We said it last year, but I’m not sure we ever really believed it.
Friday night around 10:30 p.m., we could finally say it for real, for the first time in the careers of sophomores Caleb Love and R.J. Davis and Kerwin Walton and certainly in the two-game head coaching career of Hubert Davis:
It’s basketball season.
You don’t decide that it’s basketball season by the calendar. You tell it by the energy. If you haven’t high-fived a stranger in the last couple of weeks, it’s not basketball season yet. If you haven’t done something that you fully realize doesn’t make rational sense, it’s not basketball season yet. If you haven’t gotten a sense of deep foreboding from a banked-in opposing three-pointer, it’s not basketball season yet.
Friday night’s win over Brown was basketball season. You might know it as The RJ Davis Game.
I’m going to pause here to be honest: I was worried this basketball season would be different. Roy Williams is retired, gone to the corner of the Smith Center stands, and Tuesday night just felt weird without him on the sideline.
But late last week, Williams was walking through the tunnel of the Dean E. Smith Center, just a few feet off the playing floor. To be technically correct, I suppose it is his playing floor, of course, being Roy Williams Court and all.
Carolina’s exhibition basketball game against Elizabeth City State was imminent, and it was natural to wonder how Williams was doing. “This has been a hard week,” he said. “It’s been tough.”
That was hard to hear. Then he said something else:
“But I know I made the right decision for the right reasons.”
That was all it took. It would have been painful to hear that he was having second thoughts or that he felt he had made a mistake. With those words, though, it felt OK, and just as important…it felt like it was OK to be basketball season.
Which is pretty great, honestly. Basketball season in Chapel Hill is unlike anything else. You can have fall in Blowing Rock or summer in Wilmington or spring in Pinehurst.
Give me basketball season in Chapel Hill every time.
They have basketball seasons elsewhere, of course. Those are different.
People come from everywhere for basketball season in Chapel Hill. There are regulars in the Smith Center, but there are also first-timers, every time, and those are the ones who make it fun for everyone else.
16,854 of us packed the Smith Center on Friday night for a November game against Brown, and take it from RJ Davis, they mattered and they were loud. “It was great,” he said. “Going from an empty gym (last year) to a packed arena, it was great energy. The crowd energy helped us towards the end of the game. We fed off the energy from the crowd and we got it going.”
Davis especially got it going, swishing three clutch three-pointers in the closing minutes of the game. There is a special feeling in the Smith Center when a Tar Heel gets hot and the crowd starts anticipating their shots finding the bottom of the net. There’s a buzz that’s unique to that moment. It happened to Shammond Williams, it happened to Wayne Ellington, it happened to Cameron Johnson (and kids, you might not remember this, but it also happened for Hubert Davis). Friday night, it happened for RJ Davis.
By the end of the game, the Smith Center crowd was chanting his name. RJ Davis seems like the kind of player and person who isn’t going to forget what it felt like to hear his name echoing around the Smith Center. He’s going to want that feeling again.
Exactly how hot was he? One of his very rare missed three-pointers was launched from the left wing and was shot much too hard, and with such velocity that the officials erroneously ruled it an airball.
Because he’d hit six of nine from the arc, there was room to rib him about that shot after the game.
Davis just gave a sheepish grin. “I thought it was in,” he said. “Felt good when it left my hand.”
Of course it did. You get the very distinct feeling that not many shots feel bad when they leave RJ Davis’ hand.
Davis will get many of the headlines, but his head coach made an important point. “Everybody made a play to help our team win,” Hubert Davis said.
And he was right. Armando Bacot had a double-double. Dawson Garcia played very well in a second half stretch. Caleb Love had five assists and just one turnover. Leaky Black played his second straight solid all-around game. Brady Manek hit eight of nine free throws, singlehandedly outscoring Brown from the charity stripe.
Be honest: you might not be all the way in love with this Carolina team just two games into the season, but you already realize they’re going to be fun to watch. That’s what basketball season is about. You start out strangers and end up changing your laundry habits or your pregame eating routine for them. Two weeks ago you couldn’t pick Dawson Garcia out of a lineup and it won’t be long before your in-game group text can break down his stats with-headband and without.
A typical scene from basketball season in Chapel Hill: Tyler Hansbrough was headed to a meeting in the Smith Center on Tuesday morning. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I ran into Coach Williams.”
That kind of thing happens all the time here. The program’s all-time leading scorer runs into the Hall of Fame three-time national champion coach, and they chat. It feels organic because it is.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Basketball season in Chapel Hill is also very hard work. Monday afternoon in practice, the Tar Heels hadn’t been particularly crisp. Hubert Davis had already lectured them on his strong dislike of the one-handed pass (a trait he evidently inherited from Roy Williams). Another lackadaisical play prompted him to blow his whistle, then spike it.
He made his point, then punctuated his lesson by exclaiming, “I’m trying to win!”
Davis was similarly stern with his team at halftime on Friday night as they faced a three-point win. By the end of the game, though, he could grin about it.
“I’m glad we went through that,” he said of his team’s struggle to get to 2-0, seeing it as a growing experience on the way to becoming a quality team.
That sentiment also sums up basketball season. It’s not always easy, there are times you wonder why you do it and it’s probably shortening your life span. But in the end, you’re glad you went through it.