Tales from the Huddle

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With 3:39 to play and Harvard back within three points on Thursday, Roy Williams huddled his team during the final media timeout and told the story of the 1982 squad’s narrow 52-50 NCAA Tournament win over James Madison.

“I didn't like the look on our guys' faces last night when they sat down in front of me at that timeout,” Williams told reporters on Friday, “like they were about to panic, like ‘oh, my gosh.’ I explained to them that this is NCAA Tournament play. In 1982, we had a guy named Worthy and a guy named Perkins and a guy named Jordan, and we absolutely blew out James Madison, 52-50.”

Those types of anecdotes are commonplace in UNC huddles, and have been since Williams returned to Chapel Hill in 2003. The stories are sometimes reflective, sometimes humorous, but almost always pertinent to the situation at hand.

In UNC’s NCAA Tournament win over Providence last March, James Michael McAdoo, a 53.7 percent free throw shooter, was fouled with 3.5 seconds left and the game tied at 77-77. During the timeout, Williams told another story, this one about a six-foot putt with a right-to-left break and a playing partner reminding him that $55,000 was on the line for charity.

Williams looked at McAdoo and said, “Two free throws, my gosh, that's easy compared to making a putt for $55,000."

McAdoo credited his head coach with cracking jokes in the huddle after knocking down a pair of free throws in the 79-77 win. Williams would later say that he was trying to stop McAdoo from thinking too much.

Williams, who has coached 950 games during his 27-year career, has an uncanny ability to recall precise details of random moments in long ago games, and that has served as the basis for a catalogue of stories that his players hear quite often.

“It’s not even every game, it’s every practice,” Joel James said. “… I think Coach has a story related to everything that happens in his life.”

James, who is nearing the end of his third season at UNC, believes that he has heard all of his coach’s tales, including the one about Jackie Manuel’s lockdown defense in holding Kentucky’s Rajon Rondo to seven points in a win on Dec. 4, 2004.

The story that stands out for Kennedy Meeks is one about Phil Ford and toughness. In the 1976 ACC Tournament, Ford took an elbow to the mouth that knocked out a tooth. He kept his dribble alive, walked over to the bench and handed the tooth to a member of the coaching staff.

Former Tar Heel great Sean May shared the same story about Ford following a game during UNC’s national championship season in 2005.

“You can expect a story every day,” Meeks said. “That’s just the type of guy he is. He gives you scenarios to let you know how it is and that he’s experienced it before.”

For Marcus Paige, the story that he’s heard the most is about the three-guard lineup that Williams used at Kansas with Kirk Hinrich, Jeff Boschee and Aaron Miles to illustrate how such a lineup can be effective. Another anecdote that Williams tells from his Kansas days is Nick Collison bowing up during an Elite Eight win over top-seeded Arizona in 2003, telling his teammates in a huddle that they better get on board because he was going to the Final Four.

“You can always expect a story from Coach,” J.P. Tokoto said. “He’s one of the greatest with stories. He’s one of those guys that’s been around for a long time in coaching and just basketball itself. Being around as long as he has, you’re going to have stories. And sometimes they do help. Sometimes they give wisdom and sometimes they give you a better perspective of what you’re doing in life, not just basketball.”

Each story has value. They are all relevant. If the story of the $55,000 putt last March was intended to get McAdoo to laugh, Thursday’s reminder of the 1982 game was designed to encourage the Tar Heels to embrace the pressure of the NCAA Tournament. While each team is different, Williams is the thread that binds them together, and his stories are the method in which experiences are shared.

“You can learn so much just listening to him and his stories, but they all somehow tie into what we’re doing,” Paige said. “Those guys did a lot of things similar to what we’re doing, and he tries to connect us to them to show us that we can be successful if we do what they did.”

Of all of Williams’s anecdotes and seemingly tall tales, one player in particular is the subject matter for UNC’s most recent teams.

“There’s 5,000 with Tyler Hansbrough that he tells,” James said.

In UNC’s locker room at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on Friday morning, Williams drew a scale on the whiteboard, starting with “0” and ending with “Hansbrough.” He then went around the room asking each player where their effort level against Harvard belonged on that scale.

The Tar Heels understood their head coach’s point. After all, they’ve heard countless stories of how Williams never had to ask Hansbrough to play harder, tougher or with more passion.

By listening and applying those tales of old, this group of Tar Heels could provide its own subject matter for stories told in the years to come.

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