By Adam Lucas
Last April 1, Roy Williams announced his retirement.
This April 1, Hubert Davis will take the Tar Heels through an open practice at the New Orleans Superdome as one of four participating teams at Final Four Friday.
I really think these might be the most remarkable 12 months in Carolina basketball history. An era ended abruptly. A new era began. Players left and players arrived. Davis put a photo of the Superdome in the players’ locker on the first day of practice. Fans came back after a pandemic season. Losses. Wins. Final Four, and now the players are going to see that place they saw in the locker room photo in real life in a few short days (Also excited to see the Superdome: Hubert Daviswho hasn’t played or coached there in person, and was giddy on Sunday night about the prospect of experiencing it with his team).
The most regrettable thing about all of this is some people will mistakenly believe it was easy. See, the Carolina name wins by itself! Just roll the balls out and the Tar Heels go to the Final Four. It’s so simple!
If you don’t remember anything else about the 2022 Final Four season, which by the way still isn’t over yet, remember this: it was hard. Hubert Davis had to yell and Hubert Davis had to encourage and Hubert Davis had to coach on every single trip down the court. Through the efforts of Davis and his coaching staff, the Tar Heels transformed right in front of our eyes into one of the four best teams in college basketball.
It is not always going to work out like this. Not every season will go quite this theatrically.
But this one did.
I would like to pause here to remind you that one national “expert” proclaimed Davis the 16th best coach out of the 16 head coaches in the Sweet 16. Thank goodness Davis is better at his job than some columnists are at ranking coaches.
And still Davis insists it is not about him. He has continuously said—and he will say this again this week in front of the national media—he considers his coaching job to be missionary work, that it is about providing experiences for the players (By the way, Coach Davis, you are also providing experiences for 55-year-olds. In the afterglow of Sunday’s win, Jeff Lebo—who never went to a Final Four as a player or a coach—happily told anyone who would listen, “Forty years of butt-kickings for this!” as he pinballed gleefully around the Wells Fargo Center court).
Hubert Davis wants the players to have experiences, and they have. They’ve played Uno on the bus (Love and Bacot are especially intense players, as you might expect) and bought cowboy hats in Fort Worth and made Tik Toks and they’ve become players we will look at every time they come back to Chapel Hill and we will say, “That’s him. He was part of the 2022 team. Hubert’s first year. Made it to the Final Four. It was incredible.”
It’s been that kind of March, and it’s been absolutely fantastic. It’s Carolina Basketball, but it’s Carolina Basketball mixed with some sass and some fun and some pure, unbridled joy. I would watch Hubert Davis hug those Tar Heel starters one by one as they came off the Philadelphia court on an endless loop.
It’s real. It’s actually that happy, that emotional, inside the Tar Heel basketball circle. How happy is it? The celebration of Sunday’s win over Saint Peter’s wasn’t complete until one of the wives of a member of the coaching staff—I’m going to leave her nameless here but she knows who she is and you can’t hide talent—completed four full-on cartwheels, right there in the basketball office. Four, of course, representing the Final Four, where the Tar Heels are headed.
After Friday’s win over UCLA, the Tar Heels had less than 48 hours to get ready for the regional final. Goal Hubert Davis had told his team he wanted them to relish these NCAA Tournament wins, and so the entire team and their families lingered long after midnight outside a second floor meeting room, just talking and laughing and…enjoying it. They really, truly seemed to enjoy it. And then a couple days later they went out and dominated another opponent and did it all again.
I don’t think Davis knows this, but maybe he does because I think he is more part of the real world than many coaches. He is someone who took time to go to dinner with his family during the weekend of the regional final. All his kids were there, and one day you might have kids that age and you will know that any time they are all together is wonderful, and it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, when they are all somewhere together, it’s home. So Davis made sure the family went to dinner, the five of them. In between thumping UCLA and waxing Saint Peter’s, of course.
But back to what the Tar Heel head coach may or may not know. He’s giving these experiences to his players, and for that we are grateful. Because Brady Manek now has something in common with Charlie Scott and Antawn Jamison and Marcus Paige, something they’ll talk about in the Smith Center in future Tar Heel summers.
Here’s the thing, though: Hubert Davis is also giving these experiences to us. I don’t know where you were or how you watched Sunday’s 69-49 win. But I bet something happened you will remember for a very long time, with someone who matters to you.
We experience it differently now. There are group texts and FaceTimes just as much as there are meeting to watch a game together. It’s still just as sweet.
Friday night, in our family group text after the UCLA game, we received a video of our oldest son, shirtless, waving a towel around his head and screaming. We all understood.
Sunday night, as plans were being made for New Orleans, our youngest daughter texted, “This is a once in a lifetime thing that we get to do every five years or so.” Sometimes more often. But no need to rub it in.
She is coming from Nashville and we will all be together in New Orleans and for that weekend, it will be home, and Carolina Basketball did that. Hubert Davis did that and Brady Manek and Caleb Love and RJ Davis and Armando Bacot and Leaky Black and every single Tar Heel did that and I’m really happy for them but I’m really thankful, too. That’s why all those people stood out in the cold, to say thank you for giving us these moments, and maybe to try to give one back, too.
I don’t know why these occasions are so memorable but I’ve seen enough of them now that I immediately know they’re the ones we remember for a very long time. We have a very close friend who has a son who is just the right age, and he went to Sunday’s game in person and got to experience the Tar Heels going to the Final Four. My wife watched him living through it, and looked at me and said, “He’s going to remember this forever,” and she is exactly right.
We all had that Carolina team, that one that came along at exactly the right year, that forever cemented us as a Tar Heel. This is that one for him, and he’ll be able to recite the starting lineup and all the stats 50 years from now, all because of this month of March. Do you have time for me to tell you about the 1987 Tar Heels? That’s my team, always will be. Now 2022 belongs to a whole new set of future Heels.
Around 7:30 on Sunday night, our oldest daughter climbed that ladder and cut a piece of the Wells Fargo Center net. This happened because on the biggest night of his coaching life, Davis made sure to ask the managers if they’d had the opportunity to climb the ladder yet. “Go, go!” he shouted, as though it was the most critical part of the night. I very intentionally tried to look away because I knew how emotional it was going to be, but I made the mistake of looking across the court at my wife, and she—the toughest of all of us, the one who doesn’t even cry at the end of Forrest Gump—was in full-on head-in-hands sob mode.
Carolina Basketball did that. And if you’ve never simultaneously seen one of your family members beam with pride while another one cries with joy, I recommend it.
These are the experiences these Tar Heels have provided us with so far. After all the nets were cut, Leaky Black went over to the stands, where his family was waiting.
“We shared some tears of joy,” said his father, Chon Black. “It’s a long journey from the backyard to now. What a great day to be a Tar Heel.”
Later that night, back near Chapel Hill, Black was sitting on the Carolina bus, net around his neck. The Tar Heels had landed at RDU and were making the drive back to the Smith Center when the questions began:
“Do you think there will be anybody there?”
It was a Sunday night near midnight and it was 38 degrees outside. It was a reasonable question. What they didn’t know was that at that exact moment, students were streaming down the hill to the Smith Center, where they were lining the sidewalk that runs between the arena and Koury Natatorium.
The current players didn’t know that. They didn’t know they would be greeted by hundreds of Tar Heel fans, even in the frosty cold on a school night after midnight.
But someone did know:
Hubert Davis. He heard their questions on the bus, and he broke into a wide smile, because he knew they were about to have another experience they will never forget. “Will there be anybody there?” he asked. “You have no idea.”
Maybe not. But they’re learning.