That first March trip, to Kansas City, Taylor Sharp and his friends couldn’t get back amid the snowstorm. The next year they went to San Antonio. Then, last year, to Jacksonsville, Fla., and then Los Angeles, all to follow North Carolina in the NCAA tournament.
Sharp, a UNC senior, was back home in Chapel Hill on Thursday, packing for Houston and the Final Four. There’d been four seasons of March travels, to the Midwest and down South and to the West Coast, and now this.
“I guess it’s only fitting that our last trip,” Sharp said, “is one to the Final Four.”
In a lot of ways, Sharp is just a regular student at UNC, one involved in a variety of campus activities and one who has a range of interests, the men’s basketball team included. In other ways, though, he’s unique.
He attends UNC on a Morehead-Cain scholarship, the university’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarship. And he happens to be close friends with Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the two Tar Heels seniors who have been most responsible for the team’s journey to Houston, and the Final Four.
Sharp and Paige met nearly four years ago, the first night they were on campus. Sharp was from Morganton, pursuing his college education on a full academic scholarship. Paige was from Marion, Iowa, starting his college journey at his dream school on a full athletic scholarship.
It was an unlikely pairing, perhaps – the academic from the North Carolina foothills and the basketball player from the plains of the Midwest. Sharp and Paige, who lived in neighboring dorms, soon found they shared a lot in common, though, and became fast friends.
“I remember many times when Marcus would join us to play tennis and beach volleyball on campus,” Sharp wrote in an email a couple of weeks ago when he was in Puerto Rico for spring break. “(Paige would) come over to the dorm to watch a big basketball game or head with us to Franklin St. for dinner and a movie at Varsity Theater.”
That’s not always how it works at universities with high-profile sports teams. Big-time college athletics can exist in their own little worlds, with athletes rarely venturing outside of them.
From the beginning, though, Paige wanted to become an active part of the campus community. And so did Johnson who, through Paige, became good friends with Sharp during their first year on campus.
Paige and Johnson – and Joel James and J.P. Tokoto, the other members of UNC’s incoming basketball recruiting class four years ago – didn’t isolate themselves in the cocoon of the UNC basketball program. There were, Sharp said, many nights spent “hanging out” at Horton dorm, and video game sessions and group dinners at Rams Head dining hall.
Paige and Johnson, who arrived at UNC as high-profile basketball recruits, quickly became just one of the guys. Guys who often happened to play in nationally-televised basketball games, and for one of the most recognizable teams in college sports.
“Marcus and Brice – as high-profile as they’ve always been as student-athletes at UNC – have always been a bit of a different breed in the way that they have not isolated their Carolina experience to just that of a basketball player,” Sharp wrote in his email.
“I think it comes from a shared mentality that Marcus describes best, which goes something like, ‘We’re just students who happen to play basketball at a school where basketball happens to be really important.’ No kidding.”
Sharp, whose parents attended UNC, had already arrived a Tar Heels fan and a basketball enthusiast, in particular. His friendship with Paige and Johnson, though, took his interest and emotional investment in the program to a higher level.
Sharp, an interdisciplinary study major with a focus on the philosophy and business of sport, is a regular at UNC home games. He and some of his friends often rush to be first in line to enter the Smith Center, so they can secure seats in the first row of the student section risers behind the basket closest to the UNC bench. Sharp described it on Thursday as the “front row riser crew.”
When the postseason came around toward the end of Sharp’s freshman season, he made the easy decision to travel to Kansas City for UNC’s NCAA tournament games there. It was the start of an annual tradition of traveling to tournament games, though it didn’t necessarily begin smoothly.
After UNC lost its second-round tournament game that season, against Kansas, a snowstorm in Kansas City left Sharp and his friends scrambling to get back home. The next year brought a trip to San Antonio, and another UNC loss in the first weekend of the tournament.
And then, finally, a breakthrough last year in Jacksonville, Fla. The Tar Heels defeated Harvard and Arkansas and earned a trip to the West regional in Los Angeles.
“We were planning on staying in Jacksonville that night,” Sharp said earlier this week, “but then we were too excited after we won that second game for the Sweet 16, so we just drove back over night.”
By then, Sharp, Paige and Johnson were living together, along with another friend and UNC student, Thomas Doochin.
Johnson earlier this week described Sharp as being “like my brother.” Before the team left for Houston on Wednesday, Johnson, who now lives with Paige and Nate Britt, the junior guard, stopped by to spend some time with Sharp.
They all know their time left at UNC is running short. Though Sharp, Johnson and Paige don’t live together this season their group text message conversation remains in good health, Sharp said. Sharp, Paige, Johnson and Doochin gave themselves a nickname, too, inspired by their place.
“Our apartment number was 713,” Sharp said. “So we always call ourselves the ’713 fam.’ ”
Sharp and Doochin made the trip to Houston this weekend, along with a larger group of friends. UNC’s game against Syracuse in the national semifinals on Saturday night will be UNC’s 12th consecutive NCAA tournament game Sharp has attended – every one since his freshman season.
“He goes everywhere,” Paige said on Thursday, sitting inside the Tar Heels’ locker room at NRG Stadium. “A couple of weeks ago, he was in Costa Rica and stuff and then you see him now. It’s cool to see him make the effort to come out and make the effort to support me and Brice.”
Sharp has had a full four years at UNC that include the academic and service responsibilities that come with being a Morehead-Cain scholar. Various projects. He interned last summer in the NBA office in New York City. And he’s working on a documentary called “Hoops Africa,” which he said is about “basketball’s impact on society and the growth of the game in Africa.”
Sharp’s hope is to complete the project after he graduates. Eventually, he said, he’ll figure out his work plans, but he’s in no rush.
He came back from spring break early so he could watch Paige, Johnson and their teammates start the NCAA tournament in Raleigh. Last weekend brought a trip to Philadelphia, and the East regional.
“My time at UNC has been so connected towards Carolina basketball, some of my best memories come from these tournament trips,” Sharp said.
Sharp has become close with Paige’s parents over the years and has sometimes sat with Paige’s family during NCAA tournament games. When UNC plays on Saturday night against Syracuse, though, Sharp and his “front row riser crew” plan to be in the UNC student section at NRG Stadium.
He’ll be cheering on the Tar Heels, as always, and rooting especially for Paige and Johnson, his two good friends who just happen to also play prominent roles on UNC’s 19th Final Four team.