P.J. Hairston, his UNC playing days over, remains on Tar Heels' bench

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 21, 2013 

— P.J. Hairston learned Wednesday he would never again play in a game for North Carolina. Yet he practiced with the Tar Heels on Thursday at 5 a.m., and practiced with them again on Friday, and then on Saturday he watched UNC’s 97-85 overtime victory against Davidson from the bench.

Hairston wore a dark suit. During the player introductions, when they turn the lights down at the Smith Center and play loud music, each of the Tar Heels’ five starters greeted Hairston with a special move. A chest bump. A choreographed handshake. A salute.

That wasn’t unusual. Hairston has been a part of that before every game this season.

This, though, was UNC’s first game since it announced that it wouldn’t seek his reinstatement amid questions that Hairston received impermissible benefits – mainly the use of rental cars provided by Haydn “Fats” Thomas, a Durham resident and convicted felon who came to know college athletes through the local party scene.

His college career effectively over, Hairston could have presumably been anywhere on Saturday night. Instead he sat in a familiar spot on the UNC bench, in the same seat he has occupied for every home game.

“I think he loves this team,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said on Saturday. “And the team feels very, very good about P.J., and enjoyed having him out there. And I think it was a nice deal for us.”

Hairston’s next move is unclear. The NBA draft isn’t until June.

He could begin prepare for that on his own at some point soon. He could try to play elsewhere in the meantime. In a statement his family released on Friday, it said Hairston would decide his next step within “a few weeks.”

For now, though, it appears as though he remains as much a part of UNC’s team as he has been all season.

“I think that’s huge for him to be here this long, realizing that finding the news out whenever he did,” James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, said on Saturday. “Practicing with us, showing up today and just being a part of the team. Where he goes from here, who knows? But he’s definitely always going to be a part of our team.”

J.P. Tokoto, a sophomore forward who scored a career-high 22 points, said he and his teammates “are kind of using (Hairston) as our fuel right now.” In practice, at least, the Tar Heels benefit from Hairston’s presence because he’s as good of a perimeter player as any they have to prepare to face.

During games, though, Hairston’s presence is a reminder of what could have been – both for himself, and for the Tar Heels. Williams said on Friday Hairston was playing as well in practice as any perimeter player he had ever coached. And now, his playing days are over – even if his time with the team apparently isn’t.

“This is like losing a brother,” said McAdoo, who arrived at UNC alongside Hairston in the summer of 2011. “Everybody’s a little funked out. I don’t know if that affected us a lot today. But it definitely adds a sour note to this time of year.”

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

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