My name wasn’t on the list. It was the last cut for the JV basketball team at UNC, and I didn’t make it. Growing up in Tennessee, I was an OK player in high school but nowhere near Division I material. Fortunately, UNC offered something no other Division I program could – a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream to play for North Carolina through its JV team. But it wasn’t meant to be – or so I thought.
The following year, I had the tryout of my life. I had very little quickness and could barely touch the rim, but I could shoot. And for five days in October 1989, I couldn’t miss. When the final team was posted that year, my name was on the list.
For someone who could only dream of putting on a North Carolina uniform, it was surreal to walk into the new Smith Center each evening for practice after the varsity was done. We’d slap the hands of players like Rick Fox, Pete Chilcutt, George Lynch and Hubert Davis as they exited the court while we took our laps before the start of our workout.
Randy Wiel was our coach. He’d played for UNC in the ’70s and had been a varsity assistant on Coach Dean Smith’s staff since the year before. Originally from Curacao, he spoke six languages fluently and always said “medium” when someone asked him how he was doing.
Once Coach Wiel blew his whistle for practice, we ran to the jump circle at the middle of the court surrounded by the 20,000 light blue seats and the banners overhead.
It was there we realized that this was not a dream. We were a part of the Carolina basketball program.
We learned to run the secondary break and Carolina’s vaunted passing game. We pointed to the man who made the assist when we ran down the court after a successful basket. And we were schooled in the famous Four Corners offense.
ACC titles or seeing ourselves on SportsCenter wasn’t the goal. We just wanted to wear the uniform.
We couldn’t care less if 12 or so people were present at the start of our games. Nor did we mind when starting lineups were announced at the beginning of the second half so more people could cheer for us.
Traveling home after midnight from a town like New Bern having lost to Craven Community College wasn’t that glamorous, either, but it was pretty cool to have played in a small, packed-out gymnasium because the whole town it seemed came to see its local team take on the mighty Tar Heels.
Coach Smith once was asked whether the JV program and its players were really a valued part of the Carolina family.
He responded by asking, “Were the words ‘North Carolina’ written on the front of their jerseys?”
Of course they were.
The following season, I decided to get ready for tryouts by shooting in the Smith Center. As a previous JV player, I had access to the Dean Dome and could work out whenever I had time between classes. All alone, I was interrupted from my shooting drills when Coach Smith and the rest of the varsity coaches came to the court to walk through some ideas they had for the upcoming season.
Coach Smith and Coach Wiel greeted me and welcomed me back. Soon after, Coach Smith asked me whether they could have the court for a while. As I looked up and saw the words “Dean E. Smith Center” on the sign just behind him, I paused for a moment thinking how odd it was for him to ask me such a question. I guess I really was a part of the family.
I said, “Sure, Coach, of course.”
David Spickard of Raleigh is CEO of Jobs for Life ( jobsforlife.org/).