WGAG: Catching Up With 'Chickee' + Audio

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Inside Carolina sat down with former North Carolina center Rich Yonakor following the World's Greatest Alumni Game on Saturday at the Smith Center. Read and listen to one of the most memorable Tar Heels of all time.

LISTEN (11:48)

Do you go by Rich or "Chickee?"
‘Chickee,' that's how everybody knows me.

What are you doing these days?
I do sports marketing for the Best Western uptown Charlotte. We're three blocks from the new arena, so we're really looking forward to Sean [May] and Raymond [Felton] coming to the area. I just love the work that I'm doing and I'm working with a great group of people over there. I'm very fortunate and blessed to be in that situation.

What did you do right after college?
I played five years of pro basketball. I played one year in Italy, two years with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, then in Belgium one year and Paris, France. Then Dr. [Timothy] Taft did seven knee operations on me and I had to retire. I did some computer programming after that. Then I was actually a college basketball coach for four years.

Then I came back to this area. I moved back to Winston-Salem and then eventually to Charlotte. So it seems like wherever I go, I keep coming back to North Carolina. I love it. My mom is still in Ohio up in Cleveland.

Euclid (Ohio) right?
Yes, you're showing your age now.

Talk about playing as a freshman and the personnel employed in 1976-77.
We had (Steve Krafcisn), Jeff Wolf, Dave Colescott, John Virgil and Mike O'Koren; that was six of us in that class. But of course, we made a run all the way to the national championship and played Marquette on Monday night in Al McGuire's last game. But if it hadn't been for the seniors we had – John Kuester, Tommy LaGarde and Bruce Buckley – we couldn't have gone anywhere. We learned so much from that class.

I remember Coach [Dean] Smith made all the freshmen – with all their accolades and all their clippings – the first day in practice scrimmage for 10 minutes against the seniors. They beat us 82-10. If that had been a full game, they would have scored 300. So it just overwhelmed us, but they knew what they were doing. We realized real early from that experience that we didn't know what we were doing.

How did you come to Carolina?
I had made some trips. I was going to go to Tennessee, because Ray Mears had been recruiting me early in my junior year. Then Coach [Bill] Guthridge started coming around to my practices. He had heard about me and I had six visits planned.

I went to Florida first and John Lotz, a former assistant here, was the coach there. John told me before I left, ‘I would really love to have you and you would really help our program out. But, if you don't come here, please go to Carolina, because that's the best program in the country.'

The next week I went to Tennessee and had a good visit. But when I came down here, I ate lunch with Coach Guthridge and Coach Smith and I didn't see them the rest of the visit until I had breakfast with Coach Smith at six o'clock in the morning of the day I was leaving. I was with the players the whole time. They took me to the business school, they took me to meet guidance counselors, and I spent all of my time with them. And I just figured when I got here, I'm going to be spending a lot of time with the coaches, but I'm going to be living with the guys. And so this was the place for me.

One of the places I visited, I only met one player…only one player the entire time I was there. The rest of the time I was with alumni and coaches.

So you were sold on your friends?
Well the school sold itself. To be able to get a great education obviously was the No. 1 goal. But just knowing that those guys wanted me here- The other thing that impressed me was the big guys wanted me to come here. Those were the guys that were trying to encourage me to come. You don't see that because a lot of time they might think you're going to take away their playing time.

That's the way Coach Smith, Coach [Eddie] Fogler and Coach Guthridge do it; they don't recruit, they select people. That's what they told me. They also don't have the lists. They want somebody and if they don't get the guy they want, they wait until next year. I know they wanted a point guard named Valentine that ended up going to Kansas. So they waited and the next year we got Jimmy Black. So if they had gone to the next guy on their list, like a lot of schools do, we would have never gotten Jimmy.

You were a free spirit.
I still am.

What I remember was how you used to run to the free throw line after you would get fouled. Sometimes the other player thought you were getting up to fight. Talk about your unbridled energy.
My dad told me since I was little that you should go hard all the time. If you're not going to go hard, then don't even play; go do something else. So I had that instilled in me. My high school coach – Doc Dockerty, he had 600 wins – he taught me the same thing. He was using the same drills in practice as Bobby Knight and Dean Smith used. I was in the seventh grade and I was doing those things. So I learned the game that way. But I always knew there were guys that could run faster than me and guys that could jump higher and there were guys who were stronger. So I had to do something to have an edge over them and hustling was the way to do that.

The free spirit that you talk about really helped. The seniors when they got here had some press clippings too. That had great years. But when Tommy LaGarde tore up his knee and we knew he wasn't going to play again, I got an opportunity. They already had O'Koren who had been playing great. You talk about a free spirit, he was only second to me. I told Coach Smith when I saw him a couple of weeks ago – I saw him today, too – I may not have been the most athletic guy when I got here, but I had the most fun of anybody. I mean I had a blast.

I ran to the foul line because no one else did and I could get there and rest and catch my breath while the other guys were walking. Then I ran to the bench during timeouts because the other teammates would follow me. If we could get there quicker, than maybe Coach Smith would have 12 more seconds at each timeout to give us more instruction. That doesn't sound like much, but 12 seconds at every timeout the whole year - the more instruction you can get from him, the better off we're going to be as a team.

So it wasn't that I was trying to be a hot dog, like some fans at other schools and some fans here might have thought; it all had a purpose. There's no sense in doing something like that if there's no purpose. I do remember one day in practice – there was a loose ball and I was going for it – it was way out of bounds. I dove for it. And when I got up, Coach Smith said 'I like the hustle, but you had no shot at that one.' Everybody laughed.

Did "Chick" start here?
No, back in the seventh grade. Now when I go dancing in Charlotte and different places like that, everybody calls me ‘Chickee.' That's that way the guys know me.

Outside of basketball, what did you take from Carolina for your life? I know Coach Smith leaves a pretty impressionable mark on everybody, and I suspect he left a pretty good mark on you.
He did. He sat me down after that freshman year – after we had that good run. I had done something wrong – I don't think this is the right time and place to discuss what it was – and he called me in. He didn't yell at me. He asked me what had happened. Then he told me 'With that long blond hair of yours, and starting as a freshman in the national championship, with all of that and the way you smile and the way you hustle and dive on the court, five years from now if you do something wrong, you're going to be the guy in the newspaper as the former North Carolina player and everybody is going to know what you did, because everybody remembers you.'

He mentioned a couple of my teammates, ‘They are not going to remember them as much, because they just play the regular game. But there is something different about you. So before you do something, think about the consequences.' That's when I realized I'm still going to do things wrong in my life, but I'm a firm believer in the Lord and I'm very blessed. But I represent more than myself. I represent my parents, I represent family, I represent my high school basketball and baseball coaches, and I represent Coach Smith, Coach Guthridge, Coach Fogler. So when you're a representative of a university, it kind of engulfs you and you kind of understand more about life. And that's what I took from here. Again, I'm truly blessed.

I heard this on the radio today, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."
That's so true. I inherited all this and it was given to me. Those are the blessings. They select and they didn't have to pick me. As a matter of fact, Coach Smith wasn't sure if I was good enough to play here. Coach Guthridge had to convince him. So Coach Smith came and watched me play one time and I had the worst game of my high school career. I had like eight turnovers. My coach thought I had ruined my scholarship to North Carolina. Coach Guthridge walked up while we were all sitting on the bench saying a prayer – and we were crying – he put his arm around me and he said, ‘We still want you to come to Carolina.'

He put his arm around my coach and said, ‘You're right Doc, he's going to be a great one.' He said, ‘What do you mean? He was terrible tonight.' Guthridge said, ‘He dove on the floor for five loose balls. He passed to all of his teammates. He'd rather get an assist than score points. We've got guys who can score. We've got Walter Davis, we've got Phil Ford, we've got John Kuester, we've have scorers, we've got Dudley Bradley. We need guys who can pass, are willing to give the ball up and will bust their tails. And even when things were going wrong, he was still diving on the floor and trying to set up his teammates.

I didn't even know this story until five years ago when my high school coach retired and Coach Guthridge told that story at the banquet. That kind of told me what they were looking for. They really had to look at what kind of kid you are. There are good players out there everywhere. But sometimes you take a kid with a little less talent like me.

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