Thursday, April 7, 2011

Heels hoop it up with students; Ryan joins them

Carolina basketball players have taken to playing pick up games with Carolina students at various campus courts a week after their elimination from the NCAA tournament. The team uses Twitter to attract hundreds of student players and spectators to the afternoon games.

The Daily Tar Heel published a video feature of Tar Heels, student athletes and students alike, playing basketball at the Cobb basketball courts on the day of the national championship between Butler and Connecticut. You might say the players did it to show their appreciation for the fans; you could also say the fans went to show their appreciation for the players. This is the symbiotic relationship that represents what college athletics should be.

The games might not be big news at all schools, but they are at a Division I powerhouse like Carolina. Half the student athletes on the basketball team could make millions in the few seconds it would take to flick a pen on a dotted line. Their days are filled with college classwork but also training, practice and game film study. These guys work hard because they are competitive. Their distance from the student body is only natural. And yet, as point guard Kendall Marshall put it, the student athletes want students to interact with them and see that they are "just like them."

"This could only happen at Carolina," my mom said. Maybe. To be fair, not all Carolina teams could perfect such a community integration, but this team is different. The players enjoy each other and their peers. This season was something of a college sports eclipse.

And where better for it to happen? Carolina was the poster child for breaking NCAA rules last autumn when the football team imploded under an illegal benefits and academic integrity scandal. The fans supported the team more than ever, but this fan could not help but feel that some of the student athletes who were not allowed on the field did not return the favor.

My colleague Rachel informed me this afternoon that the basketball players would again play with students at a new campus location. I know I am somewhat removed from being a student, but I wanted to go anyway. So I did. My friend Ryan, a fourth year medical student and former junior varsity basketball player at Carolina, also wanted to meet me there.

"Will you suit up?" I asked.

"I was thinking about it," he said. "I think I will just see what is going on."

I arrived at the specified basketball court a half hour after the scheduled starting time and found nothing but two students playing a game of one-on-one. A couple pedestrians informed me that the event moved to another court while pointing at one of the backboards.

"They snapped off the rim," one said. Sure enough.

I strolled down a hill, turned a corner and saw the same scene I saw in the DTH video. Hundreds of students had gathered around the court and along the dormitory balconies to watch Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, Harrison Barnes and an unknown fifth take on varying teams in games to seven points each. As soon as each game ended, dozens of students raced to one free throw line for a chance to be one of the first five students to make a 15-footer and secure a spot on the court with the Heels.

Five sorority girls averted the selection system with screen-printed team T-shirts. After playing most of the game with a lazy zone defense, a trio of Tar Heel guards triple-team trapped one of the tiny girls in the back court. It was all over then.

"Where are John and Reggie?" I asked. A stranger pointed 20 feet to my left. They had just arrived and were appreciating the game like the rest of the crowd. I never would have noticed them if I did not ask; they were two of many.

The games entertained not because of the world class talent but because of the novelty of it all. I will remember the afternoon for the rest of my life. Afterward I imagined a Nike commercial with Michael Jordan playing one-on-one with a middle school midget. But this was better because it was real and genuine.

And I thought all this before Ryan hit his qualifying shot. He pretended to be content with watching on the sidelines but eventually threw his sweatshirt over my shoulder.

"I'm going in the next one," he said as he worked his way to the sideline for the free-throw dash. Ryan thought the previous game's seventh point was scored at least twice and looked like a maniac dashing in and out of bounds. I did not think to have my camera ready for that.

So he hit the shot, and I recorded what followed for posterity. If you don't know Ryan, he is the bespectacled guy in the white V-neck undershirt pushing an unexpected transition offense, scoring a tip in and playing the middle of a reasonably effective zone. I had no reason to worry about the student athletes sustaining injuries; Ryan will be a doctor in a month. Oh, and when he came off the court, he had something to say.

"Did you see," he said and paused to hack a few coughs, "did you see me pop a J without hesitation?"

I did, Ryan. And now so will everyone else.

Addendum: Click here for the Wall Street Journal story.

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