CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— On June 9, 2011, Luke Maye and his father were in Dallas to see the Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA finals. Luke, the oldest of Mark and Aimee Maye's four children, was 14 at the time and though he modeled his game after Dirk Nowitzki, he didn’t have the skill or athleticism that suggested he might one day become a basketball hero. But he loved the deep ball.
The Mayes flew back to Charlotte as soon as possible the next day because it was eighth-grade graduation at Bailey Middle School. Maye was due to win some academic and athletic awards, and he had to be there.
So it should come as no surprise that six years later, after becoming a legend himself, Maye would show up for his 8 a.m. class the very next morning. In a video that has since gone viral, Maye received a standing ovation from his fellow Business 101 students in Chapel Hill on Monday approximately 12 hours after he drilled a 19-foot jump shot with 0.3 seconds remaining to give North Carolina a 75-73 win over Kentucky in the South Regional final in Memphis.
That shot capped a coming-out weekend for Maye, a 6'8" sophomore reserve forward for the Tar Heels. After averaging just 4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds this season entering the NCAA tournament, he has averaged 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in Carolina's four wins. In Memphis alone he put up 16 points and 12 boards against Butler in the Sweet 16 for his first career double-double and then had 17 points and three rebounds against the Wildcats, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in a region loaded with future NBA players despite being a virtual unknown outside of Tar Heel Nation prior to the weekend.
“It’s funny," Maye said Tuesday afternoon as North Carolina prepared to head to its record 20th Final Four, “I just talked to my mom on the phone, and she was saying 'I know it’s going to be crazy and you’re going to feel a lot of pressure going into this weekend.' But I told her I don’t feel any pressure because I know how good I can be and how I can play.”
Few others did. In middle school Maye abandoned football—the sport his father played at North Carolina—but he started on the varsity basketball team all four years at Hough High School in Cornelius, N.C. After practices he would go back to his old middle school gym with his dad and get extra shots up.
His breakthrough in organized ball came in his sophomore season when Hough beat a West Charlotte High team led by current Tar Heels teammate Kennedy Meeks in the state playoffs. Despite being two years younger Maye was one of the few players who could successfully box out the 6'10" and then-300 pound Meeks, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds in that game while Maye turned in 19-point, 14-rebound, three-assist performance.
Unlike Meeks, who was a McDonald's All-American, Maye was little known outside the Charlotte area, but he had been on Roy Williams’ radar before he was even born. Mark had been an all-state basketball player growing up in North Carolina before becoming the Tar Heels' starting quarterback in the mid-80s while Williams was an assistant to Dean Smith. Years later, Williams and the elder Maye ran into each other at the Wild Dunes’ Harbor Course in Isle of the Palms, S.C., and played a round of golf together. Maye took a driver off the first tee of the 535-yard par-5, and landed on the green with a 7-iron on his next shot. Williams, normally courageous on par-5s, had never dreamed of reaching the green in two there, much less with a 7-iron as the second shot. Color the Hall of Fame coach impressed.
After Williams returned from 15 years as the head coach at Kansas to resurrect the program in Chapel Hill in the spring of 2003, Mark Maye began bringing Luke to Williams’ summer camps. “He has a chance to play at this level,” Williams would tell the old college quarterback.
By the start of his senior year in 2014, Maye had narrowed his college destination to Clemson, Davidson or North Carolina. The first two offered him a scholarship. The third did not. Early that year, Maye told his coach to ignore any other inquiries—Notre Dame, Stanford and Virginia had also reached out—and decided on Carolina even though he didn’t have a scholarship. He’d be a preferred walk-on his freshman year and then Williams had promised a full ride for his final three years.
Then, in the spring, junior forward J.P. Tokoto unexpectedly went pro and Williams struck out on the recruiting trail while he battled the perceived threat of NCAA allegations hanging over the program due to its ongoing academic scandal. Suddenly the Tar Heels' coach had one scholarship open.
“I want you to do me a favor,” Williams told Maye. “Go to your mom and dad and tell them you’d like $1,000 to go to Myrtle Beach with your buddies and blow it this weekend.”
Silence. And then, sheepishly, Maye offers “Coach I don’t think I can do that.”
“Well you should be able to,” Williams returned, “because after that they’ll look at you like you’re crazy and then you’ll say 'Well, Coach Williams just called me and offered me a scholarship. And as an in-state student that’s worth $25,000.’ So the least they can do is give you $1,000 since you’re saving them $24,000.”
Maye didn't take the coaches' advice but he did take the scholarship. Two years later, Maye still doesn’t know exactly how he’d spend $1,000 at the beach.
“I would probably take my family down there,” he said this week. “We love playing putt-putt so I’d spend a lot of it on putt-putt.”
The first personal thing anyone says about Maye, after how academic and Andy Griffith-era he is, is how much the kid can eat.
He’s been known to eat sliders in a single bite. His favorite condiment is ketchup, and he uses it liberally on his food. His first high school basketball coach, Justin Batts, recalls the Waffle House staff raving about how polite Maye was and how much he could eat after games. The next-oldest Maye, Cole, is a freshman pitcher at Florida. The next, Beau, is in ninth grade and Drake is in eighth grade, and both are growing like beanstalks. The Maye family would have been wise to enjoy the kids-eat-free deals at restaurants near them.
“I remember when we went to Five Guys one time—and [UNC strength coach] Jonas [Sahratian] might be mad about this—he got three cheeseburgers from Five Guys," says Tar Heels junior Theo Pinson. "Double patty. And that’s hard to do.”
In two years at college Maye has finally grown into his 235-pound body. His boyish puffy cheeks are gone and he’s gotten leaner and stronger since his recruit profile pictures that made many Tar Heel fans wonder why Roy Williams gave a scholarship to this guy.
Nick Bernado heard some of his friends say that too. He was a senior guard for Hough in Maye’s freshman year, and by the time Maye got to Chapel Hill, Bernado was a student at UNC Charlotte. He told his friends to give Maye a chance to succeed because he knew he could play, even as Maye spent most of his freshman season on the bench and never even got on the court in last year's national title game loss to Villanova.
In the fall of 2015 Bernado went to Chapel Hill for its annual blowout Halloween celebration. He was partying outside of a fraternity house around midnight when he saw Maye, in gym shorts, walking away from the crowd on Franklin Street, the town's main street of shops and bars. Bernado hadn’t seen Maye in at least two years but they chatted briefly. Bernado offered him a beer but the 18-year-old Maye, he said, “sort of nudged it off.”
Maye doesn’t drink and isn’t sure if he’ll ever want to. But that was beside the point. He had somewhere to be.
“Nah man,” Bernado remembers Maye replying. “I have to go put up some shots in the gym.”
Maye’s high school coaches admit they’re surprised he got this good so quickly. Maybe he’d be doing this as a junior or senior, they thought, but as a sophomore? Even Maye says it’s “sprung up quickly.”
As a freshman Maye averaged 1.2 points and 1.7 rebounds and wasn't expected to improve on that very much this season. Instead he has nearly tripled his playing time and been a valuable contributor, scoring 11 points against Kentucky in 103-100 loss in December, grabbing 15 rebounds against Florida State in January and scoring eight points at Duke in his first career start in February. Maye has shot 41% from three-point range, and it has not gone unnoticed by Tar Heels fans that he has scored 192 points in 474 minutes of play this year, outstripping the combined production of three heralded underclassmen bigs at rival Duke—freshmen Marques Bolden and Harry Giles and sophomore Chase Jeter—who put up 180 points in 695 minutes.
“His shot has been there and he’s gotten better at it, he’s gotten more consistent,” Williams said. “He’s not as streaky as he used to be. Every time he shoots it, I think it’s going in.”
Now the secret is out. In just two days on campus Maye was inundated with photo and autograph requests. His Twitter account was so flooded with messages that he sent out a thank you Monday after having not tweeted since June.
Then there was the 8:03 a.m. standing ovation Monday in his Business 101: Managerial Accounting course that was taped by a student in the 400-person class and shared on social media. Before class each morning, Professor C.J. Skender plays four songs in a row that have some relevant tie to a current event. He calls it Fourplay.
Around 7:48 he cued up the music. “First of May” by the Bee Gees began, followed by The Crickets’ “Maybe Baby,” Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and finally Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “May I.” The music ended around 8 a.m. and Skender began teaching. That's about the time that Maye walked in and took his usual seat in the front row.
He looked to the side and one person began clapping, then more, and soon the class was on its feet and Maye—a real-life aw-shucks character—stood sheepishly to acknowledge his classmates.
It was the first day of the rest of his life. Luke Maye, recruiting afterthought, is now an immortal in this college town and he'll never have to pay for a soda—or a burger—ever again.