Roy Williams on Tuesday night told the story of how he came to work alongside Steve Robinson – the story of a professional relationship that began with a two-hour meeting 28 years ago before Williams’ first season as the head coach at Kansas.
“I decided I was going to hire him,” Williams, the North Carolina coach, said of his longtime assistant.
The memory came to Williams, as fresh and clear as it ever has been, after the Tar Heels’ 68-65 victory on Tuesday at Boston College. It was a win that included its share of dramatic moments, none more so than when Williams left the game with 14 ½ minutes remaining after experiencing vertigo.
During a timeout he spun around quickly after attempting to make a point with an official. He walked toward the Tar Heels’ bench and slowly collapsed into a seated position before he was helped off of the court.
Williams’ absence left Robinson, who had been a head coach at Florida State for five seasons and at Tulsa for two, in charge. He looked the part.
Robinson often stood, pacing the sideline. He directed players. He was more vocal, a contrast to his usually-stoic demeanor as Williams’ right hand. Afterward Robinson attempted to downplay his role.
“I just happened to be the oldest assistant coach so that’s probably why I’m up here,” he said.
That was only part of the reason, though. Williams trusts all of his assistant coaches and shares a unique relationship with each one of them but his relationship with Robinson is different.
They go back almost three decades, to when Williams first became a head coach at Kansas. Williams needed to build a staff of assistants, and Robinson, who had been an assistant coach at Cornell, impressed Williams enough to receive an offer.
That’s how the relationship began. But what is it like now? Now it’s something different, and deeper.
“He’s been like a brother to me for 21 years,” Williams said, referencing the number of years he has worked alongside Robinson, first at Kansas and then at UNC.
And so Williams was proud of his brother on Tuesday night. The Tar Heels trailed throughout the first half and trailed by nine points, twice, early in the second.
When Williams left the game, Boston College led 49-44 and the Eagles, who before Tuesday night had lost all 10 of their ACC games by double-digits, somehow seemed in control. When the Eagles took an eight-point lead with a little less than nine minutes to play, it appeared like UNC might be headed toward a stunning defeat.
Robinson wasn’t having it, though. The No. 9 Tar Heels seemed frazzled during their first few minutes without Williams but eventually Robinson provided a sense of calm. In the process, he showed a side of himself that not even UNC’s most experienced players had seen.
“He showed the leadership qualities that he had as a head coach back then,” said Marcus Paige, the senior guard. “It was huge. He made all the right calls down the stretch. ...
“It changed my perspective on him because I’ve never had to be in that moment in my four years.”
Williams put Robinson’s performance more succinctly: “He coached his buns off tonight,” he said.
Robinson said afterward he has always tried to prepare himself for the kind of moment he encountered on Tuesday. In the back of his mind, he said, he’s always thinking that he could assume Williams’ responsibilities in an instant, either as a result of a health emergency or an ejection.
“I’ve always told myself,” Robinson said, “that OK, if something like that happens, then you’ve got to step right in – it’s your job to go right in and manage the team, give those kids confidence that we’re going to be OK.”
In that sense Robinson sounded a bit like a backup quarterback who speaks of having to be prepared. Yet when the moment arrived, it did so amid unwelcome circumstances, with Williams collapsing and needing guidance to walk off the court.
“We certainly rallied around the fact that coach was down,” Robinson said.
That wasn’t enough on its own, though. The Tar Heels weren’t simply going to win because they were inspired by Williams’ health scare.
They needed guidance of their own. And during the game’s tensest moments – with UNC trailing by eight points with less than nine minutes remaining, and trailing by 60-59 with less than two minutes remaining – Robinson provided it.
He called a 30-second timeout after Boston College led by one with less than two minutes left. Moments after the timeout ended, Paige made perhaps the most important shot of the game – a 3-pointer from the right baseline.
“He was the rock that held us together in that moment,” Paige said. “Just putting confidence in the team.”
All the while Williams was back in the locker room, “getting replays and getting text messages,” he said. Williams sounded sullen afterward at the thought that he’d been “a distraction,” and he went back to the court briefly after the game ended to shake hands with Boston College coach Jim Christian.
Touched by the gesture, Christian said it “speaks volumes to why (Williams) is a hall of fame coach.”
Yet even hall of famers need help. Williams has received it for decades now from Robinson.
The help he provided on Tuesday, though, was so rare that it had never happened before. Williams, said he has been diagnosed on three occasions with vertigo but he had never been forced to leave a game because of it.
When it happened on Tuesday Robinson was prepared. He was unfazed by the moment.
He said he didn’t address Williams’ health with the players after Williams left the game. Many of those players, like Paige, had seen Williams endure a vertigo attack in practice.
But this was something new. Not that Robinson showed it.
“You’ve got two options,” he said. “You can either just be totally immersed and concerned about his well-being, which I know all of them were, but we also had a game that we had to play. Coach wouldn’t want it any other way.
“He would want our guys to focus on the game and do the job that they are supposed to do.”
The Tar Heels did that, finally, on Tuesday. It took longer than expected, and UNC’s rally came amid the frightening circumstances of Williams’ collapse.
The Tar Heels didn’t take their first lead until less than four minutes remained, and they didn’t take the lead for good until Paige’s 3 with one minute, 47 seconds left. There was a feeling of escape afterward, that UNC avoided a defeat that would have been among its most surprising in recent years.
Instead the most significant surprise was how the Tar Heels won: overcoming a halftime deficit while Williams followed the game through replays and text messages during the final 14 ½ minutes.
When it was over Williams was waiting for his team in the locker room. He addressed his players and told them they’d made him proud. He was proud of his longtime assistant, too.
“I just can’t tell you how happy I am for my team and for coach Robinson,” Williams said. “I promised him this was not Hoosiers. I didn’t really get thrown out to see if he was tough enough.”
Williams’ absence immediately forced his assistant coaches into new roles. They had to adapt in the moment.
“We kind of came together a lot more as a staff,” Robinson said. “It’s different – it’s different for everybody involved. In the middle of the game all of a sudden the roles change a great deal in terms of as the game’s going on.
“And we just kind of adjusted and just tried to keep the ship moving and give the kids confidence that they could do it.”
The Tar Heels’ three-point victory won’t be remembered as their prettiest. For most of the game they were losing against perhaps the worst major-conference team in the country.
It might be remembered as one of UNC’s most important victories, though, with the Tar Heels finding a way to win without their head coach. The outcome wasn’t decided until time expired, with Williams standing about 40 or 50 feet off the court. He wanted to be there to shake Christian’s hand afterward and apologize for “being a distraction.”
Williams had a good view of the finish, of his team securing a victory amid the most unusual of circumstances. Afterward there was time to celebrate the escape, and Williams and Robinson shared a quick moment in the locker room.
“Big smile,” Robinson said when asked what it was like seeing Williams after the game. “Just a big smile on our face.”