Every Sunday they gathered, C.J. Bradley and about 20 of his friends.
From middle school through high school, Bradley, a sophomore at UNC Charlotte, and the rest of the group met before the NFL games at 1 p.m. and stayed together until Sunday night’s game began. The host changed each week, but pickup football and basketball games remained a constant.
Luke Maye couldn’t attend every week. When he did, he played quarterback for both teams and dominated in basketball.
It was on one of those Sundays that Maye capped a competitive game of 21 with the game-winning shot. The entire group piled on him in jubilation, a ritual as old as the weekly hangouts.
That moment came to Bradley’s mind Sunday, when Maye, a sophomore basketball player at North Carolina, drilled a shot with 0.3 seconds left to clinch a 75-73 win over Kentucky and set up Saturday’s 8:49 p.m. game against Oregon in the Final Four.
“When I saw his (UNC) teammates mob him,” said Bradley, who graduated with Maye from Hough High in 2015, “that reminded me of the time we mobbed him when he made the game-winning shot in (friend) Beach Galloway’s backyard.”
Sunday’s shot etched Maye’s name in NCAA tournament lore. But it’s in his hometown of Huntersville and at Hough that his ascent to stardom has resonated the most.
A local celebrity
This past basketball season, Ben Topp, a senior at Hough, collided with a teammate, fracturing one of the bones in his upper jaw and knocking out a tooth.
That was the last thing on his mind Sunday, at least momentarily, as he joined the celebration inside Huntersville’s Duckworth’s Grill & Taphouse following Maye’s heroics.
“I’ve had a fake tooth for like four months,” Topp said. “I went so crazy that it popped out.”
Moments later, principal Laura Rosenbach declared Monday “Luke Maye Day.” In an email, she encouraged students and faculty to wear North Carolina or Hough gear in support of Maye.
That required little convincing.
While at Hough, Maye talked to every student in his high school classes. He cheered on the Huskies’ other teams as often as he could. The entire student body attended his signing day ceremony, a couple of months before he was named prom king.
“They took to him because he was so personable and an outstanding guy,” said Jason Grube, Maye’s basketball coach during his senior season at Hough. “He was always caring and genuinely concerned about peoples’ feelings.”
In high school, Maye sat in the front row of his classes, teachers and former classmates said. And that’s where he was on Monday, when he received a standing ovation in his Business 101 class at 8 a.m., about 12 hours after securing the Tar Heels’ record 20th Final Four appearance.
Bradley took an English course with Maye that included a competition in which the boy and girl with the highest grades were the class king and queen. Maye remained king all semester.
He constantly raised his hand. He engaged in discussion. And no matter the subject, Maye left the classroom the same way.
“Every time he walked out my door, he said, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Best, for teaching me today,’ ” said Stacey Best, Maye’s 11th-grade math teacher. “I’ve never had a kid appreciate that.”
Hough opened in 2010. Maye arrived the following year, and the example he set in the classroom and on the basketball court, where he scored 1,923 career points, endeared him to all.
“Right now, he’s the best basketball player to ever come through here,” Grube said. “He makes that shot, and it’s almost like, ‘Good luck to anybody following through.’ ”
‘A down-to-earth, great guy’
Joe Hatzopoulos, the operator of Chick-fil-A Lake Norman, says the Mayes, a family of six, visited his establishment three or four times per week when Luke was in high school. Most customers order individual items or combo meals. The Mayes requested party trays.
Many of Hatzopoulos’ employees graduated from Hough with Luke or attend the school now. So after Sunday’s game, many of them called for a gesture backing him.
A message on the restaurants’ reader board now says, “Luke is A-Maye-zing!”
“Whether you’re a Duke, (North) Carolina or N.C. State fan,” Hatzopoulos said, “I think a lot of people are Maye family fans.”
The reader board and a “Maye Madness” sign in front of the Mayes’ neighborhood reflect just a part of the buzz throughout Huntersville. At Hough, Grube has been inundated with media requests.
Every story published about Luke enters a group text message with him, Bradley and about eight others — a portion of the group that met on Sundays.
The group message erupted when Luke made his monumental shot, but an hour past before he replied. It was then that someone asked Luke how many messages he’d received. The answer: 304. Yet despite that ever-growing number, the influx of tweets or the eyes of the college basketball world resting upon him, Luke celebrated with his childhood friends like old times, even if just for a moment.
“It would be so easy for him to read 304 messages and not respond to us,” Bradley said. “But he did and said thank you. I think that’s another reason why I’m so happy for him.”
“Even if I wasn’t his friend,” Bradley added, “I would want him to win because he’s such a down-to-earth, great guy.”