UNC JV hopefuls get the news, good and bad, from coach Davis

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2014 

— Some already know that this will be their last time on the Smith Center floor for a while, maybe forever, that their hope of playing basketball at North Carolina might have already ended. But they stand in line, anyway.

The 43 who’d tried out for UNC’s junior varsity basketball team – the only one of its kind in the nation – wait on Oct. 4 to see if there’s still a chance to play for the Tar Heels. The second and final day of tryouts is over. Hubert Davis, the JV head coach, has spoken of his difficult task ahead – of making cuts and ending dreams.

They line up, their shirts dark with sweat, and make their way to a table where a team manager collects email addresses. In less than 24 hours, Davis will send emails to those who have made the team, and those who haven’t. It’s the digital equivalent of taping the roster to a wall outside the locker room.

“It’s hard to expect to make the team,” Garrett Young-Wright, a tall, lanky freshman from Chapel Hill, says before walking out of the Smith Center. “But it was at least fun to come out, and a good workout for sure … maybe next year.”

Young-Wright, who had tried out with one of his teammates from Chapel Hill High, isn’t optimistic. Already, he is making plans to come back next year.

For some, there is no next year. Jack Frost, a graduate student, had tried out for the third time and had yet to make the team. His master’s of accounting program only lasts one year, and so this is it. On his way out of the Smith Center he thought about when he might walk on this floor again, and about what it’d mean to make the team.

“It would make a life,” he says. “It would be the opportunity of a lifetime, just to wear the JV uniform and come in here and play a couple of games. … You run, you shoot, you do everything you possibly can to get ready … and you just hope the shots fall and hope somebody sees it.”

Like winning the lottery

Alex Yager is in the kitchen of his parents’ house in Raleigh when the e-mail comes.

He’s made the team.

“My parents started freaking out, and I started freaking out, and everybody started jumping up and down,” Yager says. “It was like I won the lottery or something. It was crazy.”

Yager’s a freshman who hopes to study in the business school. During his senior season at Trinity Academy in Raleigh he thought about whether he wanted to play at a small Division III school, or whether he wanted to come to UNC, his dream school, and try to play on the JV team. The choice wasn’t difficult.

The Tar Heels won the 2005 national championship when Yager was 10 years old. In his driveway, he imagined himself as Rashad McCants or Raymond Felton. In 2009, when UNC won another national championship, Yager says, “I was freaking out.”

Most of the players get bad news.

Frost receives the email in Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., where he’s watching North Carolina play football against Virginia Tech. He doesn’t see his name. For the third consecutive time – the final time – he’s cut.

Davis had invited responses, and so Frost asks to set up a meeting.

Faster and faster

On the first Wednesday in October, the 15 players who made the team huddle around Davis at mid-court inside the Smith Center. The first JV practice of the season is about to begin.

There are no big men. No centers. No lumbering power forwards. The JV at UNC looks like a team full of guards, and no player stands taller than 6-foot-6. Davis, stands out in front of the huddle. He is 6-foot-5 and still lean as he ever looked during his playing days at UNC and in the NBA.

Davis starts out, like he normally does, with something light. He likes talking about food and today he tells his players about this sushi he just had in Las Vegas, during a recruiting trip.

They go through some stretches and warm-ups and then Davis asks a question: “Who knows fast break drill number one?” Most raise their hands.

That’s how it begins. The JV team uses the same drills that the varsity team has used for decades – the same ones that Davis went through when he played at UNC from 1988 through 1992, and the same ones that Dean Smith used decades ago.

Davis tries to establish a pace, encouraging his players to go faster and faster.

“I really want us to push the ball,” he says, and at one point he peels off his gray UNC hooded sweatshirt and goes through a drill with his players at full speed. It is an odd scene – Davis, 43, a longtime NBA veteran and successful college player, going hands-on with guys whose greatest basketball aspirations are to sit on the end of the varsity bench – but it is a scene that personifies the JV experience.

At the end of that first practice, in the quiet of the Smith Center, Yager, the freshman from Raleigh, asks to come by Davis’ office to talk about what he should work on. Davis, meanwhile, tells the JV team’s female managers to text him when they get home because it’s late – almost 11 p.m. – and he wants to know they’re back safely.

Sometimes practice is late, like now. Other times it’s in the afternoons, right after the varsity practice. It all depends on Davis’ schedule. He wants to be home every night for dinner, and to tuck in his three kids.

The new assistant coach

The meeting with Frost comes later, after that first practice. Frost asks why he’s been cut. Davis tells him he had no room for another guard.

Then Frost makes his pitch. If he can’t play, he says, maybe he can be another set of eyes. Davis already has one volunteer assistant, a UNC law student named Matt Van Hoy,who played on the JV team. Now Davis has another.

Frost’s first practice as an assistant coach is a few weeks before the season-opener against Mount Olive. Davis begins that one with a brief discussion of lox and then Jake Mendys’ size-13.5 shoes – a size Davis didn’t know existed until now.

“Learn something new every day,” Davis says with a laugh. “Thanks, Jake.”

Davis becomes more serious. He arrived at UNC in 1988 to play for Dean Smith, who thought that Davis would never play a significant role for the Tar Heels. Davis told that story at the end of tryouts and now, at the start of practice, Davis again brings Smith’s words to life.

“In our offense, we want to be quick but don’t hurry,” Davis says, repeating a line Smith used over and over.

“Be quick but don’t hurry” is a part of the offensive emphasis today. Every practice has an offensive and defensive emphasis, and Davis writes them down on a paper that he copies and leaves inside each player’s locker. At the start of practice, they’re expected to know the offensive and defensive emphasis, and the thought of the day.

“Who can repeat the thought of the day today?” Davis asks, in much the same way that Smith would ask at the start of practices.

Jay Lamothe, an exercise and sports science major who has made the JV team for the first time, raises his hand.

“A mistake is good if you recognize it and learn from it,” he says.

What Smith used to say about mistakes – “a mistake is good when you admit it, learn from it and grow from it” – he said often. So often that in Davis’ mind those words are still engrained. He wants the same, now, for his players.

About half of Davis’ daily practice thoughts come from Smith. Some come from John Wooden. Some are Bible verses. After the thought of the day Davis begins practice, again, with fast break drill number one.

Many of the best players who have ever played at UNC have gone through this drill. And now, on the third Wednesday in October, a team full of walk-ons, none of whom will ever making a living playing basketball, goes through it, too.

The door opens

The scene helps explain why they are here. They will wear a North Carolina jersey for two seasons, play games on the Smith Center court, sit behind the bench for varsity games.

“It’s about being part of the program,” Justin Coleman, a second-year player from Raleigh, said. “You know, you’ve got a lot of legends, and it’s such a historic program that a lot of us have watched since we’ve been growing up.

“And the opportunity to be a part of it, whether it’s on the JV team or anywhere – it’s not even about getting recognition, it’s about the privilege.”

Coleman, who played basketball at Broughton High in Raleigh, is a sophomore in business administration. A long scar down the back his neck is a reminder of an injury that left doctors wondering how he wasn’t paralyzed.

The injury happened during an AAU game in the summer of 2011. Coleman went up for a dunk. A defender pushed him in the back, and he slid headfirst into the wall.

“They said 90 percent of the people with my injury are paralyzed from the neck down,” Coleman says. “So I’m just lucky to be playing.”

There was a debate about whether Coleman should play his senior year at Broughton. He won out.

Coleman didn’t have any scholarship offers to play basketball in college. There were some Division II schools, he said, but that was it. He arrived at UNC hoping to play on the JV team.

“Nothing was guaranteed,” he says. “But the chance to further your career in basketball, and be a part of UNC’s basketball program in a way, that’s enough. Just the chance, the opportunity, is enough to make somebody want to go here.”

Off to the side, Frost, watches the team go through its drills. He has a job lined up. Tax accounting in New York City for KPMG, a big firm. He starts early next October, about a year to the day after his basketball dream died, only to be reborn.

Back home in New Jersey, his family and friends “think it’s so cool,” he says, that he’s down in North Carolina, helping Davis coach some basketball in the Smith Center.

Just like those who play on the varsity, Frost has access to the Smith Center day or night. When he places his hand on the scanner at the back of the Smith Center, the door opens.

All the JV guys have that kind of access. They have their own locker room. Just like the varsity.

“We get to come in here when we want,” Spenser Dalton, a second-year JV player, says. “We scan our hands in to get in the backside of the Dean Dome at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night to come get shots up. We’re about the luckiest kids on campus, that we get the opportunity to come and play in here whenever we want.”

Today practice ends at about 5 p.m., after a long scrimmage. Davis, done yelling for the day, is happy. He tells his team it was “fun to watch.” While his players finish up shooting their post-practice free throws, he goes around cleaning up empty water cups.

The first game is one week away.

Wednesday in sports: Hubert Davis takes charge

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

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