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<i>This feature story is from the December 2003 issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, <a href=>CLICK HERE</A>.</i>

Who is Rashad McCants? The mercurial sophomore speaks about the fire that still burns - now ready to torch the ACC.

Inside Carolina Magazine
December, 2003
WORDS: Mark Simpson-Vos
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins

harismatic. Enigmatic. Outspoken. Overstated. Hot-shooting. Hot-headed. Lightning quick. Lightning rod. Fiery. Ferocious. Mercurial. Mighty.


So you want to get a clear read on public opinion about Carolina's 6-4 shooting guard? Good luck. From the moment Rashad McCants strode--some would say strutted--from the corridors of Carmichael Auditorium last October, through a cheering crowd and onto the floor for the first time in a Tar Heel uniform, the Asheville native has been the subject of divided opinion. Some saw the "X"-flashing swagger and celebrated the arrival of the most aggressive, hammer-swinging Tar Heel since Rasheed Wallace, ready to exact vengeance for the most embarrassing season in the history of the program. Others saw an overexuberant freshman in need of some strong coaching discipline and a healthy dose of humility.

Never mind McCants' rookie statistics--the record-breaking 17.0 points per game, his impressive 41 percent shooting from three-point range. Never mind the often unstoppable moves on the low block, or his no-holds-barred way of attacking the basket. As the Tar Heels' season on the brink developed into a headlong tumble down the cliff, what fans and the media wanted to discuss as much as anything was McCants' attitude. Was it a mid-season slump in games and practices that led Matt Doherty to bench his moody star in favor of David Noel, or was it Doherty's treatment of McCants behind closed doors that damaged the player's confidence and concentration? Would McCants, who had loved the Tar Heels seemingly since birth and who had spoken so passionately about his love of the program earlier in the season, really transfer to another university to escape Doherty's criticisms? Wasn't the coach absolutely correct in disciplining a player who seemingly had stepped over the bounds of disrespect for authority?

The drama of Carolina basketball in 2002-2003 had many subplots, but none as closely watched as the McCants saga. And when the climax approached, the story had the unmistakable dint of a classic western, with a town not big enough for two sheriffs.

In the countless interviews and stories following Doherty's dismissal about what went wrong, the former Tar Heel coach has taken pains to remove the focus from his former players, McCants included. The players have largely followed suit, steadfastly denying that they wished to see Doherty removed as coach. And following the entreaties of Roy Williams to heal whatever rifts had formed in the Carolina family, the large majority of fans have eagerly put the strife out of their minds and approached the new season as a blank tally waiting to be filled with wins.

"All my life I've always known never to back down to anybody."

But Rashad McCants still senses that some want to brand him as the source of the strife. And while he is visibly tired of questions about the causes of last season's events, he responds firmly.

"People are going to think what they want to think, regardless," he said. "Half the world probably thinks it's my fault that Coach Doherty was fired, because we had our off-the-court problems and things like that. But I think that right now in my life, Coach Doherty helped me move along and mature more than anybody else has. I learned a lot from last year. We had our differences, yes, but he's helped me more than anybody in my learning process, and I thank him for it."

McCants is equally firm when asked how difficult the season was for him. "I don't know where you'd get the conception that it was a difficult year," he continued, without a hint of irony. "It definitely wasn't a difficult year. At times it was frustrating. But there's nothing I can point out and say, ‘This is what made me have a frustrating year.' It was just a part of being a freshman and dealing with expectations."

When asked about those expectations, McCants says that it had little to do with the physical aspects of the game. "Playing in prep school really prepared me for college," he said. "I wasn't surprised about any kind of conditioning, any kind of playing style or anything of that sort. I was just in there ready to play." And with the exception of McCants' well-documented but brief shooting slump in the middle of the season, it would be difficult to deny that McCants is right. As a freshman he impressed his teammates, opposing teams, and fans alike with a physical game that could overpower many smaller shooting guards and out-quick its fair share of forwards.

Few moments stand out for McCants like his performance against Connecticut, where he took it right at impressive shot-blocker Emeka Okafor, finishing with 27 points en route to an impressive upset victory at home. "All my life I've always known never to back down to anybody," McCants explained. "I've always been known to go up against any kind of big guy--6-10, 6-11, 7-0--no matter how tall they are. I took the same mental approach into that game and just went at him, regardless of who he was or what he did. I just wanted to win."

But McCants admitted that his mental approach was what tripped him up last season and led to many of his frustrations on and off the court. "Coming into the ACC, one of the toughest conferences in basketball, it's a big adjustment," he recalled. "Being a freshman, starting twenty-plus games, and having to adjust to the coaching style and everything else from high school to college is a big adjustment."

"Many players are babied through high school," he said. "[They're] used to getting their way, getting all the balls and things like that. To a certain extent I was kind of babied. But college is another whole level of maturity."

McCants won't deny that his maturity was tested last season, or that he came up short at times. "I've always been taught to respect the coach and do what he says," McCants remarked. "But there were just some things that [Doherty and I] didn't agree on." One of those things was whether McCants would be accorded the kind of leadership role he wanted--rightly or wrongly--as a freshman. Early in the season, McCants expressed fierce emotion on the court in an effort to motivate himself and his teammates, but Doherty was not looking for that kind of leadership, especially from a first-year player who could be perceived as showing up opponents. McCants chafed, perceiving that he was being held back instead of being encouraged to channel his natural energy as productively as possible. "I'm a natural born leader, and last year I didn't feel like I led enough or was put in an opportunity to lead. I didn't really feel like I had that kind of a role. So I just fell back and did what I do best, which is score. And that was that."

McCants scored plenty his freshman year, and when he returned to the starting lineup, he seemed to play with a rediscovered passion. Although it was impossible to miss the tension that remained between Doherty and McCants through the end of the season, McCants says that by the time the Tar Heels made a desperate push for late victories and an NCAA bid, he was focused on basketball, not on his differences with his coach or teammates. And he sounded remarkably positive when asked to summarize the year. "I would never want to take last year away," he said. "It was a learning process, and it makes me who I am right now…. If I wanted to do it again, I would change some things, but not many. I have good memories of game experiences, fun with my teammates, road trips, New York, the preseason NIT, [a win over] Duke at home, games like that."

"It just took me a little while to adjust and just forget about it and play," McCants concluded. "Three games, four games, whatever. I just think the media took it out of proportion and said, ‘He's this, he's that.' It happens. But you know, I'm here now, and I'm ready to play."

And his last word on Doherty? "It's something I do want to put in the back of my mind. Not really forget about it, but just let it go and look forward to the future."

To prepare for that future, McCants probably did the best thing for himself and for his teammates after a stressful year on campus: he got out of town. But importantly for a player who was sometimes viewed as a discontented loner--not just by fans but also occasionally by his teammates--he didn't leave Chapel Hill alone. Instead, he spent most of the summer break with Sean May. Both players attended the Nike Camp in Indianapolis and Michael Jordan's camp in California, where they served as counselors and honed their games. "I got to learn new moves and elevate my game to where scouts and people like that think my game needs to be," McCants explained. "[I worked] on point guard skills and ball-handling." He even worked in one memorable instance with the greatest player in history, Jordan himself. "He didn't score on me," McCants recalled with pride. "I didn't score either, but we both put up about eight shots in five minutes. It was a good time. I spent a lot of time talking to him. He's the coolest guy in the world. I learned that no matter who it is, you go hard, and you win their respect."

But McCants points to the bond that he formed with May as the most important development of the summer. He now says May is his closest friend on the team, when last season he may have been hard pressed to name one. "It was good for us to be together and learn more about each other," he said. "He learned more about my abilities, and knowing that I'm expecting a lot out of him now that he's healthy and ready to play. Last year we didn't get as much time to play together. Now we play together so well, you know--pick and roll, post-perimeter, and things like that. It's an unseen partnership. Everybody's talking about me and Raymond, but I think it's me and Sean. We clicked very well."

"I'm stronger. I'm just ready for any kind of challenge."

Since returning to Chapel Hill, McCants has also benefited from a positive relationship with the new coaching staff. "I think [Coach Williams] gave everybody a clean slate," he said. "He said, ‘This is where we start from, everybody's clean. You work for whatever you get.'" McCants also has a higher comfort level with Williams' assistants. "It's been very unexpected," he said. "Last year, the assistants came, and you know, you just treat them like assistants. But now…we've really bonded with the assistants, knowing that they're going to push us. Me and Coach [Joe] Holladay have a little bit of history, because he recruited me in high school. Coach [Steve] Robinson has just always been a cool guy to me. He recruited me, too. So we just have that bond."

The result? McCants is ready to trade his newfound sense of peace off the court for the warrior's life on it. The intensity of Williams' early practices went a long way to test his mettle, but McCants feels good about the results: "It's probably been the most difficult running experience as far as not being in shape coming in, and now being in top shape coming [into the season]. But I'm probably in the best shape of my life." And he feels as good as ever about his teammates and their prospects for the season now underway. "There's a world of potential," he said. "We're faster, stronger. Everybody's developing past their ages, and it's amazing to see all of us work together under one system…. Everybody's happy now. We're all getting along. Everybody's happy. That's all that matters."

Teammate Jawad Williams also sees a difference in McCants. "I think there is a change in Rashad," he said. "I think he looked at himself and realized that he can't do it by himself--he needs us, too. We realize that we need him, so that brought us closer together…. He's realizing the world is not out to get him. Some people are actually trying to help him, and he's starting to understand that."

But one question remains unsettled: who is the real Rashad McCants? The firebrand who stormed his way through the first five games of 2002? The temperamental talent who struggled with consistency of emotion and performance? The level-headed leaderin- waiting who can't wait to celebrate with teammates after besting a tough opponent? McCants responded philosophically: "There's a Rashad that people will never see, and there's one they can make up on their own, since there's been a different modified me every time I come onto the court, or so they say. [But] I'll never change as far as how I come onto the court.

"Last year was a mental thing, and it got to me for a while, but I definitely got to the point where that was never going to happen again. I'm stronger. I'm just ready for any kind of challenge."

And who is the McCants that matters most to Tar Heel fans--the McCants that his opponents will see as he backs them down on the low block or sets up for a three-point bomb?

"I want them to see a winner," he said. "A competitor. A warrior. Just a downright junkyard dog."

Mark Simpson-Vos ( is an editor for UNC Press.

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