Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Zach Read
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins/Kevin Seifert/Matt Morgan
.J. Hairston was born at 7:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve; he was home from the hospital the following day. His arrival was the best Christmas gift Wendy Mailey, his mother, could have imagined, but it was also the most terrifying.
Mailey was only 19, a student at North Carolina A&T, when she had him. She admits she had no idea how to be a mother back then and no clue what the future had in store for them.
“I like to say that P.J. and I grew up together,” says Mailey, who resides in Greensboro and works as Director of Government Affairs at the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. “I tell P.J. all the time that he saved my life.”
When talking to Mailey and Hairston, you get an immediate sense of the bond they share. The confident sharpshooter from Greensboro lights up at the mention of his mother. The two are so close that he has “Momma’s Boy” tattooed on his chest. He says that she’s his hero.
“We have a unique relationship,” says Hairston, whose presence on the floor can be emotional when called for, but whose off-the-floor personality is low-key, even shy. “We can talk about anything. I can be honest with her and know that she’ll tell me the truth, even if it’s difficult for me to hear.”
The oldest of three boys, Hairston has been at his mom’s side through the toughest of times, which, Mailey says, has brought them closer together. She couldn’t bring herself to ask her grandparents to take on the responsibility of raising him so that she could finish college. Instead she dropped out of school and focused on him. She knew it would be a struggle, and she remembers the emotions she felt when he was at her side during trips to Social Services.
“P.J.’s brothers caught me on the upswing,” laughs Mailey, who has since received her degree in Criminal Justice and African American history from Guilford College and her Master of Public Administration. “They didn’t have to experience the hard things P.J. did.”
Through it all, Mailey appreciates the sense of humor Hairston shares with her about how far their family has come, about how one of the biggest concerns now might be whether his little brothers should be allowed to use Facebook and Twitter.
“Today P.J. comes home and teases me about how we had to eat Ramen when he was a kid, and now his two little brothers have a nanny who comes when the boys need someone to look after them,” Mailey says. “Things have definitely changed.”
“I want to bring energy to the game and get my teammates going."
The most difficult moments for Mailey, however, came during the months before Hairston was born. She describes her upbringing in Yanceyville as “like the Cosbys,” but that was the surface-level view. The reality of her parents’ Caswell County home life was anything but playful and peaceful. Her father could be violent, which always concerned her, and then one day the dysfunction that had plagued her parents’ marriage resulted in a terrible tragedy: her father killed her mother and took his own life.
The news, to be sure, devastated Mailey. She coped as best she could, but like many 19-year-old college students would, she resorted to substance abuse to help ease the pain of her losses. Then in late summer, after a long period of self-medicating, she discovered she was pregnant. Already far into her term, she had to start taking care of her health immediately for her child’s sake.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I had to stop,” admits Mailey. “That’s why I tell P.J. he saved me. I’ve shared this with P.J., and he knows everything I went through at that time, and all three kids know that I did things I’d never do today.”
Mailey’s journey, including the professional success she’s achieved, serves as an inspiration to her eldest son. Hairston never misses the chance to check his phone for her motivational text messages before every game he plays.
“Her texts help keep me grounded,” says Hairston. “Since I started playing AAU ball at the age of 10, she’s always told me to run full speed before every single game, and every time she tells me I raise my intensity. Every time I play full speed, I play well.”
If you don’t believe them, check his phone, Mailey says. “Be P.J.,” she reminds him. “Full speed everything you do.”
Being P.J. allowed the sophomore to play a significant part in saving the Tar Heels’ 2012-2013 season. After struggling to find his shot his freshman year, Hairston began his sophomore campaign coming off the bench. But he made his presence known early in the season, providing instant offense for the young and inexperienced team. Despite a brief setback with his knee and the now infamous concussion he experienced at Boston College in January, he seemed to have regained the supreme confidence he’d always possessed around the perimeter, a trait that drew attention from prominent collegiate coaches while he was in high school. And when the season hit rock bottom in Coral Gables in February, Hairston employed that confidence to meet the needs of Carolina head coach Roy Williams, who asked him to play out of position and bring energy and offense to the team—and perhaps play with an edge.
“If I’m asked to bring an edge, that’s what I’m going to do,” says Hairston. “I want to bring energy to the game and get my teammates going. I want to do anything I can to help them get into it and help pick up the pace.”
“Reggie is good for P.J. on and off the court ... Reggie has really taken him under his wing.”
The edge he demonstrated sparked the Tar Heels’ late-season rally, improved the team’s play, and helped them advance to the ACC Tournament final. His performance in the ACC Tournament will live on in the memory of Carolina fans for years to come. The gruesome hand injury he suffered against Florida State after shooting lights-out all game, the early shots he made against Maryland on Saturday when everyone wondered if he could be effective with eight stitches in his hand, and his inspired play in the championship game against Miami demonstrated how far Hairston had come from his freshman to sophomore year, as well as the impact his shot-making could have on his teammates.
Head coach Roy Williams agrees that as Hairston matures, he has the ability to be special, and he thinks that Hairston’s performance in Greensboro could be a sign of things to come.
“He shot the ball well and did a lot of other things very well for us,” says Williams. “I’m not going to use the word ‘surprised.’ I’d say I'm pleased, but a lot of it is maturity. Guys mature a great deal from their freshman to sophomore year and the same amount or even more from their sophomore to junior year.”
But make no mistake, Williams considers Hairston’s most important weapon to be his shot.
“What he provides a team isn’t an emotional thing to me,” says Williams. “It’s the ability to shoot the daggum ball in the basket. When a shot goes in, everybody is more enthused….Good play gives your teammates even more strength and more positive feelings.”
Although Hairston rarely lacks for confidence on the court, he struggled during his freshman season in Chapel Hill, averaging 5.7 points per game and shooting below 31 percent from the field in limited minutes. Perhaps those struggles helped him realize that shooting the ball isn’t the only area in which he can make a difference for his team. He can impact a game defensively as well, as he showed in the second half of the ACC season, taking advantage of his quickness against larger post players.
“I always want to contribute in any way I can,” Hairston says. “Whether on defense or offense, I want to make sure that I’m one of the leaders. I want to be able to talk to anyone on the team and give advice when it’s needed.”
Being part of a team, part of something larger than himself, has in fact been a driving factor in Hairston’s life. His mom and his stepfather, William Turner Jr., whom he considers his father, instilled the importance of family in Hairston when he was a boy. Turner worked with them at his family’s restaurant, Boss Hog’s Bar-B-Que in East Greensboro, when Hairston was just 6 or 7 years old, making change and counting money.
“He’s learned the importance of family and hard work,” says Turner. “He knows how hard my parents have worked. When Wendy and I would work at the restaurant, they would take him home and he’d do schoolwork with my mother—his grandmother—at the kitchen table. She was a drill sergeant.”
Turner believes the lessons they’ve taught him have paid off. While fans see Hairston sinking deep perimeter shots on the court and reacting with emotion to momentum-swinging plays, they don’t get to see the respectful, all-about-family Hairston off the floor.
“He’s quiet and very humble,” says Turner. “He doesn’t have a big head. He could be cocky like some other guys, but he’s basically just a nice guy. He’ll show the mad-guy face on the court, but that’s not him.”
Hairston and his mother (left) are so close that he has “Momma’s Boy” tattooed on his chest.
When Hairston is off the floor, he slows down and enjoys his own company or the company of best friend and teammate Reggie Bullock. The two Tar Heel perimeter players sometimes visit Hairston’s family in Greensboro, and this past season they caught the tail end of a basketball game of the elder of Hairston’s two younger brothers, William (a.k.a. “Tre”). Even though Tre’s team lost by three, Hairston says it was as happy as he’s ever seen him.
Being there for Tre and Walter, who serve as ball boys at the Smith Center from time to time, means the world to Hairston. He understands firsthand the importance of having someone to look up to, of having a role model. He was three years old when Turner entered his life.
“He’s been like a real dad to me,” says Hairston. “He was the one who put a basketball in my hands. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be playing basketball.”
Turner has also tried to teach Hairston by sharing with him the mistakes he made. A football walk-on at NC State, Turner earned himself a starting position with the Wolfpack. After doing so, however, he took his coursework less seriously and found himself back at home.
“I share my experiences with him and he learns,” says Turner. “We make sure to tell him that all the other stuff that comes along with his talents will be there later. And when he was young, we always stressed school first, and that basketball was a reward.”
Turner is pleased with the role P.J. has taken in his brothers’ lives.
“P.J. influences his brothers a lot,” he says. “They look up to him. He knows he has to be a good example for them.”
“Being available for them is big to me,” says Hairston, whose wrists are inked with the names Walter and William. “My little brother has called me asking for the two pads I wear on my calf muscles. I know little things like that are important to them, but they’re also special to me. I’m lucky to have two brothers who look up to me and want to be just like me. They’re the most special kids in the world.”
As his mother tells it, his decision to play basketball at Carolina can be traced to family—not just his desire to play close enough to Greensboro for his family and friends to see him play, but for the sense of family found in the Tar Heel locker room.
During the recruiting process, before he settled on UNC, Hairston was strongly considering playing for Billy Donovan at the University of Florida. According to Mailey, Hairston left Florida impressed with the program and the opportunities it presented. But Donovan also said something that stuck with Hairston and, Mailey says, inadvertently helped him make his decision. Donovan told Hairston that he could create a legacy at Florida. When young Gators fans looked up at the rafters after he’d finished his career in Gainesville, they’d be able to see his jersey hanging and dream about being like P.J. His experience at Carolina, Donovan said, would be very different. He’d be part of a larger history of great players who came before him. He’d go less noticed.
When Hairston factored in the tradition at Carolina, the relationship he would have with the Carolina family, and the ability to be close to home, his decision was clear.
"It’s kind of like a dream to go out on that floor and help my team.”
“Everybody takes you in at Carolina,” says Hairston’s father. “It’s a family-oriented program. Coach Williams stresses family and team, and you can’t be a great team without a sense of family.”
It didn’t hurt that Reggie Bullock was pushing him to join him in Chapel Hill as well. The two North Carolina natives became best friends in high school thanks to the epic battles between Bullock’s Kinston High and Hairston’s Greensboro Dudley. Bullock has enjoyed his experience playing alongside his friend at the next level.
“I played against P.J. in high school for awhile,” says Bullock. “We both definitely feed off each other’s energy. When we’re both hitting, we’re a scary duo.”
Hairston’s family is grateful for Bullock’s influence on their son.
“Reggie is good for P.J. on and off the court,” says Turner. “He has a year of experience on P.J., which we know helps him give P.J. good advice….P.J. always talks to him about things. Reggie has really taken him under his wing.”
Bullock’s own experiences since arriving in Chapel Hill have been similar to Hairston’s.
“I’d been in P.J.’s position my freshman year,” Bullock says. “Like P.J., I struggled shooting the ball and didn’t start knocking down shots until coming into conference play my sophomore year. We’ve definitely been on a similar path, growing together as players. It’s been incredible seeing him in the starting lineup with me. It brings me energy and we both feed off each other.”
As Hairston comes into his own on the college level, he realizes more and more how fortunate he is to be playing basketball at Carolina and living so close to family and friends.
“It feels great,” he says. “I’m an hour from home. I have a lot of family here. It feels great to be in this environment and atmosphere and to run out at every home game. It’s kind of like a dream to go out on that floor and help my team.”
Perhaps it was his mom’s experience losing her parents and the early struggles they shared together, but in the future, as life decisions have to be made, Hairston appreciates having so much support nearby. No matter what the future holds, he knows he has people he can turn to for advice and love. And perhaps even for work; as his father points out, “P.J. always has a job at Boss Hog’s.”