PJ Hairston starts over as UNC basketball team moves on

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

Off one end of the court, little kids lined up 10 or 12 deep to ride the Wizzer, a sort of spinning see-saw, while others climbed into the inflatable bounce house. On the other end of the court, P.J. Hairston went through his warm-ups, jump shot after jump shot, not far from mini-trampolines and a stack of hula hoops.

The clock counted down. Forty-five minutes until the start of the Texas Legends and the Bakersfield Jam – another Wednesday night in the NBA Development League at Dr. Pepper Arena, a small box of a building tucked into the neat suburbs and strip malls 20 miles north of Dallas.

In his old life, back at North Carolina, people would have come early just to watch Hairston and his teammates warm up. They might have aimed their iPhones at him and taken video, and kids wearing Carolina blue might have sat in awe while he made shot after shot.

In his new life, no one really seemed to pay attention to him. He warmed up in anonymity, a side show to the Wizzer, which the Boys and Girls Clubs kids – bussed in just for tonight – seemed to enjoy a lot more than watching a basketball player shoot jumpers.

It has been about three months since Hairston left UNC amid an impermissible benefits case so egregious that the school didn’t seek his reinstatement from the NCAA. Three months since a long saga – one that in North Carolina made household topics out of rental cars and a convicted felon named Fats Thomas – finally ended.

In some ways the story hasn’t concluded. While Hairston on Wednesday night jogged from one side of the court to the other, catching and shooting before his game, his old team was back in Chapel Hill, preparing to leave for San Antonio and the NCAA tournament.

Of all the places UNC could have been sent – San Diego or Spokane, Wash., or Orlando, Fla., or Milwaukee or any other host site – the Tar Heels wound up in San Antonio, about a four-hour drive from where Hairston has found refuge. While the Legends and Jam were about to tip off, the Tar Heels were about to take off.

By the end of Wednesday night, they’d be nearly together again – in the same state, at least. The Hairston drama hung over the Tar Heels at the start of the season and in the months before and, even now – months after his departure – Hairston’s story remains intertwined with UNC’s season.

What if?

Whatever the Tar Heels do – or don’t do – in the NCAA tournament will come with a question: How much better could the Tar Heels have been if Hairston had stayed out of trouble?

If UNC defeats Iowa State on Sunday and makes a run, it will continue the overcoming-adversity narrative that has defined the season. If UNC’s season ends, the Tar Heels will travel back home with one of the great what-ifs in program history: What if they’d had P.J.?

Hairston is aware of this, but he doesn’t necessarily like to talk about it. He has moved on, or at least he says so.

“I’m not going to say I’ve gotten used to it,” Hairston said, during a break in his warm-ups, of not playing at UNC. “Every time I watch them play, I feel like I want to be there.

“But now that I’ve been away for so long, it’s just like I’m comfortable with what I’m doing but at the same time I’m proud of them and what they’ve done, and (they’ve) showed people that they can win without me.”

Hairston thinks about what might have been. How could he not?

Back in November, while UNC and Hairston waited for a resolution, Roy Williams said that in practices Hairston was playing as well as any perimeter player he’d coached. There was hope then, still, that Hairston would return. At least Hairston had that hope.

Then one day in the middle of December, he met with UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham. Cunningham told him the cold reality – that UNC wouldn’t seek his reinstatement from the NCAA.

“It shocked me a lot, actually,” Hairston said. “I wasn’t expecting them to say, ‘Oh, well, you’re done at North Carolina.’ I mean, that wasn’t the first thing I thought. I was expecting them at worst to say, ‘Oh, 15-game suspension.’ Something like that. But I mean, they didn’t. So once he said it I was just like, well, I’ve got to move on.”

Hairston talks a lot about moving on. During a 20-minute interview Wednesday, he spoke about that several times – of not living in the past, or thinking about it, and of embracing the present and his future.

The contrast was impossible to ignore. Here was Hairston, warming up in front of the Wizzer and the inflatable house, on the night before the start of the NCAA tournament. Here was Hairston, after the game started, running up and down the court amid free T-shirt tosses, while music blared around him.

Trouble and tears

Hairston found trouble repeatedly in the summer. There was the arrest last June in Durham at a license checkpoint, and the charges – both later dropped – of marijuana possession and driving without a license. There was the revelation that the new GMC Yukon he’d been driving that night had been rented and paid for by Thomas, the felon.

And then, later, there was the slow trickle of information about Hairston’s possible use of other high-end rental cars. When Hairston in July found more trouble – a reckless driving charge for speeding down Interstate 85 toward Charlotte – Williams suspended him indefinitely. He always thought Hairston would be back, though.

Everyone did, until everything changed. When Williams and Hairston met before the news became public, Hairston said there were tears. He cried. Williams cried.

Those tears have long dried. Hairston has moved on, he said, without a sense of remorse.

“I don’t have a sense of remorse for anything,” Hairston said. “I’m just the type of person where if something happens, it happens, and if something bad happens you have to move on.

“You can’t just keep talking about the same things over and over and over again. I feel like at some point you’ve got to realize you’re an adult and you’re going to make mistakes. So you need to move on with life.”

He doesn’t have much to say about the cars or about Thomas. He doesn’t have much to say about what led him down the path that led to his exit from UNC.

About Thomas, a party promoter, Hairston smiled. Leslie McDonald, a UNC senior guard, served a nine-game suspension for using rental cars that were tied to the same man. Fats Thomas became something of a household name, and that seems to amuse Hairston.

“He’s obviously like some big-time celebrity – which is funny to me,” he said. “But I’m not going to speak on him, because that’s none of my business.”

Mostly empty arenas

Hairston has tried to move on in the D-League. He says his life now is “easier.” He doesn’t have to get up early but once every couple days, he said, and though he’s taking an online class at UNC, he said, “I don’t have to worry about sitting in lectures.”

The money isn’t bad – not for a 21-year-old. He said he brings home about $1,900 every two weeks. The travel isn’t great, and neither is the atmosphere. By now Hairston has grown used to playing in mostly-empty arenas, and he’s grown used to playing amid the constant drone of music, which plays on at all times except during free throws.

At the start of the game on Wednesday night, the song “Come on Ride the Train” played during the tip-off and, a few minutes later, the public address announcer raised his voice and said, “If you’re a Legends fan and want a free T-shirt, make some noise!” And all the kids screamed. The Legends were in the middle of a possession.

Three more times in the first quarter alone, the PA guy ordered fans to scream for shirts. And they did.

On the court, Hairston tried to get open, working his way around screens. Off the court, three mascots roamed around. There was a Spider-Man-looking guy in an aqua green body suit with a white cape – Captain CoServ– and someone dressed as an energy-saving light bulb. Dunker, the Legends’ big, blue floppy-eared mascot, waddled around, posing for pictures.

Hairston scored his first points on a dunk a few minutes in. He scored 27 more, and he looked like the best player in a game with no shortage of guys seeking a chance – and sometimes a second or third or fourth chance – in the NBA.

One was Dennis Horner, the former N.C. State forward who starts for the Jam. Another was JamesOn Curry, who was listed on the Jam’s roster but didn’t play. Ten years ago, Curry’s arrest in a drug sting in an Alamance County high school caused him to lose his basketball scholarship at UNC.

The D-League is full of guys trying to make it, and trying to overcome their past, and Hairston is one of them. It’s different for him, though, because he’s likely to be a first-round draft pick this summer when he becomes eligible for the NBA draft. The D-League, for Hairston, is likely only a detour. And though he’s not remorseful for what caused him to leave UNC, he claims to be changed.

“I’ve learned not to put myself in that situation ever again,” Hairston said. “That’s the main thing. So you won’t ever have to worry about me being in a situation where I’m taking a damn mugshot.

“The main thing that I was frustrated with myself about was just the decisions I made. I just made some bad decisions. Made some bad decisions and ended up in the wrong situation with the wrong people.”

Hairston has said similar things before. During his sophomore season last year, he spoke of increased maturity.

‘I’m always by myself’

By the second quarter Wednesday night, Hairston’s game had become a sideshow for the kids. About a hundred were at one end of the court, hula-hooping and jumping up and down on small trampolines and paying no attention to the basketball.

Hairston was well on his way to another strong night – he’s averaging 21 points – and afterward it was time to sign autographs and go home. There was another game, at Tulsa, on Thursday night, and then Hairston planned to attend UNC’s game against Providence in San Antonio on Friday.

Hairston has watched the Tar Heels when he can. He said he watched UNC’s victory against Duke at the Smith Center from his hotel room in Delaware. While the Tar Heels completed their rally and when students flooded the court, Hairston sat alone, staring at the scene on TV.

“I’m always by myself,” he said.

The D-League is a place of transition, guys coming and going. The family environment that exists at college programs isn’t there.

Hairston still keeps in touch with his old teammates – he’s in on a group text message conversation with a lot of them – and he said he talks with senior guard McDonald most of all.

“I speak on behalf of all my teammates,” McDonald said, “when I say that P.J.’s always been a part of this team.”

‘I’ve moved on’

Still, Hairston caused a lot of grief for this team. Barring a run to the Final Four, the Hairston drama is what people might most remember about the Tar Heels’ 2013-14 season.

They will remember the highlights, too, but the Hairston story, and UNC’s reaction to it, has defined this season. Not that he’s remorseful about that, either.

“Honestly, I don’t care what people think,” Hairston said. “If they want to blame me, they can blame me. But it’s not going to make a difference to me because like I said I’ve moved on.

“I’m where I need to be and where I want to be. And I have goals to achieve and I have the draft to work for. So honestly I’m not really worried about what people are thinking of me in college. I’m not a college athlete anymore.”

Hairston’s absence contributed – and perhaps caused – some of UNC’s erratic play. A reporter who might have been unfamiliar with UNC’s season asked Williams on Thursday whether this had been a frustrating group to coach.

“A frustrating group to coach? Oh my gosh, no,” Williams said. “All the bull … around it has been frustrating, and you don’t have to use that terminology if you don’t want to.

“If it hadn’t been for my team, I would have jumped off the top of the building. My team is the one that was the savior throughout the whole season, and since the offseason. It’s been a tough time in Chapel Hill.”

A “tough time in Chapel Hill” is how Williams describes all the Hairston drama – the arrest and the use of rental cars and then, eventually, the player’s dismissal. Williams has said this has been his most difficult season. He described the Hairston ordeal as the most difficult period of his coaching career.

Hairston, though, has moved on without regret or remorse. He said he was mad at himself for a while, but the anger faded. The question of what-if, and what might have been, won’t fade, though.

Hairston admitted he wonders sometimes. Around this time of year, in the NCAA tournament, his mind might wander to thoughts of what might have been, and how much better the Tar Heels might have been if they’d had him.

“We’ll never know, huh?” Hairston said with a smile. “I guess we’ll never find out.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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