North Carolina

Marcus Paige, UNC head to Iowa, where Paige’s basketball dreams began

North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, out with a broken hand, huddles with teammates during the second half against Temple on Nov 13 at Alumni Hall in Annapolis, Md.
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, out with a broken hand, huddles with teammates during the second half against Temple on Nov 13 at Alumni Hall in Annapolis, Md. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Among everything back home Marcus Paige misses his 10-year-old dog, a schnauzer named Vince – after Vince Carter, his favorite basketball player growing up – and he misses the pizza at Zoey’s in quaint, downtown Marion, Iowa.

“They have this thing called the zookie,” Paige, the North Carolina senior guard, said recently, “which is a big cookie with ice cream. So that’s what we go for. That’s the spot to go in Marion.”

Most of all, though, he misses his people. His parents and his old coaches. Some of his old teachers. His friends who meet up with him for pick-up games at the YMCA in Cedar Rapids, not far from Marion, whenever he comes home.

Paige will be back in his home state this weekend. The trip and everything he hoped it would entail, he said recently, before breaking a bone in his right hand, was going to be “really special.”

The top-ranked Tar Heels on Saturday will play at Northern Iowa, a little less than an hour away from Paige’s hometown of Marion. UNC scheduled the game, as part of a long tradition of homecoming games for players, for Paige.

And then came his hand injury days before the start of the season. The good news: the bandage that Paige had been wearing on his right hand is no more. He’s able to shoot. He appears on schedule in his recovery, which means he could return in time for UNC’s game on Dec. 1 against No. 3 Maryland.

The bad news: Paige will miss a game on Saturday that was scheduled in his honor. He’ll still be there, at Northern Iowa’s McLeod Center. He’ll be on the campus of the first school that offered him a basketball scholarship, one where a couple of his closest friends now play.

Returning home

Before the injury, Paige had been looking forward to playing on the same court with Matt Bohannon and Wes Washpun, two Northern Iowa starters who happen to be two of Paige’s closest friends. Paige won a state championship at Linn-Mar High with Bohannon, a Northern Iowa senior.

And Washpun is from Cedar Rapids, about six miles from Marion. Paige compares the distance between Cedar Rapids and Marion to the distance between Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Cedar Rapids is where he learned how to play basketball, on the campus of Mount Mercy University.

That’s where his parents met when they were in school there. His mom, a longtime high school basketball coach, would take young Paige to the gym at Mount Mercy, and that’s where his basketball dreams began.

“I would shoot layups and then she would run on the treadmill and work out,” Paige said. “And she would teach me how to shoot and stuff and then we could go home.”

The family moved to Marion when Paige was in the second grade. He grew up playing in youth leagues at that YMCA, and his father, the ardent basketball enthusiast that he is, would take Paige to watch the high school kids at Linn-Mar.

That’s who I wanted to be like, until I grew up and realized my physical limitations.

Marcus Paige on Vince Carter

Paige can still remember going to a Linn-Mar game one night to watch Jason Bohannon, Matt’s older brother. The elder Bohannon, who after his senior season won Iowa’s “Mr. Basketball” award, given annually to the best male athlete in the state, , went on to play at Wisconsin.

“I remember when I was in fifth or sixth grade going to watch him drop 40 points somewhere as he was getting recruited and becoming big-time,” Paige said.

Eventually, Paige became the player that younger kids admired. Northern Iowa and some other schools in the state began recruiting him during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Linn-Mar. By the time he was a junior, though, he had earned the attention of UNC coach Roy Williams.

Which made Paige’s college decision easier. Even in Iowa, he’d grown up “a huge Carolina fan,” he said, and when he was younger, he harbored visions of emulating Vince Carter.

Thus the inspiration behind the name of his dog.

“He’s a Tar Heel,” Paige said of Vince the schnauzer. “Shout out.”

Disappointing break

Vince the basketball player, meanwhile, continued to tantalize Paige with his acrobatic dunks and the ease with which he glided through space, and over defenders, to make them happen. Paige, like a lot of basketball-crazy boys, was smitten.

“That’s who I wanted to be like,” he said with a laugh, “until I grew up and realized my physical limitations.”

Those limitations haven’t been exactly limiting. Paige, who at 6-foot-1 is about five inches shorter than Carter, entered his senior season at UNC on an array of preseason All-American lists, and he was named the ACC’s Preseason Co-Player of the Year, along with Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon.

Last season, Paige played through plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition. Entering this season, he said he felt as healthy as he had since the end of his sophomore season, when he earned first-team All-ACC honors. Then that all changed in the span of a second or two during a practice.

During that Nov. 3 practice, Paige moved into position to defend Luke Maye, a freshman forward, on a drive to the basket. Paige caught his right hand in Maye’s jersey, and the hand stuck at just an angle that it broke Paige’s third metacarpal.

When he first learned that he’d broken a bone in his hand, he feared he’d be unable to play for two or three months. He worried he’d have to have surgery. The injury, though, will heal on its own. Paige’s only concern, it seems, has been returning before he has healed.

“I should be good to go (when I return),” Paige said recently. “They’re still hopeful that the timeline they’ve talked about and released in the statement is for me to be 100 percent. So that’s not saying I’ll come back in three to four weeks and be OK and progress into it.

“I would like to be full go.”

He would have liked to have been full go on Saturday against Northern Iowa. The game has been a while in the making.

Paige said coach Roy Williams first approached him with the idea in the middle of last season. Williams wanted to know what Paige thought of going on the road to play at Northern Iowa, and Paige gave an enthusiastic endorsement.

“There would be so many people that had watched me and rooted for me and hit me up on Facebook from back home that they’re cheering for me and stuff – they’ll get a chance to see me play,” Paige said.

That was the plan, anyway. Paige before the start of the season didn’t dismiss the idea of playing at Northern Iowa. He said he remained hopeful there might be a chance.

His hand isn’t ready, though.

And so Paige’s homecoming game will go on without him, while he watches from the bench of the team he always dreamed of playing for when he was just a kid growing up in Iowa.

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