CHAPEL HILL — People didn’t understand it, why James Michael McAdoo turned down millions of dollars and the allure of being a high NBA draft pick. People didn’t understand why he chose to return to North Carolina, where he studies history, daydreams about learning how to surf and embraces college life beyond basketball.
Nearly two years later, McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, smiles at the memory. It’s a coy smile instead of a happy one – a smile that suggests he understands things others don’t. He knows people are a little confused by him, that they judged him for turning down the money. That, McAdoo said, is “just the society we live in.”
“It wasn’t that difficult to ignore (the temptation to leave) and come back,” McAdoo said Friday, the day before the Tar Heels’ regular-season finale at Duke. “I love it here at Carolina, I love my teammates. There’s been some good times and some bad times, but that’s just life. To have this opportunity was a blessing from God.”
“But you know, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel led to go, I didn’t want to go – I don’t regret it all.”
To understand McAdoo’s growth is to understand how he coped with pressure and scrutiny that has surrounded him for years – pressure that at times was heavy enough to break him. Five years ago, McAdoo became the youngest player to be named the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year.
Three years ago, McAdoo was among the most followed and talked-about prospects as a senior at Norfolk Christian High School in Virginia. And two years ago, he was laboring through his freshman season at UNC.
Those were challenging times – times when he became lost in his mind, and lost amid the expectations others had set for him. The USA Basketball award he won – Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins received it, too, before they came to UNC.
No one expected McAdoo to be Jordan or Perkins, but they expected him to be something greater than he was for most of his freshman season. Roy Williams, the UNC coach, described those expectations as “so unrealistic and off the charts.” McAdoo’s father, Ronnie, said they “were just way too high.”
And when McAdoo struggled, well, there was no shortage of criticism on message boards and from talking heads.
“People have just been so critical of a young man who loves school, loves the University of North Carolina, and all he wants to do is make the team better,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “And when he falls short, people are so cruel.”
Last name carries weight, expectations
Expectations and pressure, at least when it comes to basketball, have followed the younger McAdoo since childhood. His parents played professionally overseas – in Japan, China, Greece and Italy – and Ronnie, who James Michael calls “Big Mac,” is in the Hall of Fame at Old Dominion University.
Then there’s the last name. During the 1971-72 season – his first and only season at UNC – Robert McAdoo earned All-American honors. He and Ronnie are second cousins.
“I’m sure James Michael would never say that, but there has to be pressure with the name McAdoo and Bob being an All-American at North Carolina,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “… But he would never say that. And one thing I try to tell him is, I said, ‘J, don’t try to live up (to anything) – I said you are who you are. And just be who you are, man.’ ”
That has been a challenge for James Michael. During his freshman season, his confidence wilted so much that he openly questioned whether he belonged on a team filled with future first-round NBA draft picks. He wondered whether he had a place.
Then came his chance. Center John Henson suffered a wrist injury during the 2012 ACC tournament, and McAdoo made the most of his opportunity. He played so well he shot up the NBA draft projections.
All of a sudden he had a decision to make – to stay or to go – though two years later it sounds like it wasn’t much of a decision at all. He weighed his options and his desire to experience college – and become a better basketball player along the way – outweighed the money and whatever else the NBA had to offer.
“Of course, I think about like, dang, what if I would have went to the NBA,” McAdoo said. “I’d be, what, I guess this would be my second year in the league. But at the end of the day, I’m happy here.”
A leader evolves
McAdoo is a bit different. He doesn’t do Twitter or social media. He’s a self-described Civil War buff. He wants to learn how to surf. He appreciates college and campus culture, and a couple of weeks ago checked out a dance performance by a group of guys from Rio de Janeiro.
On the court, McAdoo has always emitted a sense of calm, almost stoicism.
Now, though, it’s backed by confidence that wasn’t always there. When he returned for his sophomore season, he came back, again, to enormous expectations. He averaged more than 14 points and seven rebounds, and yet he was written off as a disappointment – a guy who should have taken the money when it was there.
McAdoo last season learned how to better handle the criticism. Sometimes, Ronnie McAdoo tells his son that he’s learning something about that – about how to handle harsh words.
“Sometimes when I read that stuff, I get so frustrated – I want to just log on and just chew these people out,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “Or pick up the phone, and call this reporter. But hey – that’s a part of the business, man. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”
On paper, McAdoo’s evolution might be difficult to trace. His numbers are roughly the same as they were last year.
A deeper look, though, tells a more complete story. McAdoo has become an emotional leader. He’s the quickest to dive for loose balls. He might trade a high-five with a fan after a dunk, as he did earlier this season, and he’s playing with the kind of raw attitude befitting of his patchy beard, which makes him look something like a 1970s vigilante.
A season ago, sophomore guard Marcus Paige said, McAdoo “wanted to be that leader.” Now he is.
“I think that’s why we see him chasing balls 90 feet and diving for it,” Paige said. “And he understands that if he does those kinds of things, other guys will follow his lead.”
Choosing his own path
Williams isn’t exactly sure when things changed for McAdoo. The turning point can’t be defined by a single game or moment. It was gradual, something created by years of hard times and long talks McAdoo shared with his dad, when they spoke of anything but basketball.
About 10 years ago, Ronnie McAdoo left a good corporate job with Pepsi to start working with an urban ministry. People questioned him about then, too, sort of like they questioned his son.
This, though, is what James Michael came back for: to grow up and learn something about himself, and to experience college. He knows that comes with judgment nowadays, with so many college players leaving early for the NBA. McAdoo’s father gets a kick out of that.
More than anything his son has done on the basketball court, he likes to tell the story about how James Michael recently rescued and then adopted a kitten that had been abandoned outside the Smith Center. Took it home, fed it, took it to get shots – everything. That tells Ronnie he raised his son right.
So, too, does the fact that James Michael was never in a rush.
“People make it sound like it’s a bad thing now,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “You know – it’s amazing where we’ve come from, to the point where people will criticize a kid for staying in school.
“I mean, that blows me away – a kid is being criticized for staying in school because he loves playing for North Carolina, he loves the college atmosphere and the NBA is not going anywhere.”
That comes with a stigma nowadays, when players are expected to leave early. McAdoo has followed a different path.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter