UNC guard Leslie McDonald seeks strong finish to adversity-filled college career

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 25, 2014 

— Part of it was the quality of teams and the players, and just how good North Carolina always seemed to be. Part of it was accessibility – that the Tar Heels were, and still are, always on TV.

And part of it, as silly as it might sound, was the uniforms – the light blue ones that North Carolina wears on the road. Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., the color stuck with Leslie McDonald.

He wasn’t unlike a lot of basketball-playing kids who daydreamed about wearing a Tar Heels’ jersey and running up and down the Smith Center floor. McDonald, though, eventually became one of the top high school players in Tennessee, and when UNC began recruiting him, it was like his childhood fantasy came true.

“I’ve always wanted to play at North Carolina, from when I was little,” McDonald said earlier this week, sitting not far from the Smith Center court. “And playing for Carolina was a dream.”

What happens, though, when a dream goes bad? McDonald, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, has two months – perhaps a little bit more – left in his college career. He’s hoping to salvage a period in his life that has left him broken and benched, but not beaten.

McDonald has been through a knee injury that wiped away one season and left him attempting to rediscover the player he was before it happened. He has been through self-inflicted, off-the-court turmoil that cost him the first nine games of this season. And now, after finally being able to play, his shooting touch has abandoned him.

McDonald earlier this week appeared less fazed by his ill-fated journey than he is appreciative. For a while, it was unclear when – or if – he’d play again for UNC, which hosts Clemson on Sunday. A lengthy NCAA investigation into McDonald’s receipt of impermissible benefits left his status in doubt.

“We always have different situations and we go through a journey,” McDonald said. “Mine particularly has been an up-and-down journey. But it makes you who you are. I don’t regret any of my past. Although you want to go back and change a couple of things, or tweak things, it’s what makes you who you are right now.”

Bumps in the road

There are thoughts about what could have been. In the summer of 2011, people raved about McDonald and how he well he was playing in highly competitive pick-up games at the Smith Center – the ones filled with former UNC players now in the NBA – and in the North Carolina Pro-Am summer league in Durham.

That summer, UNC coach Roy Williams heard nothing but good things about McDonald’s progression. He might have been on track for a breakout junior season. Then it happened – a torn anterior cruciate ligament during a pro-am game.

“I think the injury really opened my eyes,” McDonald said. “And when I say that, the injury really took me to a different perspective of seeing that basketball isn’t everything.”

For some athletes, a season-ending injury might be the worst adversity they encounter. After a year of rehab, though, and after a returning last season, McDonald found trouble again – this time because of his own mistakes. During a game last season, McDonald wore a designer mouth guard he shouldn’t have, according to NCAA rules.

Worse, in the eyes of the NCAA, he drove luxury rental cars connected to Durham resident and felon Haydn “Fats” Thomas, who had come to know McDonald and other local athletes through parties at nightclubs. The mouth guard and the use of the cars were impermissible benefits prohibited by the NCAA, and so McDonald missed UNC’s first nine games until the NCAA ruled he could return Dec. 18 against Texas.

McDonald had been practicing before then. Yet there was no warm-up for him – no way to ease back into real competition.

“He hadn’t had any of those (easier) games,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Friday. “And so, again, it confirms what I’ve always thought – you don’t need to play the Celtics and then the Lakers and then Duke and then Connecticut and that kind of stuff. You need to have some other games to allow kids to get their confidence rolling, and that’s just confirmed that.

“But it has been tough for him.”

Strangely enough, McDonald’s first game back is still the best of his season. He scored 15 points in UNC’s 86-83 loss against Texas, and he made four of nine 3-point attempts. He hasn’t matched those totals since, and has made just seven of 31 3-point attempts in ACC play.

It hasn’t exactly been the kind of stretch McDonald had hoped for, or the one he envisioned, while he missed the first part of the season. It hasn’t been what Williams had been expecting, either.

McDonald’s return was supposed to bolster the Tar Heels. Instead, they’re 4-5 since his return.

“He wasn’t struggling when he was on the blue squad when he wasn’t playing,” UNC sophomore forward Brice Johnson said, referring to the team’s secondary team in practice. “So he’s just got to get back in his rhythm. He’s a great shooter, he just has to get back into his rhythm. He’s going to be fine. Marcus has been missing shots, too, so he’s not the only one.

“All of us are missing great shots that we need to make. But he’ll be fine.”

Making most of what’s left

McDonald has made it this far, at least. The same can’t said about P.J. Hairston, the former UNC guard who is one of McDonald’s closest friends.

Like McDonald, Hairston last spring and summer drove rental cars associated with Thomas. Hairston’s misdeeds were so egregious UNC didn’t seek his reinstatement. He’s now playing in the NBA Development League. McDonald describes Hairston as a “brother.” They communicate often still, McDonald said, and Hairston has remained a part of the Tar Heels’ team group text message conversations.

“It’s hard because you’re so used to him always being there,” McDonald said. “But you know that he’s doing bigger and better things, and you’re kind of sad but you’re kind of happy because he’s being able to play again, and he loves basketball. … But at the same time, you miss him.”

Regardless of what happens from here, McDonald understands UNC’s 2013-14 season will forever be remembered for the drama at its start – the saga with him and Hairston and rental cars and NCAA impermissible benefits investigations. Williams called it the worst stretch of his coaching career, dealing with the fallout from a mess Hairston and McDonald created.

“You can say it kind of bothers me,” McDonald said of being remembered for the trouble. “But at the end of the day, I’m happy with who I am. I have a peace of mind. I’m happy. I’m playing basketball, once again.

“And you can just tell that I’m just overjoyed that I’ve been able to see so much during my time here and just being able to accomplish a whole bunch of things. At the end of the day, I’m happy. And I have peace. And if that’s what people want to think of me during that time, so be it.”

As peaceful and content as he might be, though, McDonald recognizes his time is running short. He has 13 regular-season games left in a UNC uniform – the one he once dreamed of wearing years ago – and that has left him with a sense of urgency.

It explains in part, perhaps, his difficult shooting stretch. Williams said on Friday that McDonald has been rushing his shot, in too big of a hurry. Sometimes, it’s as if he’s attempting to make up for lost time.

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

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