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UNC Recruiting History: Antawn Jamison

With Antawn Jamison's induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame this month, it's time to revisit how it all began for the former Tar Heel great.

Tales from the Recruiting Trail
by Sherrell McMillan
Inside Carolina Magazine

Unique Talent

When the Jamison family relocated to a college basketball hotbed, Antawn’s game flourished and the Tar Heels took notice.



It’s been 27 years since Hurricane Hugo blew through South Carolina and North Carolina, leaving behind destroyed homes and damaged property.

For North Carolina’s largest city, Charlotte, hurricanes aren’t normally a huge concern. More often than not, by the time hurricanes move the 200 miles inland to Mecklenburg County the worst is over.

Hugo was different.

According to the Charlotte Observer, the storm reached the Queen City only six hours after landfall, bringing with it flooding rains and tropical-storm force winds.

In the end, it caused more than $1 billion in damage in the Tar Heel state.

When contractors were sent in to help rebuild federal housing in the area, Albert Jamison landed one of the gigs.

He spent several months in Charlotte and came to love the area’s diversity, opportunity and small-town feel in the middle of a metropolitan area.

A few months into Albert’s job in Charlotte, he brought his wife—Kathy—up for a week to see if she liked the city. A few weeks later Albert and Kathy moved their family to North Carolina. They had three children. Albert Jr. and Latasha were the youngest.

Their oldest was 13. His name was Antawn.

“My dad traveled a lot as a construction worker and he was sent to Charlotte after Hurricane Hugo,” Antawn Jamison said. “My mom told him ‘the next place you go, you need to try and get on there so we can raise our family together...’

“It’s ironic how things like that can have a very big impact. I think making that move and being in a place where basketball is No. 1 helped me to utilize my talents. And, eventually, those talents helped me provide for my family.”

***

It’s clear listening to him speak that Jamison has told the story hundreds of times.

Upon moving into the family’s house in Charlotte, Albert Jamison put up a basketball hoop. Antawn was into sports and a basketball goal was more need than want to many boys in North Carolina.

“I wanted to play and they thought it was a good thing to have,” Jamison recalls. “When my dad put it up I was so excited.”

Only, the goal wasn’t exactly regulation. Albert set it at 11 feet. The next few years Jamison played on it, not realizing it was a foot higher than standard hoops.

Bob Angley, former head coach at Providence High School, first saw Jamison play as a ninth grader at Quail Hollow Junior High School.

“They were playing Carmel Junior High School and I saw this slender guy,” Angley recalled. “He was playing in the high post and his team got behind. Then, all of a sudden, he took over and it was like he wasn’t going to let them lose.”

Recognizing the talent, Angley put in a call to the Charlotte Royals AAU squad. Soon, Jamison was on the team, one that included future Division I players Demarco Johnson (UNC-Charlotte) and Ishua Benjamin (N.C. State).

“He basically became the best player on the Royals team,” Angley said. “He was playing with all those other great guys and they had won a couple of national championships, but he was the player making them go. Several college coaches I knew said my phone was going to be lighting up after watching him that summer—and they were right.”

Jamison played varsity as a sophomore, his first year at Providence.

“One of the first memories was early that year in practice; we could tell he was going to be a good player,” said Angley. “We wanted to start to get him ready. If you were going to play inside in the ACC, you needed to be able to turn, drop-step and dunk the ball. I said ‘Can you do it?’ He said ‘Yes sir, you want to see?’ I made him do a couple of other things and finally I asked him, ‘Where did you learn to dunk like that?’ He said, ‘My dad made this goal for me and it is 11-feet high, I learned to dunk on that.”

The skills Jamison displayed coupled with his humble persona and solid support system made him the total package in Angley’s eyes. After a fall practice, Angley wanted to have a serious, one-on-one conversation with his star player.

“I sat him down and explained things very clearly to him,” said Angley. “I told him that ‘If you work as hard as you possibly can for the next six years, your mom and dad will never have to work again.’ Antawn didn’t have any knowledge of whether or not he was good enough, so he needed some guidance in that respect. He just knew that basketball came easily to him and he liked it.”

Early in that sophomore season, Jamison realized what he could be.

Providence played at the Beach Ball Classic, held right after Christmas in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The tournament, and Jamison’s performance in it, launched him onto the national stage.

“It was really the first time I got an opportunity to play with people outside of North Carolina,” Jamison said. “We were playing teams from New York and there were coaches everywhere. I had a good tournament and when it was over Coach Angley came up to me. He said ‘Coach (Phil) Ford and Coach (Bill) Guthridge wanted me to tell you hello. They said you had a great couple of games and they’ll be looking out for you.’”

Attention from the Carolina coaching staff would’ve immediately ended the recruitment of a lot of home-grown players.

Because Jamison had spent the majority of his life in Louisiana, he wasn’t really familiar with college basketball and the state’s rivalries.

“The only college basketball I knew about was SEC basketball,” he said. “And the only SEC basketball was Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) and Chris Jackson, that’s really what I knew. They didn’t come on TV every Saturday like the ACC did. It was always football, football, football. When I got to Charlotte I realized how important college basketball was. That’s when I saw that everyone was a Tar Heel fan, a Duke fan, a North Carolina State fan or a South Carolina fan.”

Angley called the Jamison family “one that raised their kids the right way and a tight-knit group.” So it’s no surprise that Jamison wanted to play close enough to home that his parents and siblings could regularly attend games.

“After that tournament, I started getting interest from Midwest schools, West Coast schools, SEC schools, everyone. I ended up with offers from basically every conference.”

Pretty quickly, despite nearly 150 recruiting letters from around the country coming to Jamison’s house each week, he knew the schools he had serious interest in attending.

“My dad and mom used to collect all the letters,” Jamison said. “Not long ago, I go to the old barbershop in my neighborhood and I see the mail lady who used to deliver the mail at our house. She said ‘I remember you because of all the mail that used to get sent to your house.”

Staying close to home meant saying no to big names from the West Coast, like Lute Olson at the University of Arizona and Jim Harrick at UCLA.

“I’m a momma’s boy,” Jamison said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to be away from her and my family. I wanted to stay in the ACC.”

Jamison’s junior season saw him become, outside of the hometown Hornets, the biggest basketball star in Charlotte.

“That’s definitely when I kind of blew up,” he said. “When Coach Ford and Coach Guthridge came to games, it kind of reached the next level. I had to get accustomed to dealing with everything that’s involved in a being a big name. There are articles about you in the paper, opponents and their fans talking crazy to you during the games. That year just motivated me to stay focused and let my talent take me as far as I wanted to go.”

That year, Angley received calls from North Carolina and Duke within five days of each other concerning Jamison. Both had the same message.

“Phil Ford calls me up and says, ‘We just finished our recruiting meeting and Antawn is our No. 1 recruit for next year,’” Angley recalled. “A few days later, Tommy Amaker calls me up and says, ‘We just finished our recruiting meeting and Antawn is our No. 1 target for next year.’”

“I said to Tommy, ‘Now you guys have had Grant Hill types and you’re recruiting ‘Tawn, are you telling me the truth?’ He said ‘Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) thinks there are certain things Antawn can do better than Grant at the same age.’ That really got our attention.”

Jamison took unofficial visits to Duke, N.C. State, South Carolina and North Carolina. He was scheduled to take a trip to Georgia Tech, but never made it.

Eddie Fogler was the coach at South Carolina, which held a geographic advantage over the other schools.

“He was seriously considering going to South Carolina,” Angley said. “The side of Charlotte his parents lived on was the south side and they could get to Columbia much faster than Chapel Hill.”

At the time, the Columbia area was teeming with talent and a sophomore out of Columbia (S.C.) Eau Claire High School named Jermaine O’Neal was the next big thing. Fogler felt he had an obligation to sign the top talent in South Carolina.

So, instead of using his lone available scholarship offer on Jamison, Fogler offered it to Leonard “Bud” Johnson, a 6-11 junior at Eau Claire and teammate of O’Neal, in hopes of luring him to South Carolina.

“I know why Eddie made the decision he did,” Angley said. “On our visit, he said ‘We’re going to give the scholarship to Bud, even though we think Antawn is better because we want O’Neal.’

O’Neal never played college basketball. He went straight to the NBA and was selected No. 17 overall by the Portland Trailblazers in the 1996 NBA Draft.

The lack of a scholarship offer with the Gamecocks showed Jamison the business side of recruiting, and how fast interest from a school can dissipate.

Duke was coming off two championships (1991, 1992) in the previous three years when Jamison took his trip to Durham.

He had front row seats to one of the final home games of All-American Grant Hill’s career.

“Me and my dad went to Duke and we were right behind the bench,” said Jamison. “Coach K was in full effect. He was letting them have it. He was saying ‘this and that’ and my dad is looking at me like ‘I don’t know if I want someone talking to my son like that.’”

“He’s an unbelievable coach, but that was new for us, “said Jamison. “It was different for my dad to see a coach so intense. It was an impressive visit though, just seeing Grant Hill and (Jeff) Capel and all those guys. It was impressive to see all the history.”

Though he visited N.C. State, Jamison said his trip to Raleigh didn’t make the Wolfpack a viable option for his commitment.

On Feb. 12, 1994, Jamison watched Georgia Tech snap the seven-game winning streak of the No. 1 Tar Heels in the Smith Center.

Prior to the game, Jamison was able to talk one-on-one with Dean Smith, tour the campus and the Dean E. Smith Center. After that day, his recruitment was over.

“There was just something about it that fits who I am,” he said. “It has a great basketball tradition, it’s close to home and Coach Smith was a legend. Carolina fit all the criteria I had.”

Jamison committed to the Tar Heels and Smith a few weeks later during an in-home visit.

“He was just telling me ‘I can’t say that you’ll be a top five pick or that you’ll make it into the NBA, but I’ll make you a better man than you were before you came,” Jamison said. “My parents loved that part. It’s not all about basketball. It’s ‘this is what you can do for me as a human being.’ For me, it was about the school, the colors, Michael Jordan and James Worthy. But what Coach Smith said is what my parents were looking for.”

Ten months later, Jamison played, as a senior, at the Myrtle Beach tournament where he’d become a national name two years earlier. One of the teams in attendance was Daytona (Fla.) Midland High School, home of Vince Carter. Carter was the Tar Heels’ top remaining target in the class of 1995.

“I remember after one of his games, he had broken his wrist or something, me and him just started talking,” Jamison said. “We already had that dialogue with each other. I was talking to his mom and she was asking him questions and my parents met his mom. I wouldn’t say I helped recruited him, but I remember us talking before he committed to go to Carolina.”

Three months later, Carter signed to play at UNC.

***

If you were to ask any Carolina fan about the “greatest team there never was,” most don’t hesitate. They point to the 1995-96 edition of the Tar Heels. The sophomore trio of Jeff McInnis, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, along with Dante Calabria and 1993 Final Four MVP Donald Williams had led Carolina to a surprising appearance in the 1995 Final Four.

With McInnis, Stackhouse, Wallace and Calabria back, plus a three-man recruiting 1995 class that included Carter and Jamison, Carolina was expected to be one of the favorites for the 1995-96 title.

“My whole senior year, which was their sophomore year, I wanted to be teammates with those guys,” said Jamison. “Seeing Rasheed dunking on people and McInnis throwing all kinds of alley-oops to Stackhouse, I was ready. I just knew that it was going to be fun playing with those guys.”

But that team never took the floor.

Stackhouse and Wallace both entered the NBA Draft after their sophomore seasons, and were taken No. 3 and No. 4 overall respectively.

“We had to play as soon as possible,” Jamison said of himself, Carter and fellow freshman Ademola Okulaja. “There were some roadblocks that were setup for us, but we did a great job in continuing to play and showing our toughness and athleticism. It would’ve been a lot easier if Rasheed and Jerry came back, but at the same time the whole process for us as far playing would’ve been slower. I don’t think you would’ve seen the potential from us, so early, if we didn’t get thrown into the fire.”

Still, Jamison never imagined he’d have one of the best freshman seasons in Carolina history. He was named first-team All-ACC and became the first freshman to lead the ACC in field goal percentage.

Jamison’s on-the-court play, Angley said, was the result of “God-given natural talent. He could just do things others couldn’t. A lot of guys can jump once, but if the shot is missed their second jump isn’t that quick. ‘Tawn could jump, land and go back up before anyone else could. If you know much about Antawn, he had all these unique little shots in the lane where his delivery was different. It was all based on the quickness and ability to get the ball up; he was an uncanny shooter though it was unorthodox. Coach Smith took great advantage of that.”

Away from the court, the friendship he shared with Carter and Okulaja helped the trio withstand a freshman season that saw the 1995-96 squad become just the third UNC team since 1966 to finish with 10 or more losses.

“The thing that made it easy for me was coming in with Vince and Ademola,” Jamison said. “We did everything together. We went through the whole journey, the bumps and the bruises, together. Having those two guys there with me made it that much easier to learn and to have a security blanket. We pushed each other.”

“Me and Vince always got so frustrated because it seemed like Ademola always got the upper hand on us defensively when we were going through tape,” he continued. “It was always ‘Okulaja, Okulaja, Okulaja’ from Coach Smith and Coach Ford. That definitely pushed us.”

ACC coaches felt the same way about Jamison as he did about Okulaja. For three years after almost every UNC victory, opposing coaches probably said to themselves “Jamison, Jamison, Jamison.”

He ended his career as one of the most decorated players in ACC history. He was the unanimous National Player of the Year in 1998, just the second Tar Heel and third player in ACC history to be named ACC Player of the Year, ACC Tournament MVP, NCAA Regional MVP and National Player of the Year in the same season and averaged 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in 104 career games.

He also led UNC to ACC Tournament titles and Final Fours appearances in 1997 and 1998.

“He loved grabbing a rebound, pushing the ball up the court and then making the play at the other end,” said Angley. “One of my favorite memories was his sophomore year of high school. He came down and there was one guy between him and the basket. ‘Tawn was not a show-off kind of person, but he takes the guy off dribble, goes behind his back around the guy and the lays the ball off the glass.

“There was nothing he couldn’t do. I remember things like that because of how unusual and spontaneous they were. I looked at my assistant coach and just kind of gave him a look that said ‘We’re seeing something special here, let’s enjoy it.’”

Jamison was picked No. 4 overall all in the 1998 draft by the Toronto Raptors. He was then traded to the Golden State Warriors for the No. 5 overall pick—Vince Carter. In 16 NBA seasons, Jamison made two all-star appearances and scored 50 or more points in a game twice.

His 20,042 career points are 44th in NBA history and the third most by a former Tar Heel. Only Vince Carter (23,285) and Michael Jordan (32,292) have more.

“When I’m dead and gone, my kids and their kids can go see dad or grandpa’s name up in the rafters,” said Jamison. “Those are the things you dream about. You dream about your jersey being retired and always seeing your jersey hanging at one of the best college programs of all time. It’s the ultimate compliment; it shows that all the hard work and dedication meant something. My kids will see it and be proud of daddy. You can’t get any better than that.”

All because a high school coach convinced him that he could take care of his family for the rest of his life, and a college coach fulfilled his promise to care about Jamison the person as much as Jamison the basketball player.

“I tell people all the time that Coach Smith is my white dad,” Jamison said with a laugh. “He got me at a very important time in my life, my first time away from home and away from my parents. He taught me about life. He taught me that there’s more to life than being an NBA basketball player. It’s about being humble, realizing what you have and taking advantage of it and treating people with respect.

“Without Coach Smith, I don’t think I would’ve been able to be in the situation that I am right now. I don’t think I’d be the father that I am, the brother I am, the friend I am. I will always cherish my time at UNC. The things they taught me I’m teaching my kids to this day. I was in the NBA for 16 years, have four kids, and a great lifestyle. UNC and Coach Smith were a big part of that.”


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