The applause began to spread in the Smith Center, from section to section, when Theo Pinson rose from the North Carolina bench and walked over to the scorer’s table at mid-court on Sunday. He knelt and then sat and waited.
All the while the cheering grew louder. Here was Pinson, the Tar Heels forward, about to check into a game for the first time this season. He hadn’t played since surgery in late October to repair a broken bone in his foot, an injury that has cost him nearly half of his junior season.
Before the injury, Pinson had been expected to start. Now he was working his way back, finally cleared to play after practicing, lightly at first, for the past two weeks. A stoppage came with 13 minutes, 47 seconds left in the first half, UNC leading N.C. State 19-4.
A buzzer sounded and Pinson jogged onto the court. People stood and cheered. A chant broke out in the student section: “Thee-O … Thee-O … Thee-O.” The moment, Pinson said later, after the Tar Heels’ 107-56 victory, provided him with “a great feeling.”
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“Having the love from everybody, knowing that I’ve been missed a little bit,” he said. “But it’s something I’ll never forget, really. I mean, it was loud. Really loud. And I tried my hardest not to smile and just stay focused, but it was tough.”
Pinson is the guy who makes everyone around him smile. His teammates. UNC coach Roy Williams.
Last March during the Tar Heels’ run to the Final Four, Pinson embraced his role as the team jester. He provided comedy in the locker room with his impression of Larry Fedora, the UNC football coach. Should have seen it, Pinson’s teammates said.
During NCAA tournament press conferences, Pinson developed an entertaining habit of sneaking onto the stage and walking behind his teammates and Williams, who’d all be answering questions. There was the time Williams turned his head only to see Pinson staring back at him, inches away.
The light moments provided some laughter. Now on Sunday it was Pinson who was trying to play the straight man, trying to suppress the joy of a return that had been more than two months in the making after he was diagnosed with a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot.
After UNC’s victory on Sunday some tried to make the connection between Pinson’s return and what transpired against the Wolfpack. The Tar Heels’ 51-point victory was their widest in any ACC game, ever, and it just so happened that it came with Pinson back, quirks and versatility and all.
“I know everyone wants to make it, you know, Theo coming back today,” said Joel Berry, the junior point guard. “But I think we’ve got to get back to playing how we were in Maui. And if we continue to play the we we played today, I think we can get back to that point.
“But it’s just good having Theo out there.”
Pinson was never expected to be among the Tar Heels’ primary scoring options. UNC has Berry for that, and Justin Jackson, the junior forward, and seniors Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks.
Others are supposed to provide the points. Pinson, meanwhile, is expected to provide everything else: the assists and the rebounds and the steals and, especially, the energy. Always the energy. When Pinson was lost to his injury, Williams lamented the absence of UNC’s “energy guy.”
And then he was back on Sunday, at least for 13 minutes. Pinson didn’t score in his return, and that wasn’t necessarily a surprise. His contributions showed up just about everywhere else in the box score: five rebounds and five assists, four steals. A Pinson-like performance.
“Clark Kellog’s the first one I ever heard use this: a ‘stat sheet stuffer,’” Williams said, referencing the CBS college basketball analyst. “That’s who Theo is. He’s five assists, zero turnovers, four steals, five rebounds and 0-for-3 (shooting).”
The return of the 6-foot-6 Pinson helps UNC in ways that don’t show up in a box score. With him the Tar Heels (14-3), who play on Wednesday night at Wake Forest (10-6), are a more adaptable team, and Williams possesses more flexibility. If he wants to go small, for instance, Pinson can play power forward. If Williams desires to use a bigger lineup, Pinson for a stretch could even run the offense at point guard.
While Pinson healed from his broken foot, UNC lacked such versatility. It cost the Tar Heels, especially in defeats at Indiana and at Georgia Tech, but now with Pinson back Williams has the team he expected to have when practice began in early October – a team that, at last, is fully healthy and operational.
“First time we went out there with everybody healthy,” Pinson said afterward.
Now he allowed himself to do what he felt he couldn’t amid all of that applause earlier. He smiled widely and relaxed, embraced the moment.
“We looked really good tonight,” Pinson said after UNC’s most dominant ACC victory, according to the final margin, in school history. “Hopefully we can keep it up.”