Why UNC showed up to the NCAA tournament with fancy, old-school hats

Shea Rush began taking orders about a month ago, asking his North Carolina teammates and coaches what color they preferred, and what style, and how wide they wanted their brim to be. All the normal questions one asks before making hats by hand.

Rush is a freshman forward who has played in 18 games, for a total of 28 minutes, for the Tar Heels. In his spare time he makes hats, shaping beaver fur into fedoras, mainly, but also into cowboy hats – like the one he made for one of his teammates, Kanler Coker.

Coker, a senior guard who, like Rush, doesn't play much, wore his cowboy hat when the Tar Heels arrived in Greenville, S.C., on Wednesday night. The entire team was wearing hats, in fact, and Rush made all of them, designing them and customizing them based on his teammates' desires.

It was something of a strange sight, indeed: members of the UNC basketball team all adorned in classic men's headwear. They looked like characters from early episodes of Mad Men, perhaps. Or like grizzled 1930s private eyes. Or maybe like pioneers in the wild west.

They could pass for modern-day pro athletes during a press conference, too. That's where Rush's fascination with hats began, after all.

“In high school I saw guys in the NBA and the NFL wearing hats at press conferences,” he said on Thursday, inside the UNC locker room, “and those hats are pretty expensive. So I figured, why not make my own? And so I just started making them.

“I ordered the materials and kind of saw a couple of ways how to do it online, and went for it.”

And so this was Rush's masterpiece, for now: all of his teammates wearing his hats, in the days leading into the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels wore Rush's hats – “Hats by Shea,” is the name of his budding hat enterprise, and his website – when they arrived in town on Wednesday.

They wore them again on Thursday, when they gathered to go out to dinner. Sets of photographs emerged online with the team in its hats – two pictures in which the Tar Heels alternated tough-guy looks with smiles. UNC coach Roy Williams sat toward the back in a stylish little tan number.

Rush put special care into that one, the hat he made for Williams. It included a black bow, and what Rush described as “a little Tar Heel leather strip.”

“And then I put a Tar Heel golf tee in the bow, as a nice little touch because he loves golf,” Rush said.

Rush made 24 hats in all – one for himself, 14 for his teammates and the other nine for the coaching and support staff. It takes about a week to finish a hat. It has to be cured, after it's steamed and pressed into its shape, but Rush has it down: He can handle about seven hats at a time.

He's been at this now for about a year and a half. When he first began to make hats, Rush said he consulted the internet. He found a forum for “hat connoisseurs,” he said, and the conversation there provided him with the instruction he needed.

Making hats isn't too hard, Rush said. All you need is steam, an iron and “a hat block,” which gives hats their shape. And, oh yes – the material from which the hat is made. Rush uses beaver fur, and thus has a beaver fur supplier, of sorts.

“I order from a group in Michigan,” he said. “And there's discounts when you order in dozens and stuff, so that kind of helped out. It was my gift to these guys. I did it all on my own.”

Rush's hats were a hit here on Thursday. Everyone wanted to know the story behind them.

His teammates answered question after question about “Hats by Shea.” Williams faced a couple of questions in his press conference about the hats. Someone described them to Williams as cowboy hats.

“I didn't necessarily think they were cowboy hats,” he said. “Is that what you think they are?”

The exchange continued. Williams said they could be “mafia hats.”

“Who knows? I like 'em.” Williams said. “I've got one. … I don't look good in a hat at all, may not look good, anyway, but I know I don't look good in a hat. But I'm going to try to put mine on.”

Williams said it was a “pretty neat deal,” Hats by Shea. Rush's teammates seemed on board, too.

Just about everyone wanted a hat, Rush said, or at least welcomed the idea of having a hat, with the exception of freshman guard Seventh Woods and senior forward Isaiah Hicks. They showed the most initial hesitation but even they relented, eventually.

And so here the Tar Heels were on Thursday night, about to grace the streets of Greenville in their new hats. According to the pictures, at least, the hats fit. They looked as much a part of the players' wardrobe as the suits they were wearing.

Williams wore his. He looked sort of like a detective. Or maybe a Prohibition-era gangster. He looked like he believed he should be wearing the hat he was wearing, and perhaps that was the most important thing of all.

“Confidence is the biggest part when it comes to a hat,” Rush said. “If you feel that you look good, then you're going to rock the hat. You're going to look great. But people can tell if you're nervous in a hat. That definitely shows.”

A day before the start of the NCAA tournament, nobody looked too nervous in their hats.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter