Simmons Restaurantis a noisy soul-food joint on the edge of downtown Charlotte, with crowdedwalls that are a shrine to North Carolina sports. Yellowing photos of thelong-departed Hornets are plastered next to autographed Panthers memorabiliaand even the stray bit of Hurricanes minutiae, but there is almost no evidenceof the Bobcats on display, though the team plays just a mile away. At Simmonsthe only basketball that matters now is Tar Heels basketball, which explainsthe abundance of baby-blue items decorating its walls. So when Raymond Felton,Sean May and Marvin Williams, three fourths of the greatest draft class in UNChistory (and that's saying something), rolled in for lunch on a chilly Februaryday, it was easy to guess what everyone inside wanted to discuss.
"How are youguys going to do in the tournament?" one diner asked, and nobody thoughtfor a second that he was referring to their NBA teams. The restaurant's ownerbrought over a batch of UNC memorabilia to be signed. No one mentioned--letalone asked for tickets to--that night's game between the Atlanta Hawks(Williams's current employer) and the Bobcats (for whom Felton and May play),one of the least-anticipated matchups of this NBA season. "The first thingeverybody says around here is, 'I'm a huge Tar Heels fan,'" May explains,rolling his eyes. "And I'm always like, 'What, you're not a Bobcats fan? Ordid you just forget to add that?'"
No matter what theydo in the pros, May, Felton and Williams will always be remembered in theseparts for their heroics last spring when, along with Rashad McCants, they ledNorth Carolina to the national title. Those Tar Heels were an exhilarating--ifmaddening--team that displayed only a passing interest in defense, occasionallyfought over the ball but in the end overwhelmed the tournament field with theirtalent. Felton, a junior point guard, was the fierce leader and cannydistributor. May, a junior center who was named Most Outstanding Player of theFinal Four, owned the post with his wide body and soft hands. Junior shootingguard McCants was an explosive slasher who could also stretch defenses with hisoutside touch, while Williams, the 6'9" freshman extraordinaire, brought arare athleticism and nonstop motor to both forward positions.
And then they weregone, headed for the pros, it seemed, even before One Shining Moment had fadedout. The 19-year-old Williams went second overall; Felton and May were snappedup fifth and 13th, respectively; and McCants was taken 14th, by Minnesota. Itwas the first time four nonseniors from the same team had been selected in thefirst round.
March 20, 2006
So now, instead ofpreparing to defend their NCAA title, they are all buried at the bottom of thebox scores on teams with varying degrees of ineptitude. That night'sHawks-Bobcats game featured two cellar-dwellers a combined 43 games under .500,with Charlotte 12 games into a 13-game losing streak. McCants's Timberwolves,meanwhile, were in the midst of a swoon that would almost certainly knock themout of the playoff picture, for a second consecutive year. Later that afternoonthe roster for the All-Star rookie-sophomore game was announced. None of thefour Tar Heels rookies were selected, an inconceivable notion at the start ofthe year.
So it's littlewonder that their lunch conversation is salted with little jabs and gallowshumor. "See Rashad's dunk the other night?" May asks, to no one inparticular.
"Lefthanded?" says Williams.
"No doubt. Ihit him up after that on the BlackBerry. He's like, 'You know me, same oldG.'"
"He said thisis a big game for us [tonight]," May continues. "It's to see who getsfirst pick in the draft."
"That's cold,man," Felton says, never looking up from his plate of fried chicken.
The only topictreated with reverence is Carolina basketball. The pull remains strong. Sixnights later May and Felton will receive a raucous ovation when they show up atthe Dean Dome for the UNC-Duke game, and all four plan to spend the summer inChapel Hill working toward their degrees and playing pickup ball with variouscurrent and former Tar Heels. "It's their program," North Carolinacoach Roy Williams says of his four departed stars. "They remain very closeto all of us here."
The ex-Heels keepclose tabs on their former teammates with frequent phone calls and textmessages. Over lunch at Simmons the specificity of the UNC gossip wasimpressive--which coach recently had a traffic mishap, who's slacking off inthe conditioning drills.... "It hurts to watch when they lose," MarvinWilliams says. "It kills me."
"Man, I loseit," says May, whose extended stay on the injured list has afforded himplenty of time to watch his old team. "I'll throw stuff at the TV. Somebodydoes something stupid, I pick up the phone and call them and leave a messageright then: 'Man, what you doin' out there?'"
It's impossible notto wonder whether any of these freshly minted millionaires regret theirdecision to leave school early. May asked himself that very question inNovember when he returned to Chapel Hill to watch North Carolina play ClevelandState. "Walking around campus, I missed it so much," he says. "Iwas so nostalgic. Then I went to the game, and Coach called timeout and startedyelling at the guys, and I was like, I don't miss this place at all."
As March Madnessbegins without them, each of these very different personalities continues toperform their own balancing act--pining for their glory days and looking aheadto better things in the NBA.
Rashad McCants wasthe first to make the move, announcing his decision to turn pro nine days afterNorth Carolina beat Illinois 75-70 in the national championship game. His threeteammates would later trumpet their decision to go pro together at a festivepress conference, but McCants's solo act was typical of a player who so oftendistanced himself from his teammates. It's perhaps fitting that the last imageof McCants as a Tar Heel came moments after the buzzer sounded againstIllinois, when he stripped off his jersey and preened for the crowd in St.Louis. To McCants this was an expression of unbridled joy, but many in TarHeels Nation cringed at the lack of decorum from someone in a program that hasalways been defined by its buttoned-down demeanor.
"Sean andMarvin and Ray will always think about what might have been," McCants saysof leaving school early. "They loved Carolina and the people loved themback, but for me it was time to go. The media scrutiny was so bad by the end.When I got drafted, what I mostly felt was relief to have a freshstart."
The scrutiny didnot end when he arrived in Minnesota, where everyone wanted to know how such atalent could have fallen to 14th in the draft. On the eve of the seasonTimberwolves coach Dwane Casey related this story about McCants to theMinneapolis Star Tribune: "I called all of my coaches and friends in theNCAA, and they all said, 'Don't take the guy, don't take him, don't take him,he's this, he's that.'" Such is McCants's potential that Minnesota took himanyway.
Four months laterCasey says, "I have no complaints about Rashad. His approach, hisunderstanding of the game, his effort, his work habits--they've all gottenmuch, much better." And yet McCants still provokes plenty ofhead-scratching. Ask him to name his favorite moment of his rookie year and hecites the sixth game of his career, a loss to Denver. During a taut fourthquarter Minnesota's Kevin Garnett threw down a ferocious dunk on Marcus Camby."KG's screaming, so I started screaming too," McCants says. "Ofcourse the ref gave me the technical, not KG. Next time down the court I dunkedon Camby, so I had to scream again. I got another T and was ejected. That wasdefinitely the funnest thing that's happened this year."
After that gameMcCants got a lecture from Garnett, who has become a tough-love mentor."I'm on his ass because I'm not going to let him settle," Garnett says."He has the potential to be a real special player in this league. I wanthim to play the game the right way, I want him to always understand that thegame don't owe you s---. You owe the game."
Despite KG'ssupport, McCants is getting only 6.6 points per game in 13.7 minutes. "Hecan play defense," says T-Wolves point guard Anthony Carter, "but it'sa matter of him wanting to do it. He needs to pick up his intensity."
A game last monthagainst Phoenix offered a glimpse of McCants at his best ... and mostmaddening. He whined to the refs, stood around on offense, failed to hustleback in transition and repeatedly got lost on D. But when he had the ball inhis hands, he was electric. He carried the Wolves in the second quarter,burying four long jumpers. With 2:14 left in the game, McCants made a gorgeousspin move in the lane and hit a floater to give the T-Wolves a four-point lead.They never trailed again. Yet McCants displayed little emotion afterward,saying, "It's just one game in a long, long season."
But surely this iswhy he left North Carolina--to be one of the key players in a thrilling NBAgame such as this one. "Was it fun?" he scoffed. "No, it was work.Playing college ball is fun. This was business."
It's always anevent when Sean May rolls into the Bobcats' locker room. He's known to histeammates as Big Sexy because, says Charlotte forward Melvin Ely, "he likesto walk around the locker room with his shirt off, just in his tights andsandals. I'm not one to say who's sexy and who isn't, but he isn't. We told himif his shirt comes off one more time, he's gonna get fined."
Today, May isturned out in velour sweats and Carolina-blue sneakers. No sooner has he satdown in a stray chair than an unseen teammate shouts from the shower, "Getup--I don't want those damn pants in my chair."
From across thelocker room Ely chimes in, "Or them ugly shoes, in that horrible-asscolor."
May winks at theabuse. "I got a lot of Carolina stuff in my closet," he says. "Ilike to wear it to get on people's nerves. I love to joke about it with theguys in here, ask if they want to try on my [NCAA] ring, stuff likethat."
"I think theylike it," he says, deadpan.
Growing up as theson of Indiana All-America Scott May, Sean has always been at ease in thepublic eye. Since injuring his right knee in September he has had two surgeriesto repair the cartilage, but while sidelined, he has, somewhat paradoxically,become the public face of the Bobcats. He has signed jerseys for an hour afterhome games, gone to dinner with fans as part of a radio promotion andoccasionally taken the mike to address the crowd during pregame warmups."They're definitely getting their money out of me," says May, who willmake $1.6 million this season.
He had onceenvisioned staying in Chapel Hill for four years, and his dad tried to talk himinto staying in school, but with the momentum of his Final Four performance andwith McCants and Felton set on going pro, May couldn't say no, either, and hiscurrent injury has convinced him that he made the right decision. "If I'dhad this knee injury while I was in school, I might have never made it to theleague," he says. "I might have been stuck overseas."
And yet May hasnever felt more adrift. Out since December, May, who averaged 8.2 points and4.7 rebounds in 23 games, is uncertain about his return this season. Becauseinjured Bobcats often don't travel with the team, May has spent much of thelast two-plus months in his apartment, watching Charlotte on TV. "I don'tsee the guys for, like, eight days," he says. "You call them up,they're too busy for you. I haven't been able to talk to anybody, I haven'tbeen able to complain to anybody. It's killing me!"
The loquacious Mayis already looking forward to the summer, when he can return to Chapel Hill toplay ball with--and yap at--his buddies and take classes toward his degree incommunications studies. May, who describes himself as "very single,"has other motives for looking forward to summer school, as was obvious in thisexchange with Felton over lunch at Simmons.
"I can't waitto get to know some of those incoming freshmen," May said.
The defining nightof Marvin Williams's rookie year was not Dec. 20, when he dropped 26 points onthe Miami Heat with a dazzling display of power and finesse. It was the nightbefore, when some of his teammates went prowling in South Beach, wheretemptation comes in many forms, most of them wearing microminis. Williams toldhis teammates he wasn't interested in going out. "He just wanted to go backto the hotel, but nobody would let him," says forward Josh Childress."It got to the point where we said we'd fine him if he didn't come with us.He's like, 'O.K., how much?' I don't remember the [final] number, but it wasridiculous, like 10 grand. He still didn't want to go. He was going to pay thefine!"
Despite his instantNBA fame and fortune Williams remains as down-to-earth as he was the day in thefall of 2004 when he showed up at Chapel Hill and graciously agreed to come offthe bench. (Thus, the No. 2 pick in last year's draft never started a game incollege.) In a league in which the only thing many players read is the RobbReport, Williams is an unabashed Harry Potter enthusiast who's happy to waitfor the paperback edition of Harry's latest adventures to save a few bucks.Williams's UNC teammates love to laugh about his penny-pinching, and nothinghas changed even though he's making $3.9 million this year.
Says May,"During summer league Marvin wanted to buy a PlayStation, so we roll to themall, but when we get to the store, he's like, 'Man, it's $200.' He couldn't doit!"
Of course Williamswas drafted for more than just his uncommon maturity. In baseball he'd bereferred to as a five-tool player. Still, the Hawks are bringing Williams alongslowly, which has been made easier by a roster crowded with forwards. (Theteam's obvious need for a true point guard has created plenty of grousingaround the league--not without justification--that its pick would have beenbetter spent on Chris Paul, the presumptive Rookie of the Year who was takenfourth overall by the Hornets.) In 23.5 minutes a game he's averaging 7.5points and 4.7 rebounds, though he's coming on strong, having scored in doublefigures in seven of his last 12 games. Among the four Tar Heels first-rounders,Williams has had the toughest adjustment. "We lost nine in a row to startthe year, and I thought I was gonna die," Williams says. "Seriously. Icouldn't sleep. I was staring at the ceiling until three or four everynight."
Williams says hehas learned to play through the losses, and that's not the only thing that haschanged for him as the season has wore on. Says May, "I called Marv theother day about midnight and asked what he was doing, and he's like, 'You knowme--I'm about to step out.'
"I'm like,'Excuse me, step out where?'
Says Williams,"Hey, everybody gets older, right?"
As a second-yearteam Charlotte figured to be in for a rough season, but it hasn't helped thatthe Bobcats have been decimated by injuries. May's absence from the post hasbeen exacerbated by the ankle injury to the team's starting power forward,reigning Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor, who has played only one game sincemid-December. The Bobcats' locker room has turned into a MASH unit, but Feltonhas missed only one game, which is impressive because he suffered back and neckinjuries in a fender-bender during the All-Star break.
The upside toCharlotte's roster upheaval is that Felton has gotten heavy minutes over thelast 2 1/2 months and has quietly--very quietly--emerged as one of the bestrookies in the league, despite playing out of position. A classic pass-firstpoint guard in college, Felton has been getting most of his minutes at shootingguard, playing next to Brevin Knight, and his all-around game has thrived. InFebruary he was named Eastern Conference rookie of the month, averaging 15.6points and 6.5 assists. Though his outside shooting has improved dramaticallyin the last year, Felton is more in the Tony Parker mold, a little guy who doesmost of his damage in the paint. "There is no one in the league who canstop Ray off the dribble," says Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
Felton's strongplay of late has helped him emerge from the shadow of his old ACC rival Paul,who was drafted one spot ahead of Felton. The gap between Paul and Felton isn'tas wide as you might think. In the 19 games this year in which Felton hasplayed 35 or more minutes, he has averaged 16.7 points, 6.6 assists and 5.1rebounds, shooting 46.4%, including 50.0% on threes. Those numbers comparefavorably with Paul's season averages of 35.9 minutes, 16.2 points, 8.0 assistsand 5.4 rebounds on 42.8% shooting, including 29.6% of three-pointers. (For theyear Felton is averaging 10.1 points and 4.7 assists.)
"I came outearly because I wanted to test myself against the best," says Felton."All of us did. After you win a national championship, there's nothing elseyou can do in college ball. I needed a new challenge."
Like any otherNorth Carolina fan, the four rookies are eager to see how this year's callowTar Heels will defend the national title. "We can go a lot further thanpeople think," Felton says. "These kids just have to keep listening toCoach and keep believing in themselves." May is even more bullish. "Ithink we might shock the world," he says.
Ever thecontrarian, McCants feels the Tar Heels are still a year or two away, saying,"We don't have the two or three stars you need to carry you against the topteams." But, he adds, months ago he promised his close friend David Noel, asenior forward, that if the Tar Heels made it to the Final Four, he'd show upto cheer in person. One problem: The Timberwolves have a game the night beforeand the night after the national semifinals in Indianapolis. As with Felton,May and Williams, McCants's heart may still be with North Carolina, but therest of him now belongs to the NBA.
"Rashad said this is a big game for us," Mayreports. "It's to see who gets first pick in the draft." RepliesFelton, "THAT'S COLD, MAN."
Over lunch the specificity of THE UNC GOSSIP wasimpressive--which coach recently got into a traffic mishap, who's slackingoff.
Then: No. 2 Pick
Now: Small Forward
Then: No. 13 Pick
Now: Power Forward
Then: No. 5 Pick
Now: Point Guard
Then: No. 14 Pick
Now: Shooting Guard