MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Down a back alley in the heart of this gritty town is a basement restaurant with low ceilings and red plaid tablecloths with an assortment of random pictures and knickknacks on the walls that's known for its dry rub charcoal ribs.
In the fall of 2002, some four months after Kansas standout Drew Gooden was selected by the Memphis Grizzlies with the fourth overall pick, Roy Williams and his wife, Wanda, hopped on a private plane to attend one of his former player’s first NBA games. Once the game was over, they made their way across Beale Street and down this dark alley to Charles Vergos’s Rendezvous in hopes of grabbing a bite before the restaurant shut down.
What they saw was a man out front washing his car under the street lights. Fearing bad news and a change of dinner plans, Williams recognized a waiter standing outside and asked if the establishment was closed for the night.
“No,” the waiter said, “We’re closed for everybody else. John [Vergos] saw your picture on TV during the telecast of the game, so we were waiting until you got here.”
Williams is as loyal as he is stubborn, and that anecdote explains why North Carolina has dined at Rendezvous not once, but twice, this season.
In some respects, the Tar Heels are back where their season began. Williams and Memphis head coach Tubby Smith are long-time friends, which made a preseason secret scrimmage over the last weekend of October a simple agreement. And so when UNC made its way to The Peabody Hotel in the fall, there was little question that Rendezvous would be on the menu.
Now, five months later, the Tar Heels have retraced those old steps, dining at Rendezvous once again on Thursday evening before dismissing Butler at FedExForum on Friday.
“I know all of the guys were looking forward to coming back to it,” freshman forward Shea Rush said. “It’s one of Coach’s favorite restaurants here in town.”
In October, freshman wing Brandon Robinson went with the ribs and brisket combo. This time around, he made a better choice, electing to go with the ribs and shoulder option.
“The best ribs I’ve had in my life,” Robinson said. “Hands down.”
For an amateur college game that has turned into a full-fledged business, it’s not so much the basketball that builds team chemistry through friendships. Teams across the country are allotted the same amount of court time to grind harsh edges down to prepare for postseason play.
It’s unique opportunities like dinners at Rendezvous, or excursions in Maui or pool time at the Atlantis in the Bahamas, that serve as the binding agent for programs like UNC.
“For me, as a freshman, it’s been unbelievable,” Rush said. “Every day is a new surprise. I’m always blown away with whatever accommodations, where we eat, travel, it’s all unbelievable, so it just makes it that much more exciting to be a Tar Heel. It also helps us realize how fortunate and how blessed we are. Coach takes really good care of us. I think what he does for us off the court motivates us to give him everything we have on the court.”
For old heads such as UNC’s juniors and seniors, the experiences build over a career to form a cultural foundation that makes the real world all that less daunting. For the rookies, it’s an awakening of sorts.
“You just go places that you never thought you would go,” Robinson said. “Normal students that we’re in school with everyday, they don’t get the opportunity to go the places we get to go and meet the people we get to meet. It’s just a great experience all around, on the court and off the court.”
Of course, Williams knows what he likes, and he’s not shy about it. The Hall of Famer has said for years that his teams will play in the Maui Invitational every four years as long as the tournament organizers keep inviting him back. Why? He loves tropical destinations, which explains the various trips to Puerto Rico, Maui, Oahu and the Bahamas over the years.
Food is a different matter all together.
“He’s pretty amped everywhere we go because he always brags about what great food they have,” Robinson said. “Even last week when we were in South Carolina we went to [Halls Chophouse] and he was trying to say it was better than Ruth’s Chris and all of us were like, ‘there’s no way this steakhouse will be better than Ruth’s Chris’ because Ruth’s Chris is our favorite,’ but it was really good.”
And so it’s fitting the Tar Heels has returned to the place their season began, with a win over Kentucky separating them from one final trip to Phoenix. UNC followed this same path eight years ago, dining at Rendezvous and winning two games at FedExForum before heading to the Final Four.
Maybe the ribs really are that good.