete with higher-ups in the support program. Some of those internal support program documents that have been obtained by The News & Observer show that the staff has taken actions in working with athletes that national compliance experts say demand scrutiny by the NCAA. Woodard said in an interview Thursday that his office has not provided any records to any outside reviewers to date. “We have them,” he said. Bissette said in an interview that any competent review of the situation will have to include scrutiny of the tutor documents. J. Andrew Curliss

— Roy Williams has always said, joking, that he’d prefer death to come on a golf course. That when his time came, he wanted it to come in the moments after he made a birdie putt on No. 18.

Williams, preparing for his 10th season as North Carolina’s coach, was on the golf course last month in the days before his surgery to remove a tumor from his right kidney. He hit his best drive on the final hole, then hit his approach shot within a few feet of the cup.

He thought about that joke he liked to tell. He asked himself: What if this really is my last shot? For maybe the first time in his life, he was happy he missed a birdie putt.

“You have all sorts of weird thoughts,” Williams said. “And you have to fight them off.”

Heartburn and indigestion led Williams to the doctor in early September. Tests later discovered a pair of tumors on both of his kidneys. Doctors told him they were 95 percent sure it was cancer.

“I was off the charts (emotionally) in every direction you can possibly be,” Williams said on Thursday at North Carolina’s annual preseason basketball news conference. “You always have people say that when you hear that word, that it just knocks you for a loop, and it does. You’re off the charts in every different direction.

“But I told my team that I was going to coach this team.”

Surgeons removed the first tumor, which they discovered to be an oncocytoma – a benign tumor of the kidney. Doctors told Williams there was a 50 percent chance the other tumor, the one on his left kidney, would be benign, too. A biopsy last week determined that it was.

“It was a whirlwind 24 days there, I can tell you that,” Williams said of a stretch of days that began with the discovery of the tumors, and ended with the determination that they were benign.

Williams participated in the Tar Heels’ annual media day on Thursday. He posed for pictures with photographers. He wore a light blue jacket, a pink tie and walked perhaps a step slower than normal. He spoke openly about his health, and about a scare that changed his perspective on life but not on the future of his coaching career.

“My plan is what I’ve said – what I’ve said before,” Williams said. “I hope to coach six to 10 more years. I really do … as long as my health allows me to do that.”

Williams had his first surgery on Sept. 19. He gathered his players at 10 p.m. the night before and told them he had tumors on both of his kidneys and that he’d need one surgery and might need another.

He wasn’t sure then of his prognosis, only that doctors were 95 percent sure he had cancer. It was a somber, emotional meeting.

After the results of his biopsy last week, Williams gathered his players again. He shared happier news.

“We just sort of embraced,” said Jackson Simmons, a sophomore forward. “All of us went around and sort of embraced him in a hug – and just talked about the upcoming season. It was just a full and energetic locker room.”

At the first team meeting before his first surgery, Williams told his players that if he needed a second surgery, he might miss several practices at the start of the season. He vowed, though, to return regardless of his diagnoses.

Williams informed his players that he was cancer free after they had endured conditioning tests last week.

“Once he told us, we knew that he was ready to come to practice,” said P.J. Hairston, a sophomore guard. “We knew the only thing he wanted to do was coach. All he wanted to do was coach, and he said he wanted his grandchildren to be old enough to remember him. That’s the main thing he said he wanted.”

After it became public that Williams had a tumor on both of his kidneys, he received an outpouring of support. He said he heard from every coach in the ACC. Mike Krzyzewski called three times. Jeff Bzdelik, the Wake Forest coach, sent Williams ice cream.

Williams received letters, too, from people who had undergone treatment for kidney tumors. People shared their stories.

“Every one of them, really, had such good feelings because they want to give you hope,” Williams said of the letters. “Because it is, at first, it’s just sort of shattering when they say (they’re) 95 percent sure it’s cancer.”

Williams lost his mother to cancer. The disease also played a role in his father’s death. One of Williams’ close friends and neighbors had surgery for cancer not long after the Tar Heels’ season ended last March with a loss against Kansas in an NCAA tournament regional final.

Williams said doctors will continue to monitor the tumor on his left kidney. They will check on it every six months and if he needs surgery, he’ll have surgery. In the meantime, he said this experience has changed him.

“I’m going to smell the roses a heck of a lot more every day, I think,” he said. “I really am. It does change you.”

He still wants to coach a while longer – maybe even a decade longer. But he has thought in recent days about things he wants to accomplish outside of basketball.

Williams said he never knew what a bucket list was until a movie bearing that name, starring Morgan Freeman, came out in 2007. Williams still hasn’t seen it, but he has thought about what his bucket list would include.

“I do want to do more things,” he said, “and I think I’ll do that. I’m not jumping out of any airplanes, either.”

No, Williams’ list is simpler, less adventurous.

“Play more golf,” he said. “See my kids more. My grandchildren.”

Carter: 919-829-8944

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