Marcus Paige, UNC teammates raise competition in on-campus pickup games

Marcus Paige provided a teaser Thursday morning at a little past 9 when he sent out these 10 words to the 80,000 people who follow him on Twitter: “Might try to play some pickup ball on campus today.”

Paige, the North Carolina senior guard, will be among the most recognizable college basketball players in the country this season. He will enter the season an All-American candidate and perhaps as the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year.

He will enter the season the Tar Heels’ unquestioned leader, and as one of the primary reasons they’re among the favorites to reach the Final Four. Yet on Thursday morning at a little past 9 he was just a college student thinking about maybe finding a game somewhere on campus.

Later on, at a little past 5 in the afternoon, Paige came back to Twitter again.

“Me, Nate, Joel, Justin lookin for some pickup games people!” he wrote, referring to teammates Nate Britt, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson. Attached to Paige’s tweet was one from Jackson: “Where are people trying to hoop today? Rams or Cobb?”

The courts there, at Ram Village, near the Smith Center, and near the Cobb Residence Hall, at another end of campus, are among UNC’s most popular for pickup games. Eventually Paige and his teammates decided on the courts near Cobb, and Paige sent out another tweet announcing it.

By 6 p.m. Paige, Britt, Berry and Jackson were there. Theo Pinson, the sophomore wing forward, came, too, and so did Luke Maye, a freshman forward.

They were carrying on a tradition that’s at least a few years old now – one of UNC players turning to Twitter to set up on-campus pickup games against regular students, many of whom will find themselves walking to the Smith Center in coming months to watch Paige and his teammates play.

The court near Cobb is small, maybe about 70 percent the length of a regulation one. It’s narrower, too, leaving room enough for four-on-four. The rims seem a bit lower than normal, and one hangs at a downward angle.

Paige and his teammates didn’t play too hard – maybe about half of half speed, if even that. But they turned it on in two- or three-second spurts at a time, like when Paige won an early game with a breakaway alley-oop dunk on a pass from Berry.

“Game time,” someone said after that, and a new foursome of challengers came out.

The competition for the UNC varsity consisted of anyone who showed up wanting to play. Mostly, they were guys who lived in nearby dorms who walked over after reading Paige’s announcement on Twitter, an announcement that provided the location with the words, “Come get some.”

Some of those who came to get some on Thursday play on UNC’s club basketball team. Others just play intramurals. Some of them looked like they didn’t play much basketball at all.

Some foursomes looked they like took the task seriously. Others like they only wanted to share some court space – even if that space came short and narrow, with at least one bent rim – with guys who have the potential to find themselves in the Final Four in about seven months.

“I’m always looking for (Paige) on Twitter to see when he’s playing and if he’s out then I’ll try and find him,” said Jack Nicastro, a UNC junior who came out on Thursday. “But it’s just good competition, like way better than at Rams or Woollen (Gym). They don’t try until they really need to play.

“Like we (were) up 10-5 or something when they turned it on. And that’s what we want.”

Nicastro, who’s from Charlotte, said he’d played against Paige before, a couple of years ago on the courts at Rams.

“And my team actually beat him,” Nicastro said. “He was by himself. He didn’t have his whole crew with him.”

A fun game for all

Paige couldn’t have been playing all that hard, either. That’s one of the unspoken rules of these pickup games – play hard enough to break a sweat, hard enough to dunk every now and then but not nearly hard enough to raise the risk of injury beyond what it might be while jogging down a sidewalk.

And that’s one of the unspoken rules, too, for the challengers: keep in mind this isn’t exactly no blood, no foul.

“They’re cool guys,” Nicastro said. “They just don’t want to get hurt. They’ll get on us if they get a hard foul or something. But they’re cool – they’re normal guys.”

But they didn’t come out on a muggy, hot Thursday afternoon to lose. When Nicastro’s team took that 10-5 lead – or whatever the score was then, given that no one could quite remember it afterward –Paige implored his teammates to increase the effort on defense.

The intensity didn’t exactly rise to the level you’d see against, say, Duke – or even against Fairfield in mid-November – but Paige at one point did warn his teammates about giving up 3-pointers. Which, as is standard in pickup basketball, count as 2-pointers given games are scored in 1s and 2s.

“No 2s,” Paige said at one point while he jogged back on defense. It was a phrase he’s unlikely to repeat in the heat of the moment at Cameron Indoor Stadium this winter.

At another point, after being fouled after he attempted a baseline turnaround, Jackson walked back toward the top of the key saying, “That’s us” – the universal phrase meaning that he’d just been fouled. If only that worked in games officiated by Karl Hess.

Eventually the varsity completed its comeback and won the game with a Jackson layup. He slipped past his defender and was wide open under the basket, where Pinson – well-defended on the play – made the pass for the easy assist.

Tyler Keisker, a junior from St. Louis, had been guarding Jackson and doing OK with it – especially given that Jackson rarely ran or attempted a shot.

“He wasn’t trying to shoot,” Keisker said with a laugh. “I’m not going to say I stopped him, because I definitely didn’t. But I did my best.”

Keisker, who lives across the hall from Nicastro in the nearby Winston Residence Hall, said his goal was “just to get a good run in today.”

Mission accomplished, and it so happened that it came against Paige, Jackson and company. All the while on Thursday afternoon, a small crowd gathered and grew at one end of the courts and watched. Every now and then a car rolled by slowly, sometimes with the driver peering out of a window making sure it really was Paige and others out there.

They played for about 90 minutes. After the close one late, the varsity guys made quick work of the last group of challengers.

Paige and some of his teammates put on a short dunk show – with many in the small crowd holding up their phones to capture the moment – and then they grabbed their things from the edge of the court. It’d been fun. On his way out Paige slapped hands with a few of the guys he’d played against.

“Check the Twitter,” he said before he walked off, leaving the court to its next round of pickup games.