On April 4, 2016, Hubert Davis sat on a folding chair in the locker room of Houston’s NRG Stadium, his thousand yard stare focusing on nothing.
“It was hard,” he said of UNC’s last-second loss to Villanova on a miracle shot at the buzzer by Kris Jenkins.
“It was hard,” he repeated. “It was hard for a number of reasons. It was hard that we lost. Hard that we lost that way. Hard, because I wanted Coach Williams to win one more. Hard because it was the last time I was going to be Brice (Johnson), Joel (James) and Marcus’ (Paige) coach. It was hard because of all the stuff that was going on with the team. I just wanted to win it. To lose, and lose that way …”
It had Davis thinking about his life, his career and, perhaps, his destiny.
“So many things go through your head,” he said. “You think about Marcus, Brice and Joel. For me, personally, I thought about how I lost to Coach Williams and Kansas in 1991, when I got to the Final Four. Then, to have North Carolina win it all (in 1993), the year after I left, after my senior year. You think about losing up 3-2 in the NBA Finals and losing in seven games to the Houston Rockets in my second year in the NBA and not getting back. All those things come to mind. Are you ever going to be a part of a champion. You get so close.”
“Golly,” he added, drawing out the two syllables into almost a lamentation.
“Losing the championship game was hard,” he concluded. “Thinking about getting back next year, for me, that was farthest thing from my mind. It was just how can I heal from this? How can I move on?”
It was 364 days later when Davis sat on another folding chair in another locker room, this one a few hundred miles farther west, in Glendale, Arizona’s University of Phoenix Stadium. Carolina had just shot 30 percent in a lackluster first half against Gonzaga in the national championship game. The Heels shot 2-of-13 from three and trailed by three points.
Coach Roy Williams scolded his team for a lack of intensity in the opening 20 minutes, demanding that his players step things up in the second half.
When Williams stood up, the usually quiet Davis stood up. He had something to say.
“You guys don’t understand this because you’re kids,” he said. “But very few times in life do you get second chances. I’m 46 years old. I can’t remember too many things where I got a chance to redo it. You get to. You get a redo. You do. I didn’t get a redo when I went to the Final Four my junior year and we lost. I didn’t get a redo to go back to the NBA Finals.”
He faced his players, emotion clear on his face.
“You do. You actually get a chance to do something about it. What are you going to do?”
The Tar Heels went out and scored the first eight points of the second half. They shot 10 percentage points better and outscored Gonzaga by nine to cut down the nets, and, for the first time in his career, Hubert Davis was on a team that won its last game of the season.
After the game, the Tar Heel players credited Davis’ message to the team as being a key turning point in the title game. It also served as a turning point in his coaching career. It was the day he spoke up, took ownership of his players, and, not coincidentally, it was the day he went from a near miss to his sport’s ultimate winner.
Four years and one day later, Davis took another seat—right next to the one he normally sits in during Tar Heel games. It’s the one marked by masking tape, signifying the seat reserved for the UNC head coach.
Davis was announced as the head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, replacing Hall of Famer Roy Williams. He was the choice of Williams, the choice of many Carolina players, past and present, and, for many outsiders, a surprise choice.
He didn’t have the coaching experience He was too quiet. There were sexier names being thrown around, ones that would move the needle for boosters and recruits.
What the outsiders didn’t see was the moments when something needed to be said, when hearts needed to be laid bare.
“I just shared with them the experiences I’ve had, and what a great opportunity they had going into that second half,” he said.
That’s when Hubert Davis stood up. He hasn’t sat down since.