Thad: Former Players and the Carolina Way

Thad: Former Players and the Carolina Way

Without talking to either player personally, I can pretty safely guess that Jason Capel in Fayetteville and Kris Lang overseas are absolutely thrilled with North Carolina's impressive start: thrilled for their former teammates, thrilled for their former coaches, happy for the fans and friends of the program.

Capel, in fact, took advantage of his geographic proximity to come back to town for the first day of practice, telling this year's group to "Bring the tradition back," and could be seen cheering for the Heels behind the Carolina bench against Rutgers in the Preseason NIT.

This should be and in fact is a happy time for the Carolina program and all involved in it. Yet some Carolina fans, on message boards and perhaps elsewhere, seem to believe that the best way to celebrate the Tar Heels' unexpected current success is through ad hominem put downs of the departed players, both seniors and the transfers. To be sure, the vast majority of Carolina fans do not spend their lives on message boards, and it is simply wrong to characterize an entire fan base and their attitudes towards players and coaches with sole reference to what gets aired out in Internet and talk radio forums. Even so, it is worth asking the general question: is it necessary or healthy for self-professed Carolina fans to criticize former players in order to enjoy the current ones?

On the one hand, it is absolutely fair and accurate to say that the incoming group of players represents a large improvement in talent than the departing group, especially in the backcourt, and that that improvement is the first place to look in explaining UNC's fine start. It is also fair to say that with a new set of players often comes a fresh attitude, a clean slate, with no leftover issues, grievances, disappointments, or other rough spots from the past to deal with, and that such a clean slate was particularly useful this off-season.

On the other hand, it is simply not necessary, in making those observations, to speak as if Adam Boone, Brian Morrison, Jason Capel, Kris Lang or others were worthless basketball players or (according to some) worthless people. Without getting into a large analysis of this point, suffice it to say that not so long ago each of these players had an important role on a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country, albeit supporting roles. If early exits and other unexpected personnel woes had not left Carolina without a true star to work with last year and the Heels had been able to piece together a decent season, certainly the seniors and perhaps all four players would still be regarded by most fans as solid if limited UNC players.

Others claim that while Carolina's departed players might have been decent hoopsters who were just put in a difficult situation that didn't work out, but add that at least some of these former players had bad attitudes and brought the problems upon themselves. The most typical strategy along these lines is to take one or two quotes from a given player (often completely out of context) and paint a picture of a who a person was or what they were about based on those quotes.

A number of fans, for instance, have convinced themselves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jason Capel was a selfish player who couldn't handle not being the star in 2001 and played the lead role in the team's demise in 2002. (In point of fact, while Capel did say he didn't want to be labeled a "role player" and did on one ill-timed, frustration-borne occasion criticize a teammate's shot selection, he never said that he wanted to be a bigger scorer on the 2001 team and frequently expressed satisfaction with how that team was doing.) Capel's teammates tell a pretty different story: every one of the returning players in this year's team has publicly, in an unsolicited manner, praised Capel's leadership last year. And in point of fact, Capel's comments to reporters during last season were consistently forward-looking and did not bash his teammates (or his coaches, for that matter), even though, naturally, his frustration did become more visible as the year wore on.

This is not to say that Capel--and the others--did not have weak points as well as strong points both as players and people, or that Capel et al handled every situation in an ideal manner; and it is not to claim that any of these players were either charismatic leaders or absolutely fantastic players.

It is to make three basic points: First, Carolina basketball is not, never has been, and cannot plausibly be in the future all about the truly elite players, the once a decade charismatic leaders and the precocious, wise beyond their years stars. While it is always exciting to have such players, and more or a less necessity to have at least a couple on the roster to compete for a national title, the Carolina way has always been to value the contributions--be they small or great--of each player, and to treat each player as of equal moral worth and standing. To be perfectly blunt, fans who can appreciate only the best of the best simply don't understand the Carolina way of doing things (and one suspects, might not understand basketball so well either).

Second, it is disturbing to see UNC fans fall into a pattern of bashing departed players--I fear that such a pattern might become a habit that reproduces itself. Carolina fans were excited when Kris Lang and Jason Capel signed for Carolina, showed up as ready to contribute as freshmen, and helped the program stay at a high level after the early departures of Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. Right now Carolina fans are, quite rightly, extremely excited about Sean May, Raymond Felton, and Rashad McCants, singing their praises as basketball players and enthusing over their fearless readiness to be very, very good sooner rather than later.

But what will happen if any of these players--or the sophomores for that matter--hit a few road bumps in their career? What if a player leaves much earlier than anyone expects? What if a player gets unhappy over playing time, frustrated with a coach's decision, unhappy with a teammate's play during a particular game? What if someone runs into an off-the-court problem? What if a player's natural confidence goes completely over-the-top in an ill-advised public comment that smacks not just of swagger, but of arrogance?

I certainly hope that none of those events takes place, but don't think it's realistic at this extremely early stage to simply assume that each of these young players will make it through their career in a totally unblemished fashion and never do anything on or off the court which earns something other than the fawning admiration of UNC fans. The question is, if these players at some point pick up a blemish or two, if a game or season ends in a disappointing fashion, will Carolina fans turn on an individual player, create scapegoats, bring up a player's faults and supposed shortcomings anytime the player's name pops up in the news? Hopefully not, but recent evidence on this question is not encouraging.

Third, and most fundamentally, while fans have the right to have players they like more than others, or remember more fondly than others, they don't have the right (or the capacity) to excommunicate former players from the Carolina family.

Dean Smith, over his long tenure, again and again showed a willingness to be forgiving to, to put it directly, "sinners," to love the sinner even while chiding the "sin," to keep an open door for anyone who worked and sweated for him as a player. In the past, Carolina players, while in school, have done all of the following: become unhappy over playing time, expressed jealousy towards teammates, said stupid things to the media, broken team rules, had academic problems, had run-ins with the law, taken bad shots, mouthed off to officials, gotten into disputes with teammates. While Smith responded as appropriate to such transgressions, he also was fiercely loyal to players, including those who caused more than their share of problems--as well as those who chose to transfer to another school. Similarly, Smith has stood by players with a wide variety of personal problems, including of the self-induced variety, in their life after leaving Chapel Hill.

Such generosity of spirit is uncommon in American life, and quite different from the more common notion that you are nice to the people you like best and not so nice to the people who cause you headaches, give you a hard time, or cause you disappointment. It starts with a willingness to see the good in people, a recognition that no one in this life is faultless, and an understanding that people--especially young people--placed in high-pressure situations with great public scrutiny sometimes will make mistakes. That sort of generosity and spirit of family is not the everyday way of doing things, but it is the Carolina way of doing things, historically, in the present, and hopefully in the future.

I asked both Jonathan Holmes and Will Johnson recently what they thought about fans bashing departed players, and both said it wasn't fair, that it was wrong to point the finger at any one person, that last year's team in particular was a group of friends. One might add that it is also wrong to resent players (or coaches) just because they were associated with a losing team, especially when the evidence is that all concerned gave it the best go they could, given their own limitations as players and as people.

2002-03 is shaping up to be a season of redemption for the UNC program, and one in which the Carolina family is coming together in a way that was difficult to imagine just six months ago. The players on last year's team--all of them, no matter their strengths, no matter their shortcomings--are still part of that family, and should be treated with the respect and appreciation due to family members. The fact that Matt Doherty sees fit to allow Jason Capel into his locker to deliver a message to his old teammates and sit behind him at home games should be more than enough to prove that point.

Maybe it will take more time and distance for some fans to drop their misplaced hostilities towards Carolina's departed players. After all, the idea that you praise players you like (at a given moment) and trash the ones who displease you (not infrequently, the same ones fans idolized when they were winning) is a dominant strain in American sports culture.

To express appreciation even for the players who weren't the best, weren't the most charismatic, weren't perfect in every respect, didn't always experience success--that idea cuts against the grain. But it fits perfectly the ideal of family long present in Carolina basketball--an ideal which has gone a long way towards making Carolina basketball something truly remarkable and unique, both in American sports culture and in American life.


Thad Williamson is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html. Thad welcomes your emails at thad@uncbasketball.com.

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