CHARLOTTE — Theo Pinson’s favorite day of the offseason was not three days after the national championship game, when he and Joel Berry went to The Streets at Southpoint and were stopped for pictures, selfies and at least one FaceTime conversation with ‘Pookie,’ the sister of a woman who recognized them at the mall.
No, Pinson’s highlight was six weeks or so ago, on Sept. 9, at halftime of the football game against Louisville.
“Definitely (it was) when everybody came back when we got our rings,” he said. “Just seeing everybody. You’ve got everybody who went to the league like Justin (Jackson) and Tony (Bradley). You had Kennedy (Meeks) come back, you had Nate (Britt) come back . . . That was a real cool moment, just having everybody back for that one time and that one moment. It was pretty cool.”
The Tar Heels got their rings and then hung the national championship banner back on Oct. 13, but now the page has turned to 2017-18. Last season was about ‘redemption.’ Though it didn’t quite fit — losing a national championship game on a last-second shot is not a ‘sin’ — that was the mantra that the 2016-17 Tar Heels adopted after falling to Villanova in Houston.
The team accomplished that goal, putting themselves on the other side of that heartbreak, hoisting a trophy instead of hanging their heads. Now, with three starters and two key reserves gone from that team, the Tar Heels begin a new season with a ring in hand (or on hand) and with dreams of another.
“Me and Joel (Berry), we talked about it the other day,” Pinson said Wednesday at ACC Media Day in Charlotte. “We saw Russell Westbrook talk about his mantra is ‘Why not?’ so we said, ‘Why not win it again?’ We understand that we did it last year, but we’re the type of competitors we are, so why wouldn’t we want it again?”
Now that the next season is around the corner, the Tar Heels are putting the rings in their boxes, their championship t-shirts in the closet. The challenge of winning is presented anew with a roster that is half turned-over and a new slate of a season. Last year’s Tar Heels knew they couldn’t replay the last four seconds of the national championship game in October, knew that they’d have to make it back to the Final Four one game at a time. And so begins a new opportunity.
“Why would you go into the season, ‘Alright, who cares? Let’s just do whatever we want to do,'” Pinson said. “How many people can say they’ve been to three national championships and three Final Fours and win two national championships? So we’re going to try to do the same thing.”
Eight players who have rings return to the roster, and there are eight newcomers. The Tar Heels are deep on the perimeter and inexperienced in the post beyond Luke Maye. Cameron Johnson is not Justin Jackson. Garrison Brooks is not Kennedy Meeks. But the season promises to be a fun one as fans and alumni alike watch this team learn to play Carolina basketball together.
“We have so many new guys and a different kind of feel around the locker room,” Maye said Wednesday. “But we all have the same goals in mind, and we all want to do it again. So that's the kind of goal right now.”
And so the Tar Heels who watched Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige lead, who played alongside Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt, now step into leadership roles themselves. Pinson, who is known as much for his outgoing, fun-loving personality as his game, will have to figure how to balance keeping things light with engagement and leadership.
“Most of the guys who went to the Final Four, national championship game, I was right there with them. We were both learning on the go,” Pinson said. “At this point, I'm teaching other guys what I know and the way to be successful and to help this team win.”
It is pretty cool, and it’s the nature of college basketball and Carolina basketball. One can draw a direct line from the legends of the path to the players of today. Consider: Lennie Rosenbluth played with Tommy Kearns, who played with Lee Shaffer, who played with Doug Moe, who played with Larry Brown, who played with Billy Cunningham, who played with Bob Lewis, who played with Larry Miller, who played with Charles Scott, who played with Dennis Wuycik, who played with Bobby Jones, who played with Walter Davis, who played with Mike O’Koren, who played with Al Wood, who played with James Worthy, who played with Michael Jordan, who played with Kenny Smith, who played with J.R. Reid, who played with Rick Fox, who played with Eric Montross, who played with Jerry Stackhouse, who played with Shammond Williams*, who played with Ed Cota, who played with Jason Capel, who played with Jawad Williams, who played with David Noel, who played with Tyler Hansbrough, who played with Tyler Zeller, who played with Reggie Bullock, who played with Marcus Paige, who played with Theo Pinson, who will this year play with Jalek Felton, Andrew Platek, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks.
One generation teaches another, teaches another, teaches another. The tradition continues, and it is fun to watch. “It's a different experience for me because the past couple years they've been teaching me the ways and how to get through certain moments, through adversity,” Pinson said. “But now I'm getting to teach the younger guys. It's pretty cool.”
It’s pretty cool, and the results on the court have been pretty good, too. Why not, indeed?
Photo by Smith Hardy
*Note- I originally had Antawn Jamison between Williams and Cota, but as Twitter user @ MDWDFW pointed out, he was redundant as Williams and Cota played together in 1996-97.