June 21, 2005
CHAPEL HILL -- In the weeks and months that surrounded the 2005 NBA draft, held June 28 this year, the North Carolina basketball program returned to a familiar place: the national spotlight.
That's nothing new for one of the most successful teams in the history of college athletics. And there certainly was no novelty involved for this particular group of Carolina's draft-eligible players (Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel), who spent much of their roller-coaster careers under incredibly intense scrutiny by members of the media and the general public.
But an interesting thing happened when all six UNC prospects showed up for the NBA's pre-draft camp in Chicago in early June. (Only Jawad Williams and Manual actually played. The others were there only to be interviewed and measured, as is typical for projected first-round picks.) The professional talent evaluators noticed a common theme that ran through at least five of the six Tar Heels in attendance, and it had nothing to do with their basketball abilities.
"In terms of quality people, you just can't beat those kids," said one NBA general manager from the Eastern Conference. "McCants may be a different story -- your guess is as good as mine -- but the others are straight out of central casting. Marvin Williams may be the most humble No. 1 pick ever. Sean May could probably run for mayor and win; he's just a big teddy bear, and he has a great personality. Raymond Felton doesn't say much, but he's a quality kid with a great work ethic, and he's a respectful yes-sir, no-sir guy. These are kids where you'd feel OK if they were dating your daughter.
"We're not in a position to draft Marvin, unfortunately, but we've done a lot of homework and research on some of the others. With some kids, the more you learn about them off the court, the less you like them. With these (UNC) kids, it's the opposite. You just hear so many great things about them from other people, and then you see it for yourself and you know it's true. I just think it's a great reflection on their program, kind of like it was in the old days under Dean Smith and now under Roy Williams.
"I like to give (Los Angeles Lakers general manager and former UNC star) Mitch Kupchak a hard time every time I see Rasheed Wallace get another technical or somebody else (from UNC) get into trouble off the court. Knowing Dean Smith, that kind of stuff is probably even more important to him than basketball. With these kids, though, it looks like it's back to the old days -- great people, great talent. It's great to see."
About a week before the draft, Marvin Williams was projected as the No. 1 or No. 2 selection overall. Felton was expected to be picked in the top 10, May in the top 15, Jawad Williams in the second round. (Opinions still vary widely on McCants, but most consider him a top-20 selection.) Nobody in the NBA was willing to suggest that the Carolina players' character was behind their high draft projections, but it didn't hurt, either.
"Being a nice guy isn't ever going to get someone into the NBA, but the whole personality package -- character, work ethic, unselfishness -- can be a very important tiebreaker," the GM said. "Talent is still the king, but all you have to do is look around to find players and teams who are winning because they have talented players who are also good people and unselfish players who are willing to put the team first. I can see these Carolina kids fitting into that nicely."
Wallace, Others Threatened Image
It's not hard to imagine Smith or Roy Williams, the self-proclaimed king of corny, emphasizing to their players (current or former) the importance of representing UNC basketball in the proper fashion.
Williams has become famous in recent years for telling prospective walk-ons that, regardless of their basketball skills, the first prerequisite for someone to be considered for a roster spot is a promise from the player that he will never embarrass his team or the university off the court. Those who don't take that pledge seriously don't last very long.
Under Smith, the Tar Heels became famous for producing a large number of pro players, especially well-developed big men, but they also had a reputation for churning out quality characters as well.
Sure, there was a Doug Moe or a Larry Brown (think wild, youthful versions) here and there, but there also were dozens of class acts and mild-mannered gentlemen. Among them were Billy Cunningham (Class of 1965), Bobby Jones (1974), Kupchak (1976), Phil Ford (1978), Michael Jordan (1984), Sam Perkins (1984), Brad Daugherty (1986), Kenny Smith (1987), Hubert Davis (1992), George Lynch (1993), Eric Montross (1994), Antawn Jamison (1998) and Brendan Haywood (2001). Even those who encountered serious personal problems, such as Ford, generally were regarded as wonderful people whose demons were directed at themselves rather than toward others.
Wallace (1995), on the other hand, has become as famous in the pros for leading the league in technical fouls and media rants as he has for his outstanding basketball abilities. To varying degrees, players such as J.R. Reid (1989), Jeff McInnis (1996) and Joseph Forte (2001) also have made many Carolina fans cringe with their antagonistic personalities and/or off-court transgressions since leaving Chapel Hill.
Looking ahead, nobody knows if McCants will add his name to one of the lists above. But if any of the program's other 2005 draftees does something that reflects on his alma mater, chances are Carolina fans won't have to hide their eyes.