No one on North Carolina’s team spends more time in his hotel room on the road than Isaiah Hicks. Always has. After four years of college, still does.
How does he pass the time? On these long March road trips, like the Final Four or any other NCAA tournament weekend, he passes the time the same way he does back in Chapel Hill: With an Xbox controller in his hand and Call of Duty: Zombies on the screen, courtesy of teammate Aaron Rohlman, Hicks’ video-game provider.
“Isaiah and I like to play, just hang out and play,” Rohlman said. “That’s what he likes to do, so I sit down and play with him. I bring my Xbox and we just play Call of Duty together. It’s hard to get it connected to the Wifi – usually in hotels you have that little popup – so usually we don’t connect to the Wifi. We just play.”
When the Tar Heels are on the road, the same scenario takes place throughout the hotel. Any number of Xboxes and PlayStation 4s get stuffed into players’ backpacks, lugged on planes and buses and plugged into hotel TVs. Theo Pinson may not be bringing as many pairs of pants to Phoenix, as he joked Tuesday, but he and Joel Berry always pack their PS4.
And then, at night, Stilman White, Tony Bradley, Luke Maye and Kanler Coker get together to play NHL17, sometimes two-on-two, sometimes one-on-one, on Coker’s Xbox One, over the objections of White, a PS4 loyalist. Others play NBA2K17. Some, like Hicks and Rohmann, stick to old-school, first-person shooters. And everyone dabbles in FIFA, the great unifier.
Thursday, in their locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium, the NCAA was kind enough to provide a PS4 for their use. With time to kill before practice and media availabilities, Hicks and Berry sat down to get in some NBA2K. There’s also a lounge at the hotel, where Hicks played right up until curfew Wednesday night.
It isn’t that the Tar Heels are addicted, hard-core gamers, other than perhaps Hicks and White, who gained some margin of NCAA tournament fame for playing the iPhone game Super Jet Pack as a freshman. It’s just that they’re bored. At home, there are places to go, people to see, things to do, classes to attend. On the road, especially on long road trips, they’re generally confined to the hotel. In the case of the NCAA tournament, that can last days.
There are only so many shootarounds, practices, walkthroughs and team meals in a day. The gaming get-togethers not only build chemistry but fill the long days and quiet nights. Occasionally, the trash-talking spills over onto the court.
“It’s a time-consumer, is all,” Kenny Williams said.
“Coach always says, ‘Get off your feet,’ ” Coker said.
There are challenges, like getting systems hooked up to mysterious and confusing hotel TVs. Lately, HDMI ports have become ubiquitous enough that it’s not the challenge it once was, trying to figure out how to hotwire a TV hooked up to some weird pay-per-view system with cables secured to avoid bootlegging.
Still, a guy who “can figure out any TV,” as Pinson says Berry can, is a valuable member of the team.
“He’s a tech guy,” Pinson said. “I am a little bit too, but that’s his thing.”
When it comes to tech, Sean May has all the players beat. The Tar Heels’ director of player personnel, a sort of assistant to the assistant coaches, acquired while playing professionally in Europe a complete system in a suitcase – Xbox and flat-screen TV, completely portable and completely, in May’s words, “awesome.”
“You just plug it up. All you need is power,” May said. “Play on the bus, plane. I let ‘em take it every once in a while. Only if they’re playing well though.”
This makes the former North Carolina star a popular man on long flights, although the Tar Heels’ flight to Phoenix didn’t have power outlets, leaving the players disappointed.
Even without the luxury of such technology, for some players, packing a video-game system is a regular thing. For others, it’s more situational. Rohlman and Hicks brought their system to Maui, but hadn’t bothered to bring it on the road during the bulk of the season, or even during the ACC tournament in New York. They decided the NCAA tournament was long enough that they’d want the distraction. The hockey crew got things going in Brooklyn. Pinson and Berry bring their PS4 on every trip, short or long.
White is the acknowledged best at NHL17 -- “A win for most of them is usually 2-1 or 3-1, but for me it’s always 5-0,” White said -- with Bradley, who only started playing the game at the ACC tournament, rising fast since he started “working on his craft.” Both Berry and Pinson claim to be the best at NBA2K, although that remains somewhat open for debate on an ongoing basis.
“Me,” Pinson said. “No hesitation. Me.”
“What?” Berry said, at the next locker down, when told of Pinson’s claim. “I’m the best.”
“We can settle this when we get back to the room,” Pinson said, yelling across a crowd of reporters. “Then we’ll come back and tell y’all tomorrow.”
Apparently, the Final Four isn’t the only basketball championship up for grabs this weekend.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock