UNC guard P.J. Hairston will practice, but when will he play?

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2013 

— North Carolina coach Roy Williams on Thursday gave no indication as to when P.J. Hairston might play again for the Tar Heels but whenever it is, chances are Hairston will be in good shape. Williams has made Hairston spend a lot of time running of late.

After an off-season of trouble – a speeding ticket in May while driving a rental car tied to a felon, an arrest in June while driving another rental car tied to the same man, a reckless driving charge in July – Hairston will participate when North Carolina begins practice Friday. Beyond that, he remains suspended from playing in games.

Williams, who for the first time Thursday spoke at length about Hairston’s issues, said he wasn’t sure how many games Hairston, a junior guard, would miss. Williams also deflected a question about whether the NCAA would have a say in the length of Hairston’s suspension.

“I can’t speak to what the NCAA is doing or not doing,” Williams said. “But I know that Roy Williams has a tremendous voice in what else is going to be done.”

UNC has not made Hairston available for interviews since his troubles began, but the school released a statement Thursday in which Hairston said he was “so sorry for the mistakes” he made.

“That’s not how I was brought up and it’s certainly not how coach Williams expects us to represent this program,” Hairston, who led UNC in scoring last season, said in the statement. “I know I let a lot of people down, including our fans and all the people who love not just the basketball team, but UNC.”

Williams in late July suspended Hairston after the most recent incident in an offseason full of them. The suspension came after Hairston was charged with reckless driving when the State Highway Patrol pulled him for driving 93 mph in a 65 mph zone. Hairston told authorities he had been in a hurry to make it to Charlotte.

The reckless driving charge followed the arrest in June, when Durham police arrested Hairston and two other men and charged each with misdemeanor marijuana possession. Police also charged Hairston with driving without a license. Those charges were later dropped.

At the time of the arrest, Hairston had been driving a rented 2013 GMC Yukon. Rental receipts from Hertz later showed the vehicle had been paid for by Haydn “Fats” Thomas, a Durham resident with a lengthy criminal record. According to a police narrative obtained by The News & Observer, Hairston told police that “Fats” had rented the vehicle so that Hairston and his friends could drive it to Atlanta for the weekend.

When Hairston received a speeding ticket in May, he was driving a rented Chevrolet Camaro that had been paid for by Catinia Farrington, who co-owns a house with Thomas in Durham. If the use of rental cars are deemed to be an extra benefit, then Hairston could face an NCAA-mandated suspension in addition to the one Williams decides.

Williams, though, declined to describe the process through which the length of Hairston’s suspension will be determined.

“I can’t give you the answer to that,” Williams said. “I didn’t know what the process was going to be (for him to earn his way back on the team and), how much he was going to run. It’s just that I was lying there one night and it came to me in the middle of the night – ‘I think this would be good.’”

Williams said part of Hairston’s punishment – and part of his way back onto the team after he had been suspended indefinitely – has involved extensive conditioning work. Hairston, Williams said, has run for 18 more days than any of his teammates.

“P.J. has done more conditioning this preseason than any player I’ve ever had,” Williams said. “He’s done more than three times more than any player I’ve ever had. He has not asked me the question yet, but I know it’s in his mind – he’s wondering if he’s on a track scholarship.”

Several teammates described how Hairston apologized to the team. Hairston expressed remorse, sophomore point guard Marcus Paige said, and Leslie McDonald, the team’s only scholarship senior, said Hairston’s off-season conditioning work has been reflective of someone who’s hopeful to capitalize on another chance.

McDonald, too, is attempting to regain Williams’ trust. McDonald last season wore a designer mouth guard with a UNC-inspired argyle pattern on it, and UNC sent a cease-and-desist letter of the mouth guard company that used McDonald’s name to promote its product. It’s unclear how McDonald obtained the mouth guard, and who paid for it.

Williams described the McDonald mouth guard issue as “a strange thing” but indicated that McDonald’s eligibility isn’t in question. Even so, Williams said Hairston and McDonald have been stripped of their leadership roles – which they ordinarily would have had given their status as veteran players.

“Right now I’m probably in the doghouse,” McDonald said. “But I have to earn that (leadership role back). It’s life. It’s life. And for me to just go out and obtain it and get it back, I’m willing to do that.”

Williams deflected most questions about the NCAA’s role, however small or large, in determining when Hairston might play. UNC begins the season Nov.8 at home against Oakland. The Tar Heels play several high-profile early-season games, including one at Michigan State on Dec.4, and another at home against Kentucky on Dec.14.

Whether Hairston returns in time to play in any of those remains unknown.

Williams said he has not been in contact with the NCAA, but Steve Kirschner, a UNC athletics department spokesman, said the university’s compliance office and the NCAA have remained in regular contact in recent years. Williams also said that before Hairston’s problems emerged, he had never heard of Thomas, the felon.

“Could be a great guy, could be a bad guy,” Williams said. “I have no earthly idea. I know that I haven’t told anybody to stay away from a guy that I don’t know. Now, after the fact, of course you can say, come on guys. Make good decisions as to who you are with.”

Williams’ comments represented the first time, at least publicly, that he had detailed his reaction to a stressful off-season. After a round of golf last month at a pro-am before a PGA Tour event in Greensboro, Williams said he was tired of talking about Hairston.

He lasted a little more than 10 minutes Thursday before ending Hairston questions. The most obvious one still remains: When will he play?

“When I’ve completely decided what it’s going to be, I will tell you,” Williams said. “And it will be before the season starts. There’s no question.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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