Hubert Davis forges new identity as coach of UNC JV team

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2014 

  • Epilogue

    Following its dominant victory against Mount Olive, the UNC JV team suffered defeats against Central Carolina Community College and Wake Tech before defeating Kinston High on Dec. 14, before the varsity’s win against Kentucky. The JV team has been off since then, and resumes play on Wednesday against Pitt Community College.

    The 2-2 start isn’t quite what the JV team expected, but there’s time to right its season, which concludes on March 3 against Greensboro Day School. Between now and then, the Tar Heels will play seven other games.

    Matt Van Hoy, Davis’ primary assistant coach, is in his second year at the UNC School of Law. He’s interested in going into corporate and financial law, though he still hasn’t shaken the thought of becoming a coach, too. He plans to talk it over with Hubert Davis after the season.

    Jack Frost, Davis’ other assistant coach, just started the final semester of his master’s in accounting program. He has a tax accounting job lined up in New York City that starts next October. He doesn’t think he’ll go into coaching, but this season has already left him with a lot of memories.

    The former JV players who tried out for varsity – Learie Jones and Rohan Smith – didn’t make it. It was, as Smith put it, “a numbers thing.” A native of London, Smith is majoring in cultural studies, and minoring in Afro- and African-American Studies and Creative Writing. He’s not sure if he’ll go back to London when he graduates this semester. Jones, meanwhile, is an exercise and sports science major who works in the athletic training program.

    Justin Coleman, the UNC sophomore from Broughton, starts on the JV team and had five points in the season opener against Mount Olive. Alex Yager, the freshman from Raleigh who made the team after his first tryout, is a reserve who hopes to enroll in the business school. They all dream of making the varsity.

    Davis, meanwhile, is still making his players laugh with his off-beat stories and observations – ones about food. Or about fashion. He still has a thing for odd numbers, and he spends most of his days going through two practices – the one with the varsity, and the one he leads with the JV guys, who he teaches using some of the same philosophies that he learned from Dean Smith.

— Hubert Davis’ past and future intersect in a hallway in the depths of the Smith Center about 30 minutes before his first game as a head coach. He’s walking back toward the junior varsity locker room at North Carolina, his eyes on his watch, when a man holding a poster and a pen interrupts.

It’s the first day of November, and the first UNC JV game of the season will begin at 4:30. The man in the hallway asks for an autograph. To some, Hubert Davis is a celebrity, a 12-year NBA veteran who left UNC as one of the most productive perimeter shooters in school history. To some, he’s still Hubert Davis, the ESPN broadcaster. Now he’s trying to make a new identity: Hubert Davis, the coach.

“I’ll be back out here,” Davis tells the man. “I need to talk to my team real quick.”

Davis, 43, has been the head coach of UNC’s JV team for about a month and today is his first game, against the Mount Olive JV team. By now, his players understand that he has a thing for odd numbers. So when Davis reaches the door to the locker room, he pauses until it’s exactly 4:01. Then he walks in.

His players are sitting in front of their lockers, waiting, many wearing a jersey with “North Carolina” on the front and argyle down the sides for the first time. The JV team wears uniforms passed down from the varsity. Nobody knows for sure, but Davis thinks these uniforms are from the mid-1990s.

Davis’ pregame speech comes later, after the team goes out and comes back again, at 4:21 sharp. For now, Davis and one of his assistants, Matt Van Hoy, go over the pregame warm-ups. Everything is scripted, every detail accounted for: When the team will do layups and when it will shoot jumpers. How teammates will pass to each other.

“We’ve been practicing hard,” Davis tells his players. “We’ve been practicing organized. We’ve been practicing with a purpose. And that doesn’t stop even in warm-ups. When I was here at Carolina, warm-ups were taken so seriously that if you missed a layup, that counts as one 33.

“There were managers underneath the basket – so if you’re going in there trying up and under or some type of trick shot, if there was a turnover or a missed layup, the manager would write that down, and the next day at practice, coach (Dean) Smith would put you on the line and run your 33.”

A “33” is a type of full-court sprint, often used as a punishment. Davis doesn’t want his players to have to run.

He breaks into a wide smile. He’s always smiling. Late practices, early practices. Davis’ mood doesn’t change.

“I’m excited to be here,” he tells his team. “I really am. I’ve been so excited the whole day. And it’s been so much fun being around, being your coach the last three weeks. I’m just really excited for you. You get the chance to go out there and not bang against each other.

“You get to go up against an opponent. I just want you guys to have fun. Enjoy this. It goes by so quick. You have an opportunity to play on the Smith Center floor, play a game that you love.”

Davis ends his talk and his players huddle.

“Heels on the count of three,” one of them shouts.

“One, two, three …”

“HEELS!”

They walk out and Davis is alone in the JV locker room. It’s simple and small. Wooden stalls. A whiteboard at the front. Davis stands there and draws an out of bounds play. He’s left-handed, and so writing on the whiteboard is awkward. It’s one of the little things he has had to learn how to do – to write on the board without smearing.

From TV to the bench

There have been a lot of lessons during the past year and a half, big ones and small ones. Davis had a good job and a good lifestyle. As a college basketball analyst for ESPN, he traveled to marquee games, interacted regularly with some of the best coaches in the game and maintained his home in Chapel Hill with his wife, Leslie, and their three children.

Yet something was missing. He was a part of the game but he wasn’t. He missed being a part of a team, and missed forming relationships with players. When Jerod Haase left Roy Williams’ staff in March 2012 to become the coach at UAB, Davis had his opening. Williams eventually offered him the job, and Davis jumped at it.

Davis is paid well, a little more than $170,000 per year, yet some people thought he was crazy, giving up his career in broadcasting to become a coach. He made more money at ESPN. There were long days and nights working in TV, but now Davis would be traveling regularly with the team, and recruiting. It would be a grind in the season and there would be no let-up in the summer. Plus, he had never coached before. It was all new.

“I would say only four coaches ever came up to me when I took this job and said, ‘Hubert, I’m really happy for you,’ ” Davis says. “Everybody else said, ‘What are you thinking?’ And I didn’t understand that. I was caught off guard. I really was. And I was like, what are you talking about?’”

Less than 10 minutes until tip-off now. The team is back in the locker room, and Davis is wrapping up his pregame speech – his first as a head coach. This is a game of firsts. Williams, in his 11th season as UNC’s head coach, had the same experience more than 30 years ago, during his first of his eight seasons as the JV head coach.

Davis tells the players what he’s looking for: A fast pace on offense, with lots of running. Communication on defense. And effort.

“Twenty-seven uncontested shots in our scrimmage,” Davis says. “That’s not going to happen tonight.”

His job with ESPN brought him inside locker rooms, but not like this. This is the kind of thing Davis missed – being in a room, a part of a team. He quotes a Bible verse from Hebrews and tells his players to apply it to the idea of being a team. He tells them, “I’m proud to be your coach,” and then they shout “Heels on three.”

The first half is sloppy. Mount Olive, a Division II school in southern Wayne County, is even smaller than the Tar Heels, who are mostly comprised of guards. Yet UNC is having difficulty pulling away.

On the bench during varsity games, Davis is mostly reserved. He interacts and offers his opinions and thoughts, but he’s quieter than he is now. During his first game as a head coach, a different Davis emerges. He’s always moving or shouting or both. He screams at his players to run. He calls out screens on defense. He yells out missed assignments.

During one timeout, he tells his guys to stop being nervous and just play. A crowd of a couple hundred is here – big for a JV game – and he wonders if maybe the moment has gotten the best of his players. At one point, a mistake brings him hopping off the bench, clutching his fists, like Williams.

The first half ends with UNC leading by 10. Davis isn’t all that happy. He doesn’t like how his defense is leaving open the only Mount Olive player who can shoot. He doesn’t like the lack of effort. There have been too many loose balls, and not enough dives to the floor.

“Effort is diving on the floor,” Davis tells his players. “It’s boxing out. Relentlessly. Every possession. Setting good screens. Making strong cuts. Running the floor. Boxing out. Rebounding. Taking charges. That’s effort. Relentless effort.”

By the end of it, Davis’ voice is booming and his eyes intense. He never showed this side on ESPN.

“I want a better second half,” he tells his players. “I want to overwhelm them with our effort.”

They huddle up – “Heels on three” – and go back out for the second half. Davis is the last one out of the locker room.

A second full-time job

When he arrived at UNC a season ago, Davis did a little bit of everything. Williams designed it that way, sort of like a crash course in coaching. Davis worked with all aspects of the varsity team. He helped C.B. McGrath, another varsity assistant, coach the JV team. Then he took it over this season. McGrath will coach the JV team again next season, and then Davis and McGrath will rotate JV head coaching responsibilities.

Running the JV team isn’t exactly a part-time job. In some ways it’s a full-time job. Davis had to set the game schedule and the tryout schedule. From week to week, he sets the practice schedule – most of the time working around his home schedule so he can spend as much time as possible with his family.

The eight seasons that Williams coached the JV team, he went through two practices a day: the one he ran as the JV head coach, and the one he went through as Smith’s assistant. Now Davis is doing the same thing. He’s learning how to make decisions. He’s drawing up late-game plays on the whiteboard.

“I had two practices a day every day for eight years, and I thought it was great for me,” Williams says of how coaching the JV team can help Davis. “I got to make decisions, and not just suggestions. So I think that will help him and his development as a coach.”

The second half is going more to Davis’ liking. There’s more energy. His players are looser. They’re going after loose balls, getting out in transition. From his seat at the end of the bench, Davis urges his guys on. His favorite word, like it was in the first half, is “run.” He says “pass” a lot, too.

Towards the middle of the second half, Phil Ford, the former UNC All-American and coach, walks into the Smith Center. He takes a seat behind the UNC bench, and while he passes behind where Davis is sitting, Ford says, “Hey man – you can’t tell them to pass, as much as you used to shoot. You can’t tell them to pass.”

Ford lets out a laugh. He says, to no one in particular, “I talked to Walt. He told me to get one zinger in. I had to get one zinger in.”

Walt is Walter Davis, Hubert’s uncle who was an All-American at UNC in the 1970s. Hubert Davis followed him to UNC in the late 1980s after Smith told him he might never play a significant role.

It doesn’t feel like work

Now Davis is in the final moments of his first victory as a head coach with a team that exists, in part, because Smith never wanted it to go away. He always believed in its purpose. Davis coaches until the end. UNC is leading by 29 when one of his guys dives on the floor for a loose ball in the final minutes. Davis likes that. The Tar Heels outscore Mount Olive by 23 in the second half, and win 79-46.

Since arriving at UNC, Davis has come to understand why so many coaches seemed so surprised when he left broadcasting to enter coaching. He has learned that this is a grind. Yet it’s strange, because to him it doesn’t often feel like work.

“My job is to help and serve them on the court, in the classroom and outside of the court,” Davis says. “So that by the time they leave North Carolina, when they get out in the real world, they’re ready to go. And I feel honored to serve them in that way. And that’s a joy to me. …

“If you look at this as a job – I can see why somebody would say why would you go from the comforts of sitting on a desk and just making comments to calling recruits, practice – all this stuff. And I love it. And it’s sad that others don’t feel that way. Because this is unbelievable – it’s not a job. It isn’t.”

Davis walks back into the locker room after his first victory. He reminds his guys of something he said at halftime – how they don’t need home runs, just singles.

“And we hit singles in the second half,” Davis says. “And it was fun.”

The way the team ran its fast break offense in the second half, it looked just like practice, Davis tells his players. He’s proud of that. He doesn’t talk for long, though. His night isn’t yet half over. In less than an hour, the varsity team plays its first exhibition game of the season.

“Congratulations,” Davis tells his team. “Well-deserved win, game, and I’m just really proud of you.”

They huddle up one last time. “Heels on three.”

There are some chicken sandwiches for the players, and music plays on a small stereo. Then Davis walks out, leaving his players to celebrate while he goes back to work.

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

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