THE BENCHWARMER’S MOMENT
In a sense, the [2004-05] North Carolina championship season actually began on a dismal January night in 2004 when a little-used walk-on named Philip McLamb finally had enough. It was his senior season and the team he had broken his ass to make had been suffering more mood swings than the typical cast of MTV’s Real World. The nadir arrived on January 22, when Carolina blew a 24-point lead, finished regulation tied because of last-second three by Todd Galloway, and then lost ingloriously in overtime. To put it kindly, the UNC defense might as well have been a highway crew opening up new driving lanes. Florida State attacked the basket with impunity.
Suffering through the game on the bench, where he spent the vast majority of every game, had been McLamb. A rugged six feet six, he possessed a deft touch from three, which he had plenty of opportunity to display in practice--”the walk-on’s time to shine,” he said--and at Woollen Gym during campus pick-up games. Just not in the real games. Because McLamb was a step or two slow. But he hustled. He played as hard as man who never played could play.
“I was born and bred a Tar Heel,” McLamb said, a Charlotte native. “My mom says I was born with baby blue on my butt.” Both of his parents had attended UNC. He idolized Dean Smith. And he hated Duke the way only a homegrown North Carolina boy can. His glory moments against the Blue Devils came as he shot during warm-ups at Cameron. “For some reason,’ McLamb said, “maybe because it’s like an old high school gym, I can really shoot over there.” If he shot well in warm-ups, he believed it an omen foretelling a Carolina victory. “It’s like you would do when you were shooting in your backyard,” he said. “If I make this, Carolina wins the national championship this year.”
So after Florida State caught and passed the Heels in overtime that February night, McLamb, who hadn’t played a speck, was furious. His sense of history argued against what had just befallen the team. Carolina was supposed to make the miraculous comebacks, not endure them. “I was just put out,” he said, looking back at the disaster. “I knew that some of the guys were, too. I was saying, ‘We’ve got to do something. We can’t sit back.’ What really got me the most was how some of the guys at the back of the bus on the way to the airport were just blatantly blaming other people. I’m five or six seats ahead of them, so I knew everybody else could hear them.”
Mostly, guys were bitching about lack of defense. But that made sense, according to McLamb. “We had offensive firepower as good as anybody in the country.”
On the plane back to Raleigh-Durham, a couple of players told McLamb that they didn’t think speaking up would accomplish anything. “But I really thought we needed to do something.” So at two-thirty or three in the morning, when the team had finally made it to the locker room at the Smith Center and started unloading their bags, McLamb stood up and said, “Listen, we’re going to have a meeting tomorrow night. I’m not dealing with this. We’ve got to talk things over.”
Sitting next to Raymond Felton, Sean May agreed. He said, “Yeah, we need to do something. All right, seven o’clock tomorrow after practice.”
The next night after practice, “everybody was just sort of sitting there,” McLamb said. “I called the meeting, so I figured I should be the one talking.”
With his teammates staring at him, McLamb said, “I shouldn’t have to be the one to say this. I’m a walk-on. I don’t play. Y’all probably won’t even respond to what I say as much as if it was Sean or Rashad or Jawad saying it, since they play. But we’ve got to get things off our chests. We’ve got to start playing better basketball. We can’t go through the rest of the year like this. We’ve got to trust each other. And if we’re going to be a family--everybody talks about the Carolina family--families don’t talk behind each other’s backs!”
McLamb looked around the locker room. “Families talk face to face,” he said. “I know some of y’all have things to say. Just be a man and say them.”
He was finished. The room grew silent.
There was something thrillingly self-confident about McLamb at this moment. Righteousness flowed through him like electricity. This was his time. Not on the court but in the locker room. Unlike most of his teammates, he embodied no great talent. Only two Division III schools had sought his services after he averaged 18 points and eight rebounds as a senior in Charlotte. But desire he had, desire and ferocity.
He showed this in Woollen Gym, the venerable courts on campus where anybody could put together a team for a run, often against top-flight competition. One day there, he had managed to insinuate himself onto the team of former Tar Heel point guard Ed Cota. As was his custom, Cota would drive the middle of the lane, and he soon discovered that he could sling a pass out to McLamb, lurking behind the three point line. And that McLamb would knock the threes down, again and again. Cota started calling him “Big.” McLamb confessed to the point guard that he was going to try out for the JV team. “You’ll make it, Big,” Cota told him.
And how had he made it? He had hauled himself on board the JV team like a man scrambling into a lifeboat from frigid waters. He had no other explanation than “I simply wanted it more than anyone else.” And he had secured a spot on the varsity the same way. So like anyone whose success, limited though it might be, was achieved through devotion rather than talent, McLamb lacked patience for players who had been blessed with everything he lacked--speed, quickness, jumping ability--but whom quarreled and bickered and took plays off and didn’t seem to realize how blessed they had been.
So that night after the Florida State game, McLamb had spoken with the moral authority of an honest man and now he waited for a response. “I knew somebody would start talking,” he said. And eventually somebody did. And then somebody else. Guys bickered. Guys attacked one another. Then things calmed down a little bit and the forward David Noel spoke. He said “some of you have to stop thinking about going to the League. You’re still in college. You play for North Carolina. Let’s win games.”
Jackie Manuel chimed in. He said, “it’s hard to make eight or nine three pointers in a game. It’s hard to shoot a hundred percent on your free throws or from the field. But it’s not hard to play hard.”
“That’s Jackie’s motto,” McLamb explained. “He plays so incredibly hard.”
Manuel continued his speech. “I’ve done what the coaches told me. I’ve played as hard as I can on defense and I’ve tried to be smart on offense. We can win games. We could’ve won every game we played this year. Coach told us we could have.”
After that night, the team slowly improved. According to McLamb, they began executing Roy Williams’ system, not simply believing in it. They still had their lapses, but they didn’t embarrass themselves the way they had at Florida State or at Clemson, when they were thoroughly whipped in an eleven point loss. They made it back to the NCAAs for the first time since 2001. “I thought the second half against Air Force was the best we played all year,” McLamb said of their first round opponent in Denver. “Guys didn’t hesitate to get down on the floor. Before that we might get down on the floor but the guy from the other team would get there first. By a quarter second. That can make the difference in a game.”
After North Carolina lost to Texas in the second round of the NCAAs, McLamb’s career on the Tar Heel bench was over. He had the time to play golf, and he was playing with a friend of Duke on the day a couple of weeks later that the Blue Devils were scheduled to take on Connecticut in the semi-finals of the Final Four. His friend invited McLamb over to watch the game with a group of Duke fans, thirty or forty of them. “Most of his friends didn’t know I had been on the team at Carolina,” McLamb said. “And as Connecticut started coming back, I was just sitting there, sort of quiet. It was a great game and I was really enjoying it. And then seeing Duke lose, man!” He was overjoyed. He tried to contain himself. The Duke guys who knew his allegiance kept saying, “We know you’re so happy.” And indeed, McLamb felt good enough that he had to go outside and call friends and family on his cell phone and quietly chortle. Duke had lost. That may not have been as good as a Tar Heel victory, but as most North Carolinians knew, it was pretty damned close.
The walk-on made a prophecy about North Carolina in the months to come. It was a short speech this time, but a sweet one. “You’ll have mental lapses in every game,” he said. “But this coming season, I think they will be more than taken care of. I think it may be an amazing season.”