Last June, UNC newcomers Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock took the Smith Center floor alongside Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Their competition was a talented cast of characters, approximately 15 in all – current and former NBA players, overseas professionals and others that had already retired from the game.
The unifying link, of course, is the Tar Heel blood that pulses through them all. One of the lesser-known benefits of joining the Carolina basketball family is the ability to participate in the legendary pickup games that run throughout the summer months in Chapel Hill. The active class of Tar Heels lost on that June afternoon, 80-79, but the way the old guys celebrated their win made it obvious just how competitive the game was played.
But while most of the alums leave town and return to the court for their professional teams, a handful of former players have made their presence felt throughout the current season.
On Feb. 8, the day before the Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the UNC starters practiced as usual against their Blue Steel counterparts, albeit with a pair of exceptions – NBA talents Rasheed Wallace and Jawad Williams.
Roughly 30 hours before squaring off against Duke forward Kyle Singler, Barnes went toe-to-toe with Williams in practice as a prelude to the primetime matchup. And while Henson and Zeller dominated the Blue Devils’ post players that Wednesday night, their performance was preceded by a physical matchup with Wallace, a four-time NBA All-Star, on Tuesday.
“With Rasheed coming in, he’s pretty much a coach,” Henson said. “He’s been in the NBA so long. He tells us what to do and gives us hints when he’s playing with us. I think that’s a great thing. Jawad Williams comes in, too, and they’ve been through the ringer, so they let us know how it’s going to be and they help instill confidence in us.”
The list of former players that have joined the ranks of the blue team this season is lengthy – Sean May, Raymond Felton, Jerry Stackhouse, Jackie Manuel and Shammond Williams, in addition to Wallace and the other Williams. When practice began in October, the North Carolina starters often found themselves battling May, Felton and both Williamses.
“No offense to our walk-ons, but we’re playing against them most of the time,” Zeller said. “When you get somebody else to play against, you get these high-level athletes that know the little tricks of the NBA. When you’re playing against them, you’ve got to learn how to rebound better and you’ve got to make your moves better, so it helps get you ready for games a lot more.”
The knock on Marshall during his high school career was a lack of foot speed that was expected to prove detrimental on the defensive end of the floor, but working with his Tar Heel predecessors has helped to shrink his learning curve.
“Early in the season Shammond was playing with us and he’s tough to stay in front of; he’s very tough to keep him in front of you,” Marshall said. ”To practice against him day-in and day-out and then playing against college competition is different. It gives you more confidence.”
The value of the old-timers hanging around extends beyond the playing court. The seven aforementioned players all played in a Final Four at North Carolina and four went on to win national championships. UNC all-time assist leader Ed Cota has also spent time with the team recently, despite not suiting up for practice.
Those accolades represent the wealth of knowledge and experience that is readily available for any members of the current roster looking for guidance.
“It’s been great just to be able to talk to those guys,” Barnes said. “A lot of them have gone on to the NBA and have been very successful, but they were very successful in college as well. Just to be able to talk to them about their experiences and their championship runs gives us a lot of feedback on what we want to do in our every day life.”
That’s how the Carolina basketball family works. Once you wear the Tar Heel uniform, you’re a member for life. That goes for NBA World Champions just as much as it goes for walk-ons that do the grunt work on a daily basis.
“Carolina’s always big into giving back,” Barnes said. “It’s family first and everyone being a unit, no matter if you played on the ’82 team or if you’re playing on this year’s team. Everyone is close. So it’s always nice just to be able to have people you can talk to who have been through what you’re been through.”
So while the old-timers may have exhausted their college eligibility long ago, there’s nothing stopping them from living vicariously through the current crop of Tar Heels. After all, they’ve played a significant role in helping this team reach one of its primary goals – the ACC regular season championship.