UNC’s JV basketball team is a chance to play for Tar Heels

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 4, 2014 

Up high, banners showcase championships and honor the names and retired numbers of some of the best who ever played basketball at North Carolina. Three of the banners say “Jordan,” “Hansbrough” and “Ford.” Five say “National Champions.”

Down below, the court belongs to the dreamers.

It’s the first Thursday in October, and they file into the Smith Center, some months removed from high school. Some are trying out for UNC’s junior varsity basketball team for the first time. A few have played two years on JV and are still hoping for a chance at the varsity even though they know there likely isn’t any room.

A graduate student named Jack Frost, the shortest and smallest – 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds – is trying out for the third consecutive year. He was cut last year. And the year before that. This is his final chance.

“Just want to be a part of this,” he says. “So bad.”

Making the cut means playing on a team that barely gets any attention, playing in front of crowds that sometimes number in the tens and playing against teams such as the Mount Olive College JV team in the season opener.

This year, the schedule includes games against the likes of Wake Tech, Pitt Community College, Milligan College and Fork Union Military Academy. There is but one road game, at Hargrave Military Academy, and attendance at home usually rises into the triple digits only when people come early for the varsity game.

There are about 40 players who, like Frost, want to be a North Carolina Tar Heels basketball player “so bad.” They are not the prospects featured on recruiting lists by the time they reached middle school. They are not those who played on high-profile AAU teams, traveling the country to tournaments where future stars gather. Some didn’t even make the starting five in high school.

Still, at North Carolina, they have a chance.

Division I college JV teams barely exist anymore. Before 1972, freshmen were ineligible to play varsity college basketball. So instead, they played on freshman teams.

When the rule changed, allowing freshmen to play on varsity, JV teams became easily disposable. Schools no longer had a need for them.

UNC’s program is the only one of its kind. It resembles what a college basketball team might have looked like before college sports became a billion-dollar business – a team composed entirely of regular students who earned their way into school not because of an ability to play sports, but because they made the grade.

UNC kept its JV team because that’s how Dean Smith wanted it.

Good experience for Roy

It’s not a matter of nostalgia. Smith believed in its purpose – that the JV team could provide both an effective training ground for his assistant coaches and an opportunity for regular students who otherwise would have no chance to be a part of the basketball program.

UNC is the only ACC school with a JV team. Kentucky doesn’t have one. UNC coach Roy Williams started one when he was at Kansas, briefly, but the administration shut it down. Louisville doesn’t. Indiana doesn’t. UCLA doesn’t.

Some still exist in the Ivy League and at the service academies. The NCAA doesn’t track how many JV teams exist.

Williams, in his 11th season as the Tar Heels’ head coach, is among those who most benefited from the JV team. He played on it – it was then known as the freshman team – in 1968 and ’69, but never played on the varsity.

Then, during his 10 years as an assistant under Smith, Williams spent eight years as the JV head coach. For eight years, Williams went through two practices per day during the season – the one he ran as the JV head coach, and the one he went through alongside Smith.

“The first game I coached at Kansas was to most people the first game I coached,” Williams said recently. “But to me, I had five years as a high school coach. … And for me, I had eight years as a JV coach. And everybody said, ‘Well, it’s still different.’ It wasn’t different for me.

“So I think the comfort level (from) coaching the JV team really helped me.”

Now it’s Hubert Davis’ turn.

First-time head coach

The players arrive in a trickle more than 45 minutes before tryouts begin. They wear shirts with names of their high schools on them. They wear high-tops that have seen better days. They stretch and jog and wrap their keys and phones in their balled-up hoodies, and stow them on the edge of the floor.

They shoot jumpers. The sound of about 30 basketballs – bouncing off the floor, off backboards, through nets, off rims – echoes in the empty vastness of the Smith Center.

Davis, 43, walks through the tunnel and onto the court about 15 minutes before tryouts begin. He wears Converse Jack Purcells, khaki slacks, a blue UNC polo and a whistle. He recognizes some players on the court.

“What’s up, smooth?” he says to Quinton Wimbish, a returning JV player. “How’s the knee?”

Davis helped coach the JV team last year. After he left his job with ESPN and joined Williams’ staff at UNC in the summer of 2012, Williams thought it’d be good for Davis, himself a former UNC player, to do a little bit of everything. And so Davis helped C.B. McGrath, another UNC assistant, with the team.

This year, the JV team is Davis’ alone. For the first time in his life, he’s a head coach. Davis carries with him a schedule for tryouts and a list of names. Not long before 3:30, he calls everyone to the middle of the court.

This is where Tyler Hansbrough and Sean May and Eric Montross stood for tipoffs during national championship seasons. Now Davis stands in front of those too short and too slow, and he tells them what he’s looking for during the next two days: “Good players, good students, good people.”

“I want people to look at this team and say this team was prepared,” Davis tells them.

Tryouts begin with some running – five lines of seven or eight players, each taking their turns up and down the court. Davis cracks on some of the shoes. He suggests a visit to zappos.com – a “terrific” selection, he says – for new ones. He keeps the mood light but talks some about what’s in store for those who make the team.

“We’re going to play defense here this year,” he says. The same defense Dean Smith taught.

Tryouts for managers

Before tryouts begin, Davis knows he is going to keep eight players from last year’s team. He needs to fill seven spots. He’s searching for intangibles.

“How hard you play,” Davis says later, describing what he’s looking for. “Are you invested? Obviously, you want guys that can play. But really, you want good kids, good students. And you want people who are going to understand the importance of being a part of this program. There is a difference. There is a varsity and a junior varsity.

“But there isn’t a difference. You’re representing this university. And I want them to know that.”

Warm-ups end. The guys split into four groups and head to stations to work on cross-over dribbles, setting screens and one-on-one drills.

There are freshmen who grew up in Chapel Hill. There’s a player from London, Rohan Smith, who crossed an ocean and came to UNC in large part to be a part of this program. Learie Jones is from Des Moines, Iowa, where he ran track and mostly sat on the bench for his high school basketball team.

Frost is from New Jersey. He wears his dad’s old college practice jersey. “Delaware,” it says across the chest. Justin Coleman grew up in Raleigh and played at Broughton High. A scar runs down the back of his neck from an accident that could have left him paralyzed.

Davis roams the court. Eric Hoots, who plays a variety of supporting roles for the varsity team – video coordinator, academic coordinator, equipment liaison with Nike – takes over one of the stations. Matt Van Hoy, a former JV player and UNC law school student and Davis’ primary assistant, handles another. Student managers help, too. This is also their tryout. Every varsity manager starts here.

Davis calls for a water break, then lines everybody up, smallest to tallest. Nobody is very tall. Then he breaks up the players into pickup games – shirts vs. skins – on three courts that cross the Smith Center floor.

Day one of tryouts ends. Davis brings the players together, tells them he’ll see them tomorrow, same time. The Smith Center will be open, he says, if they want to come in early.

Some players, including Frost, the master’s student in accounting, wait to meet Davis.

“I talked to him and just saying thanks for doing this – thanks for giving guys like me the opportunity to live the dream,” Frost says. “Because it’s not very often guys get their chance to chase their dream. And coming out on this floor once every year gives me the opportunity to do something that I never thought I would actually be able to do.”

Davis is the last person remaining in the building. Day one went well, he says. He likes the hustle. Tomorrow is the final tryout day.

“I’ve seen some guys that are going to be on the team,” he says. “So we’ve got probably three or four vying for one or two spots tomorrow. We’ll look at them real closely.”

Getting a chance

Friday, some players wear jerseys that catch Davis’ attention. Learie Jones, trying out for varsity after two years on JV, wears a Detroit Pistons Dennis Rodman jersey. There’s an Orlando Magic Shaquille O’Neal jersey. Maybe it helps to stand out.

“Shaquille doesn’t even like Orlando,” Davis says, shouting across the Smith Center.

Jones asks Davis if he ever met Rodman.

“Yeah, I played with him,” Davis says, laughing. He laughs often.

But the mood is tense. Some guys have worked all summer for this day. Some have been working since they were cut last year.

Making the team means months of practices and work – nearly as much as the varsity. It also means playing in the Smith Center, under those banners, and wearing a jersey with “North Carolina” across the chest. It means keeping alive the dream of making the varsity, of playing against Duke on senior night in front of 22,000 people and millions more watching at home.

It means sitting behind the bench for varsity games and gaining entry to the Smith Center, at any time, through the handprint scanner at the back of the building.

The second day of tryouts follows the same format as the first. Forty-five minutes of stations followed by 45 minutes of pick-up.

Then, it’s over.

Davis calls everyone to the middle of the court one last time. Sweat soaks their shirts and some of their knees are red from diving on the floor.

For most of the 43 guys who tried out, this is it. The moment isn’t lost on Davis. He stands at midcourt and describes the long odds he faced 25 years ago.

As a high school senior, Davis had options. He could have gone to lot of places, but he wanted to play at UNC, where his uncle, Walter Davis, was a standout in the 1970s. Dean Smith wasn’t so sure. When he looked at Davis, he saw someone who might never contribute much.

“Coach Smith said I would sit the bench for four years,” Davis tells the group. “I said, ‘That may be true, but I would like to have an opportunity.’ 

So Smith gave him one.

In his freshman season, Davis spent most of his time on the bench and averaged 3.3 points per game.

By his senior year, the 1991-92 season, he was a team captain. He averaged 21.4 points per game, went on to a 12-year career in the NBA and is still remembered as one of the best perimeter shooters in school history.

Davis says he’ll send out an email with the names of the players who made the team by the next afternoon, a Saturday.

Practice will start in less than a week. He thanks everyone for coming out. He speaks of the dread he feels about having to make cuts.

“If you want to know why you didn’t make the team,” Davis says, “I want you to email me or call me.”

Tuesday in Sports: Who gets to stay?

Tuesday in Sports: Who gets to stay?

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

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