PHILADELPHIA — Theo Pinson doesn't tell many people this, because it's the type of dark secret that wouldn't go over well in Chapel Hill. But North Carolina's sophomore forward thinks he has proved his worth to the Tar Heel faithful now, so he takes a deep breath and spills the truth:
He grew up a Duke fan.
His current take on that fact, considering the Greensboro, N.C., native has played a key role in getting the Blue Devils' biggest rival to college basketball's promised land: "Awkward."
Then Pinson, in what has become his trademark move this postseason, threw back his head and laughed.
A glance at the stat sheet doesn't fully explain Pinson's role for the East Regional champion Tar Heels, who meet Midwest Regional winner Syracuse in the Final Four in Houston on Saturday. On a roster dominated by future NBA players, the 6' 6", 205-pound Pinson averages just 4.6 points and 3.2 rebounds per night, playing 19 minutes a game off the bench. But his contributions are critical: When he scores three points or more—as he did by chipping in six points, as well as four assists and two rebounds, in Sunday's 88–74 win over Notre Dame in the regional final—UNC is 23–0. "I'm the X-factor!" he howled.
His mother, Barbara Pinson, who played at UNC-Charlotte from 1985–86 to '89–90, had a different take: "Apparently he's an 'O' factor."
Pinson's role for the Tar Heels goes beyond points and boards, though, as the country learned last week, when the self-described prankster hijacked two press conferences and mugged for cameras. In an NCAA tournament rife with upsets—Carolina is the only No. 1 seed still alive—he keeps UNC loose and laughing.
"Did you see the way he walked up here at the beginning of the press conference?" said Brice Johnson after the Elite Eight win. "That's just who he is. He brings a lot of fun to the locker room when we're all stressed out. He kind of eases everybody's mind. He likes to have fun, but when he steps in those lines he's a totally different person, just like the rest of us."
The day before North Carolina met Notre Dame in the East Regional final, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams and his five starters were fielding questions from reporters in the press conference room when Pinson came bouncing up on the podium to steal the show.
"Where's my chair at?" he demanded. "Where's my name at?"
As his teammates laughed and rolled their eyes, Williams assured the media, "You guys don't have to put up with him. I have to put up with him every dadgum day. You're doing a nice job, Theo. I appreciate you ...
"I've been coaching 28 years I've never had one friggin' player walk up in the middle of a damn press conference."
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
In the locker room afterward, Pinson cackled when a reporter asked, "Were you feeling neglected? Is that why you went into the press conference?" Pinson said he thought about sitting next to Williams, but worried he would have crowded the small stage and "that would have been bad on coach's knees." Across the room, Williams shook his head. "Nothing that kid does surprises me," he said.
That includes on the court, too. The next night against the Irish, Pinson gave North Carolina a much-needed lift off the bench when he subbed in with 13:16 to go and UNC's lead, which had been 51–40 just two and a half minutes earlier, down to 51–50. The Irish quickly scored to cap a 12–0 run and go in front 52–51, but after the Tar Heels answered with a basket by Marcus Paige, Pinson poked the ball away from Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson for a steal, then dove on it and screamed for timeout to maintain possession. UNC came out of that huddle and scored 12 of the next 14 points, a stretch that included Pinson driving for a bucket, tossing an alley-oop to Isaiah Hicks for a dunk and scoring another basket on a putback.
For his stat line, Pinson got invited to the postgame press conference, where he promptly became the star. He took a selfie when he got on stage, making sure everyone could see his official NCAA tournament name tag in the background. When Williams was asked to make an opening statement, he turned to Pinson. "You want me to make the opening announcement or do you want Theo?" Williams turned to the crowd and deadpanned, "We invited Theo because we knew he was going to invite himself."
Pinson has a long history of being a ham—in this tournament, and in life. After the Tar Heels' Sweet 16 win over Indiana, UNC football coach Larry Fedora came into the locker room to congratulate the team, and Pinson surprised everyone with a spot-on Fedora impression. Last Saturday, Pinson detailed for a reporter his first official dunk: It came at the end of the seventh grade, he said, and the posterized victim was JaQuel Richmond, now a junior guard at UNC-Wilmington. "To this day, he will not admit I dunked on him," Pinson said. "We can call him right now, and he'll deny it!" Then Pinson picked up his phone and dialed.
Richmond didn't pick up—he called back later and told Pinson he was full of it—but the moment spoke to Pinson's playfulness.
As Pinson became a high school star who was a McDonald's All-American as a senior, he was recruited by Duke and North Carolina. In the end, he chose the Tar Heels over the Blue Devils and Indiana, against whom he had four points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals in the Sweet 16.
"I came here because of my relationship with Coach Williams," said Pinson. "Just right away, we bonded. And as you can see, he lets us be loose, and who we are. I'm really comfortable with that."
Pinson stops laughing when asked if he still cheers for his childhood team. (His parents claim the only reason he liked Duke is because it was on TV more, and they say there's no Blue Devil gear left in their house.) Of course he doesn't root for Duke, he says, and he has no plans to. Now that he's a Tar Heel, his loyalty lies only with Carolina. To heck with the idea of ACC brotherhood.
Pinson's parents say his personality is about more than just goofiness: Theo can't stand to see anyone unhappy. When a family member of teammate Joel Berry II died this season, Theo called his mom in a panic. "What can I do to make him feel better?" Theo asked. "I hate seeing him like this."
"He's funny," Barbara said, "but he's also got a big, big heart."
Pinson fancies himself as "the one with the most personality, definitely," on the roster. He jokes that despite his background as a Duke fan, he aspires to one day be Williams's "all-time favorite." His charisma extends outside of hoops, too. When Pinson finished his high school basketball career, he decided to take up another extracurricular activity: acting.
Pinson auditioned for, and won, a spot in, the Wesleyan Christian Academy's spring production of Seussical the Musical. He played Vlad Vladikoff, the eagle, a natural fit for Pinson given his wingspan and hops. In one act, he leaped over a fellow student, as if jumping up to dunk.
His mom explained it this way: "Theo is not exactly what you would call 'shy.'"
Barbara is used to Theo's mischievous smile. It's the same one he wore around their house as a 4-year-old, as he dribbled through the hallway of their home in Greensboro. While Barbara, a three-year starter at UNC-Charlotte, and Theo Sr. harped on Theo Jr. to use his left hand, he ran around the house trying to dunk on everything. "I would make a basketball goal out of anything," he said. "I had a trophy case with a little circular thing at the top, I'd get a softball and dunk. Not garbage cans though, that was nasty. Laundry baskets were too short, because I wanted to jump up and dunk."
Courtesy of the Pinson family
At first, Pinson thought he would be a football player. He had a receiver's build, but preferred to be a quarterback. Until the eighth grade, anyway, when he got sacked in a late-season game and called it quits. "I was like, 'This is it for me!'" he says, slicing his hands through the air.
Basketball waited. Barbara jokes that as Theo Jr.'s first coach, she deserves credit for his skill set. He says it's actually due to both parents, because after a bad game, he got double-teamed with critiques. "I knew if (in AAU or high school) we lost a game, I was getting talked to the whole ride home," Theo said.
Barbara often compares her playing résumé to her son's, reminding him that as of March 2016 they're still tied with two championships apiece. Barbara led Courtland (Alabama) High to back-to-back state titles in 1984 and '85, and Theo earned consecutive 3-A NCISAA state championships at Wesleyan Christian Academy. She expects him to add to his trophy case this week.
Pinson gets motivation from people he doesn't personally know, too, like professional players he idolized as a youngster. He is upset to think the youth of today won't have a full appreciation for Kobe Bryant, Pinson's favorite player, because Bryant is retiring at the end of this NBA season. It's similar to the disappointment he feels when he says that if he's being honest, he doesn't fully understand what Michael Jordan did, because it happened before Pinson's time. (Last week Williams joked that if it weren't for Hanes commercials, none of his guys would even be able to identify Jordan, despite the fact that Jordan played at Carolina.)
But mostly, while relishing his role as team comedian, Pinson just wants to be known as a winner. Then again, he understands he can't fool anyone—he'll always be the guy cracking jokes.
As a high school senior, Pinson participated in Under Armor Elite 24 dunk contest held at Brooklyn Bridge Park. He needed something distinguishable for his last act so he pulled his mother out of the crowd, and channeled Vlad Vladikoff again. He instructed the 6-foot Barbara to stand in the paint, as he skied over her. Two years later, Barbara swears she did not flinch when Theo took off, even though his pre-dunk pep talk did little to ease her nerves.
"Don't worry, Mama," he told her. "One way or another, we'll go viral with this."
Then, as usual, he broke into a big grin.