CHAPEL HILL — Late Night with Roy has always been a celebration of the fun side of basketball, dancing and skits and silliness. It had all of that Friday night, but a decidedly serious undertone as well.
From the moment of silence honoring Bill Friday, the former UNC system president who passed away Friday morning, to womens basketball coach Sylvia Hatchells impromptu tribute to outgoing chancellor Holden Thorp dragging Thorp onto the floor with her arm around him, to be hoisted into the air by her team it was impossible not to feel a larger purpose afoot.
But it was the standing ovation for Roy Williams, prolonged and sincere, that really resonated the loudest moment of his first day of public appearances since the North Carolina coach found out he didnt have cancer after all. The Smith Center crowd roared as Williams hugged emcee Stuart Scott before taking his seat on the bench to watch the festivities, then had him wiping his eyes after a curtain call later.
Williams laughed from the bench during the dance routines including the four freshmen doing ballet in tutus and even got pulled onto the floor at the end to do a little bit of what appeared to be a shuffling modified shag, healing scars and all. It was a lighthearted moment in a day that was, at times, all too serious.
Many hours earlier, the morning began with Williams escorting former North Carolina guard and current Denver Nuggets coach George Karl onto a stage at the Smith Center. Karl has twice fought off cancer, of the prostate and throat. Williams, who at one point was told the tumors on his kidneys were 95 percent likely to be cancerous, walked beside him, having beaten a different sort of odds.
Williams spoke, Karl spoke, and Williams friend Ted Seagraves who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during the NCAA tournament last year spoke as well, before introducing his own UNC Lineberger oncologist, H.J. Kim.
Williams later stood next to Woody Durham as the recently retired longtime broadcaster conducted a live auction. Durham may have missed his calling he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Fame auctioneer but he had expert hype-man help from Williams, who pumped up the bidding on an autographed jersey until he agreed to sign a pair, one for each bidder.
This is what Williams had always meant when he talked about his personal fight against cancer before: Raising money for cancer research, pushing toward a cure for the disease that took his mother, contributed to his fathers death and impacted the lives of so many around him.
It is a heartfelt cause for Williams, and the coverage of his own recent experience no doubt helped propel massive turnout at the breakfast, with 415 attendees, almost a 50 percent increase over last year. All told, the breakfast raised $150,000 this year, bringing the eight-year total to more than $1.35 million.
They scolded me for faking a cancer scare to get more people out to the breakfast, Williams joked, but the coachs gallows humor only underscored how important the endeavor, which began in 2005 upon his return to Chapel Hill, really is to Williams.
That was true long before his own brush with cancer, and as much a reason as any the morning began with a round of applause at the Smith Center and the evening ended with another.
DeCock: email@example.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947