The phone calls usually come in the morning, early, or sometimes when Roy Williams is out recruiting, driving down an interstate somewhere, or through the country, with a desire to hear the familiar voice of the man who in some ways gave him everything.
Or gave him, at least, the most important things: confidence and belief and direction. Williams, the North Carolina coach, credits his discovery of those things to his relationship with Buddy Baldwin, his high school coach.
“Sometimes we talk about basketball,” Baldwin said during a phone interview last week. “We don’t talk too much about that. Don’t talk about recruiting, really. We talk about playing golf. We do a lot of that together.”
Baldwin, who will be 75 this week, wishes he was in Jacksonville with the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament. But he had some cataracts surgery last week, and he has some other health issues and, besides, he wants to be ready, maybe, for what might come.
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“If he gets to the Final Four, I promise you, I’ll be there,” Baldwin said. “I promise you. I will be there. He knows I’ll be there.”
Williams, 64, knows Baldwin is always there. In the good times, like during those seven runs to the Final Four – four at Kansas and three at UNC. And during the not-so good times, of which there have been many recently.
In a lot of ways, this has been the most difficult season of Williams’ career.
It began with him answering questions about a long-running academic and athletic scandal that called into question his character and his knowledge of bogus African studies classes in which many of his players were enrolled earlier in his tenure at UNC.
On the court, the Tar Heels have been maddeningly inconsistent. The variance between the peaks and valleys, Williams said recently, has been wider with this team than any other.
“We’ve given him some extra gray hairs, probably, with our play throughout the season,” said Marcus Paige, the junior guard. “But we’ve also shown some really good signs, and he’s stuck with us the whole time. And he’s as enthusiastic as ever.
“So, hopefully, these next couple of weeks can also have a huge impact on how he views the season.”
Off the court, Williams has endured significant personal losses. In December, Williams lost one of his best friends, Ted Seagroves, a neighbor and longtime golfing buddy who died of cancer.
Less than two months later, Dean Smith – the man who gave Williams his start in college coaching, and the one Williams has spent his career trying to emulate and honor – died after suffering for years from a neurological disorder that robbed him of his memories.
Amid the losses – the painful ones on the court, the more devastating ones off it – Williams has turned to Baldwin at times for support, yes, but also for a sense of normalcy. Baldwin’s voice – thick with the kind of drawl that comes with spending a lifetime in the North Carolina mountains – has been a comforting sound.
Asked how often he speaks with Baldwin these days Williams laughed and said, “Too much.”
“It’s every game, every big (golf) round, every bad round, every good night at the craps tables, every bad night at the craps tables,” Williams said.
It was Baldwin, after all, who turned Williams onto coaching, and his favorite pastimes of golf and shooting craps.
“So Wanda thinks he’s 0-for-three,” Williams said with a laugh, referring to his wife. “She’s not sure he’s very much of a positive influence.”
Baldwin helped Williams beat long odds
Baldwin held the greatest influence over Williams in his younger years, when he was a student at T.C. Roberson High in Asheville. Baldwin was a young coach himself, only 26 when he started coaching Williams, who then was small, short and feisty.
The first time Baldwin saw Williams play basketball was on the Roberson junior varsity team. Williams was “very small,” Baldwin said – only about 5-foot-5 – but his on-court acumen stood out, and so did his heart.
He played with an elevated sense of determination, as if he’d been driven to rise from his poor mountain roots and become something. It wasn’t long before Baldwin began changing Williams’ life.
Williams trusted him with some of the more sensitive details of his life – his difficult life at home, for one, where he didn’t have much of a relationship with his father. Baldwin still remembers Williams telling him a story from earlier in his childhood about when he’d play basketball across the street from his school with a group of boys.
After the games, Baldwin said, “They’d stop at a filling station there and all the boys would buy a Coke. And Roy didn’t have a dime to buy a Coke. So he’d drink water. And he told me, he said, ‘Coach – one of these days, I’ll have all the Coke I can drink.’”
Even now, after two national championships and nearly 800 victories, after entering the Naismith Hall of Fame, after all the accomplishments and accolades, Williams often expresses humble gratitude for where he is, coaching at UNC. He does so because it’s easy for him to know what could have been.
Maybe what likely might have been, had Baldwin not come into his life.
“He’s the reason I got into coaching, because he’s the first person – I may have said this before – to really make me feel good about myself, give me confidence,” Williams said. “First person to ever talk to me about going to college. If I hadn’t played basketball for him, I don’t know if I’d even gone to college. Because it just wasn’t the history in my family.”
Williams did go to college, though, because he knew he wanted to be a coach, and he knew he wanted to be a coach like Baldwin, who took kids on the margins of life – like Williams – and brought out their potential. When Williams graduated from UNC he went back to Asheville and coached at Owen High.
He was in the same conference as T.C. Roberson, where Baldwin coached for so long they named the gym after him. They coached against each other for five seasons before Williams went back to UNC as an assistant to Smith, and during those five years, Williams and Baldwin became closer.
They played more golf and talked more basketball, and there might have been some craps lessons in there, too.
“The year he came back is the year of the best team I ever had,” Baldwin said. “And he still talks about it. I killed him. And we were good that year. Really good. I think we were 25-0, and Roy came back to a school that they didn’t have anything.”
Even so, when Baldwin drives down to Chapel Hill for games, he often runs into guys – now in their 50s – who played on Williams’ first teams at Owen High.
“They’re still very loyal to coach,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin and his wife often drive from Asheville to Chapel Hill on game days. They went to 14 UNC home games, and went to the ACC tournament. For Baldwin it’s a sort of homecoming, too, given he graduated from UNC in 1962.
He arrived on campus not long after the Tar Heels had won the 1957 championship. He lived in Winston dorm and dreamed of becoming part of the basketball program but, he said, he “wasn’t good enough.”
He bought some cheap golf clubs, though, and one day walked down the hill on Highway 54 to Finley Golf Course, and there was Smith, then a young UNC assistant coach, and he and Baldwin played golf for the first time.
Decades later, when Williams was a UNC assistant, history often repeated itself when Baldwin would join Williams and Smith for frequent rounds. And then, after 10 years as an assistant at UNC, Williams became the head coach at Kansas. Baldwin and his wife visited him there not long after.
“First time he picked me up at the airport in Kansas City and we drove to Lawrence and parked there in front, went in the house, took the luggage in, he said, come here a minute,” Baldwin said. “Walked out to the garage, and it’s the biggest refrigerator I’ve ever seen. He said, ‘Open this thing up.’
“I opened it up, and I’ve never seen so many Cokes in my life.”
Baldwin now the proud papa
Baldwin likes that story, and retelling it comes easily. It’s more difficult for him to describe what it means when he hears Williams say the kind of things he often says about Baldwin – that Baldwin was the first man who gave him confidence, that Baldwin led Williams into coaching.
Because to Baldwin, he was just doing his job – just being a coach. Just being there.
“You never know what impact you have on kids,” Baldwin said. “You know what I mean? They don’t come up and tell you or anything. You don’t know what impact you have. I just know that when I coached Roy, I loved the way he played, I loved his competitiveness.
“He really went after it. And any coach loves that. And I don’t know ... When he says things like that, I mean, that makes you feel good, but sometimes you just – you know, like I say, you don’t know what kids take from you as a coach or a teacher. You really don’t.”
Williams played on Baldwin’s varsity team for two and a half seasons. Williams played point guard, and Baldwin appreciated his basketball intelligence, how Williams often made the right decision, the smart play. Those teams were never great, Baldwin said, but they were good.
Baldwin has known Williams now for nearly 50 years, longer than Smith knew Williams, and better, perhaps, than any other man. Along with Smith, Baldwin likely has been the greatest male influence in Williams’ life.
Five decades later, it’s easy for Baldwin to remember what he most admired about Williams.
“What sticks out in my mind is how competitive he was,” Baldwin said.
And so during Williams’ most difficult season, sometimes Baldwin reminds his old player of that. They don’t always talk about Williams’ hardships – about the losses on the court and the more difficult ones off it – but when he feels he needs to, Baldwin will offer some words now, like he did then.
“All I can tell him is, coach, it’s going to get better,” Baldwin said. “It will get better. And of course, he’s the type that – I’ll tell you right now – he’s not going to give in. I’ll tell you.”