But for a night, the fans who waved flashing white pom-poms enjoyed a reminder that their basketball heroes are still just a bunch of fun-loving college guys.
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Stuart Scott reprised his now-familiar role as emcee for Carolina’s traditional season kickoff, with support from Carolina’s pep band, cheerleaders, and American Idol finalist Anoop Desai. Sylvia Hatchell’s women’s squad, featuring veterans Jessica Breeland, Italee Lucas, and Cetera DeGraffenreid, showed off a number of new players while sporting pink jerseys and shorts. The Tar Heel women’s volleyball team tossed in a 3-1 victory over Duke for good measure.
The night, however, belonged to Roy Williams, his assistants, and most of all, his players.
Following the tradition Williams imported from Kansas, Carolina’s players began the night entertaining a nearly full house of 18,700 with a variety of dance routines and video skits. Each dance number marked the era of a previous championship. Some younger fans in attendance might have preferred the performance for 2005’s title featuring seniors Marcus Ginyard, Marc Campbell, and Deon Thompson dancing in gold suits to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” But it was hard to top the sight of the entire team in Elvis wigs and Carolina blue jumpsuits, swaying to “Jailhouse Rock” in an homage to the undefeated 1957 team.
Williams was, as usual, a subject of the skits’ humor as well as an appreciative audience member. The team paid tribute to 1982’s title by joking on their head coach’s unforgettable Guitar Hero ad from last March, dancing in boxers in their own imitation of Tom Cruise. Based on the response of some female fans in attendance, it seems fair to say the players’ version was more appealing than Williams’.
“We always have a great time at Late Night,” Ginyard said after the festivities wound down. “It’s always a good chance for us to act up a little out there.”
Throughout the night, Carolina’s most recent title -- just six months old -- was never far from anyone’s mind. Some of the night’s biggest cheers were reserved for a video montage of great moments from the Tar Heels’ run to Detroit. And Tyler Hansbrough’s larger than life presence remained in the building, even as some of his former teammates spoofed his recent AT&T commercial with their own version of a lost dog video -- this one featuring freshman John Henson in the role of little girl and the 2009 NCAA trophy as the missing pet.
And it was hard not to think of Hansbrough when Deon Thompson stopped the clock during the team’s 20-minute scrimmage after losing a contact lens.
But No. 50 and most of his championship teammates spent the night miles away preparing for their own debuts in the NBA. So in Chapel Hill, attention quickly focused on the five freshmen who must step into the void.
Whether dancing or dunking, it was hard to miss 6-10 Henson, the player most assume will make an early contribution, despite the Tar Heels’ already-strong corps of returning forwards. Henson scored the first points of the night’s scrimmage, threw down a couple of impressive dunks, and wowed the crowd with his length and leaping ability. He finished his first unofficial outing in front of the Dean Dome fans with 10 points.
“It’s hard to describe,” Ginyard said of his new teammate. “He can do some interesting things out there. We’ve just got to let it play out and see what he does. But there’s no question he’s going to be a big help to this team.”
Junior Will Graves hit three straight 3-pointers early on the way to a game-high 12 points, leading the Blue team to a 36-32 win over a White team featuring Henson, Deon Thompson, and Larry Drew II. Ed Davis added 10 points for the Blue team, showing some of his off-season improvement with a nice face-up jumper to accompany strong rebounding and shot blocking.
But as ESPN’s cameras moved on and Carolina’s army of support staff packed away the costumes, Ginyard quickly put it all in perspective. The fun and games are now over, and Williams will probably be laughing at his team’s occasional gaffes a lot less.
“Coach and everyone else knows tomorrow is the real day we’re celebrating,” he said, looking ahead to Carolina’s first full practice on Saturday morning. “Now it’s time to get in here and go to work.”