CHAPEL HILL — Jeff Lebo became known during his playing days at North Carolina for his proclivity for the 3-point shot. He attempted a school-record 14 3-pointers in a single game – twice – and the 211 3-pointers he made ranks fifth in UNC history.
But Lebo could dunk, too, and he said on Friday he’d remind his players at East Carolina that he could.
“They won’t believe that,” Lebo said with a laugh. “They’ll say it was that nice springy floor that they have over there.”
He was referring to the court at the Smith Center. Lebo played in the building’s first game, back in 1986, and Saturday he will coach ECU in its first game against the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. The Pirates and Heels have played just twice before, and not in the regular season since 1953.
Lebo has tried this week to treat this game like any other. He referenced all the familiar coaching clichés about preparing the same way for each opponent, though he acknowledged the significance that comes with playing in the Smith Center and amid history that he helped create.
“It’s exciting for our kids,” Lebo said. “It’s something that they’ll remember – for us to get a chance to play on this stage, our guys don’t get a chance to do that too often.”
Lebo played at UNC from 1985-89, when Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was an assistant under Dean Smith. During Lebo’s time at UNC, he watched Williams’ ascension from the third assistant coach to one of the lead assistants, and then to Kansas, where Williams became head coach in 1988.
Williams said he remembers recruiting Lebo in the mid-80s, though Lebo said it was only after he arrived at UNC when he began to know Williams well. Regardless, Lebo and Williams have remained in touch over the years and after Lebo became ECU’s head coach before the 2010-11 season, he called Williams to try to schedule a game.
When Williams was an assistant at UNC, the Tar Heels rarely played against non-conference in-state competition. That’s how Smith preferred it.
“Coach Smith had a policy … that we didn’t play anybody in the state that we didn’t have to play,” Williams said earlier this week. “Because he said you can’t play everybody. So my deal is we’ll play, but I’m not going to go play on your court because we can’t do that for everybody.”
Lebo had been hopeful Williams might be open to playing at ECU in Greenville. He wasn’t, though.
Even so, Williams welcomed the chance to play against the Pirates at the Smith Center.
“I’m very gracious for the opportunity for my team to come play there,” Lebo said. “We’ve got a lot of kids from the state of North Carolina. That’s a big deal to them.”
Lebo is part of a small fraternity of Tar Heels who played in the final game at Carmichael Auditorium and the first game at the Smith Center. The transition from one building to the other came during the middle of his freshman season.
It was a “different feel,” Lebo said, going from the intimacy of Carmichael to the vastness of the Smith Center. Then there was the temperature.
“It was a lot cooler in the Smith Center,” Lebo said. “I think coach Smith used to turn up the heat in Carmichael – it was always about 150 degrees, and I think he did that on purpose.”
The Smith Center might not be as comfortable on Saturday for Lebo as he remembers it. Though he returns to Chapel Hill a few times per year for various clinics and camps, Lebo hasn’t seen a UNC game inside the Smith Center since 1999, when he coached Tennessee Tech in an 85-59 loss to the Heels.
“There will still be a lot of people there that were sitting in those stands when I was playing that are sitting there now,” Lebo said. “So that will be pretty neat. And it will be one of the few games, at least I think, [that] they won’t heckle me behind the bench.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter