The forgotten man

Kenny Williams sat alone on a folding chair near the entrance of the locker room, a white long-sleeve Tar Heel basketball shirt in place of a jersey. He hunched forward, his wireless headphones drowning out the crowd as he quietly sang to himself. He was invisible in a sea of teammates.

He stole a glance right, then left, before sneaking a spray deodorant can under each arm. A grin escaped him. Who was he kidding? Nobody was watching.

He wasn’t in the game when North Carolina beat Oregon to advance to the men’s basketball national championship game. He wouldn’t play in that one, either. He hadn’t seen the court since late February, surely the longest two months he had ever known.

Reporters waded through the crowd on either side of him as they found their targets: first freshman Tony Bradley, then senior Nate Britt. Even Kanler Coker, a walk-on who didn’t play a minute in the Final Four, had a small crowd.

They didn’t need Kenny Williams.

“It’s almost like they forgot about me,” he said.

He was the only Tar Heel who didn’t play in any of North Carolina’s six tournament games in 2017. He wasn’t on crutches anymore — he was weeks away from recovery — but he lost his support along the way. As quickly as he left the lineup, he slipped from the collective consciousness of UNC fans.

First he was unheralded, signing with the Tar Heels a year after the epic 2014 class that eventually netted the program a national championship. Then he was beloved, not for his ability but for his inefficacy. Then he was doubted, an unproven sophomore in a starting role.

And then, quickly as he proved his worth, he was replaced. And as the Tar Heels marched toward a title, it took everything he had not be forgotten.

***

 For months, Kenny Williams couldn't move without crutches or a brace — let alone shoot his signature jumper.

For months, Kenny Williams couldn't move without crutches or a brace — let alone shoot his signature jumper.

Tattooed on the inside of Williams’ arms are two words, etched in cursive along the curve of his biceps: Family. First.

It was family first when Williams, a four-star shooting guard with two-way potential, sought his first home away from home. He committed before his senior season to play at Virginia Commonwealth — just a 15-minute drive from his family in Midlothian, Va. — for a coach in Shaka Smart who preached family above all.

But Smart found a new family at the University of Texas the following April, and Williams decommitted a week later. At 18, he had never been away from home by himself. He’d find a new one a few hours south.

Williams committed to UNC a month later and joined Charlotte native Luke Maye as the only recruits in the class of 2015. The two of them joined Justin Jackson, UNC’s top commit from 2014, in a three-bedroom apartment in Ram’s Village, a short walk from the Smith Center.

And so a family was born: Maye, the jovial giant from the Queen City; Jackson, the lanky homeschooler from Tomball, Texas; and Williams, the guarded kid from Virginia who never thought he’d be so far from home.

"Our room was really quiet,” Maye said.

Williams stayed mum on the court, too. He had defined himself as a spot-up shooter, but he didn’t make his first 3-pointer until the postseason, his only make on the year on 13 long-range attempts. He became a joke, albeit good-natured, among Tar Heel fans.

You could see his confidence wilt on the court, the pressure bearing down before every release. Yet on the sidelines, he was an emotional vessel for his teammates: ecstatic for the highlights, sorrowed in the lowlights.

It’s where he belonged.

“He’s the ideal team player,” Maye said. “He always wants the best for us.”

He left an impression on head coach Roy Williams. And when Theo Pinson — another 2014 signee — broke his foot in the preseason, Kenny Williams was the next man up.

With a vote of confidence from his coach, Williams saw a breakout sophomore campaign as a starter. He played 21 minutes in the season opener against Tulane; in the next game against Chattanooga, he added 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals -- all career highs at the time.

He upped his career scoring high with 19 points against Radford in December. And after falling into a six-game shooting slump in January, he fought through a twisted ankle to score 11 points against Notre Dame, including eight in the first half.

The next game, a loss at Duke, Pinson returned from a second absence after fending off an ankle injury. Williams went scoreless for the second time all season, but he didn’t care. The family was finally at full strength.

The feeling was short-lived. Five days later, during practice, Williams’ right knee locked.

He hadn’t forgotten the feeling.

***

Williams doesn’t remember being on the pool deck later that night.

He was on crutches then, trying water exercises at Koury Natatorium to build flexion in his injured right knee. He had hobbled around campus in the hours after practice, and word was spreading on social media about his injury. Williams didn’t yet know the severity — but he knew it was worse than before.

As a freshman, he felt swelling in his right knee late in the season. He wore a knee sleeve in practice and played through it. When the Tar Heels returned from Houston after the 2016 Final Four, an MRI revealed a meniscus tear in his right knee. It cost him roughly a month of work on the court, but he returned even stronger as a sophomore.

Yet the knee still locked on occasion. And when it did, Williams would straighten it back out with ease. It was tightness in his calf and quad muscles, the training staff figured. He played on.

So Williams, joking with his teammates, felt little concern as he went into a lunge during that Feb. 14 practice. His leg locked up, as it had so often before, and again he tried straightening it.

This time, it wouldn’t budge.

“Man,” he thought, “something’s happened.”

Williams called for Doug Halverson, the team’s head athletics trainer, and Williams walked off the court under his own power. The next day, Halverson brought Williams to meet with the team doctors as the coaching staff addressed the team before the N.C. State game.

The MRI showed more damage than it had a year earlier. Again, he’d need surgery. This time, the recovery would be 8-to-12 weeks — setting his earliest return date for a week after the postseason.

"When they said 8-to-12,” Williams said, “I knew that was it."

He met his teammates at their pregame meal at the Alumni Center, and Pinson was the first to greet him. He’d take his teammate’s spot that night — in a rout over the Wolfpack — for his first start of the season.

Pinson finished a point shy of his career high, and UNC won so convincingly that the Wolfpack fired its head coach the next morning. After the game, Roy Williams announced that Kenny Williams was out for the year.

The breakout was over.

***

 During pre-practice warmups on Feb. 14, Kenny Williams (center) felt a familiar pain in his right knee.

During pre-practice warmups on Feb. 14, Kenny Williams (center) felt a familiar pain in his right knee.

For the weeks after the injury, he couldn’t move.

Of course, he could move his upper body like usual. And his left leg was still completely functional. But his right meniscus was torn, and his right leg was locked in a cast.

The game that had long defined him was gone. And for Williams, that’s all that mattered.

It was painful enough that he couldn’t suit up for every game, but he struggled to get dressed at all. He knew he couldn’t hit the showers after the game; he could barely shower on his own. He was bound to the brace, a makeshift prison on his right leg.

“I would wake up in the morning and be like, ‘Why even do anything if I can’t move the way that I want to?’” Williams said.

He had surgery a week after the injury, while his team trounced N.C. State and Virginia in consecutive games. On February 22, the day after Williams’ surgery, the Tar Heels met Louisville in a top-10 matchup in the Smith Center. Pinson tied his career high with 13 points as UNC claimed arguably its biggest win yet.

Williams was tucked away in the catacombs of the Smith Center. Most didn’t even know he was there.

When he was mobile enough to stand, he assumed his role as the team’s unofficial cheerleader. He motivated his teammates before games and maintained that energy until the final buzzer. He was always talking and always standing — with crutches or a boot, no less — and he’d even pick up 165-pound guard Nate Britt when emotions were high.

When somebody comes out of the game, every player on the North Carolina bench is supposed to slide down one spot. But not Williams. He kept his seat right next to assistant coach Steve Robinson, always in his ear about what he saw on the court.

“I didn’t want to just be someone on the sideline taking up space,” Williams said. “I wanted to feel like I was a part of it.”

But his mobility — and his motivation — was stunted.

He watched as his basketball family resumed life without him. There was Maye, his roommate and classmate, starting his path to eventual folk-hero status. There was Pinson, the next man up, soaking up the spotlight as the team’s missing piece. And of course, there was Jackson, sinking 3-pointers en route to ACC Player of the Year honors.

It was easy to forget about Williams. While his teammates warmed up before each practice, he was doing single-leg exercises in the weight room. When his teammates started to scrimmage, he would begin upper-body work on the sidelines. His teammates even joked that Williams’ core was strongest on the team because he couldn’t do anything with his legs.

It was funny, sure. But after practice, when he’d return to his dorm, Williams’ smile subsided.

“That was one of the worst times of my life, honestly,” Williams said. “I didn’t know what to do. It seemed like everything was taken away.”

He turned to God, leafing through the Bible as his roommates often did. But he was merely pantomiming prayer, for the answers he wanted weren’t within the pages. His rehab, while productive, was slower than he wished. The media speculated at a potential return, but Williams knew his season was done.

He had always poured his emotions for his teammates. Now, when it was his turn for empathy, the guarded kid from Virginia started to forget what he was doing it all for.

***

Nearly a week had passed since the surgery, and Williams was wide awake.

He lay in bed, knee locked in a brace. He and his teammates had just returned from a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, just an hour’s drive from Williams’ hometown. It was his first extended period of time out of bed since the surgery, but his knee still ached.

His heart did, too. The Tar Heels had just suffered an ugly loss at Virginia, their worst offensive output in almost four decades. UNC combined for four 3-pointers on 16 attempts, while the Cavaliers’ top two perimeter threats — London Perrantes and Kyle Guy — combined for eight 3-pointers and 30 total points.

They would have been Williams’ assignments. He was the Tar Heels’ defensive stopper, after all, before the injury. Surely he’d have made a few triples, as well, adding to his 27 made threes on the year.

But he wasn’t on the court, and that hurt worse than any tear. So, at 3 a.m., he called the one person who’d know what to say: his mom.

“I just called her and told her how much I wanted to be out there,” Williams said, “and told her how much it sucked that I couldn’t be.”

She listened, and she prayed. And that was that.

Eventually, Williams accepted that his will to play couldn’t override his strength. He called his parents on his “hard days,” and he called his siblings when “real-life” concerns — the things his parents might not understand — bothered him more than his knee.

But his basketball family hadn’t forgotten about him.

Every night, Maye said a prayer for his roommate’s health. When the pain became too much for Williams to handle alone, the shooting guard would shout “family meeting” and the three roommates would convene in the living room to talk it out. Only then would Williams truly open up.

Pinson didn’t forget about Williams, either. He knew the toll of watching from the sidelines, wearing a jersey he couldn’t use and feigning a smile he didn’t mean. But he’d learned to make light of it — from waving towels on the sidelines to crashing postgame interviews in Maui.

So when the postseason came, Pinson wouldn’t let Williams pass it by.

"Just try to stay in the moment ...” he told him. "I know you want to play, but at the same time, you've got to have fun. You don't want to look back and be like, ‘Damn, I wish I had a little bit more fun with those guys during that situation.'”

So Williams tried, through every restless game and lonely postgame scene, to stay in the moment. He stood on the sidelines from beginning to end, just as he had as a freshman. He hadn’t forgotten the feeling. And he wouldn’t let himself forget this one, either.

The night before the national championship game, Roy Williams told his players to go to sleep thinking about who they’d hug when they won it all. Again, Kenny Williams couldn’t sleep. But when his teammates dressed for the national championship game, he had made peace with the fact that he couldn’t join them.

And when the final seconds ticked from the national championship game, he picked up Britt and took in the moment with his teammate.

“We did it,” Williams told him.

In the final moments of UNC’s national title win over Gonzaga, he remembered it all. He recounted the surgeries and the sleepless nights. The hours spent on the practice court, and hours more on the sidelines. The late-night phone calls to his mom and the “family meetings” with his roommates.

And when that final buzzer sounded, Jackson — the ACC’s best player and future top-15 NBA draft pick — bounded toward Williams, the only Tar Heel not to see the court in UNC’s tournament run.

"To see him in a dead sprint and hear that buzzer go off,” Williams said, “that was my moment."

Jackson hadn’t forgotten about Williams. Family never does.

***

 Kenny Williams (24) saw live game action against Barton College for the first time in eight months.

Kenny Williams (24) saw live game action against Barton College for the first time in eight months.

Williams is back to the place where it ended.

He and sophomore Brandon Robinson are the only ones on the court, warming up on the Smith Center floor just under two weeks before UNC’s exhibition against Barton College. Practice won’t start for another 10 minutes, but after eight months on the sidelines, who can blame Williams for starting a little early?

The junior has a smile drawn on his face, shooting fadeaways and spinning through the lane to no avail. He may be healthy, but he’s no Michael Jordan. He sets up behind the 3-point line and fires away, landing hard on that right knee. It’ll take more than that to bring him down again.

The day of the exhibition, he can’t sleep. Williams usually takes a nap on game days, but the jitters take over. They bleed into the game too, leading to five misses on six attempts. He drives into the lane to no avail, hitting the floor hard on countless possessions.

He doesn’t care. He’s finally back where he belonged.

“It was a pretty big deal for me,” Williams says after the game. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a while.”

The day almost didn’t come. He stayed in North Carolina during the summer to conclude his grueling months-long rehab process, which finally ended in early July. Just days later, Williams was playing pick-up with his teammates when his leg locked again.

Again, he’d need surgery. Could he handle this all over again?

“It was hard to deal with,” Williams said, “so I needed something to fall back on.”

He turned the pages yet again and found his faith renewed. He fought through rehab again, this time knowing the perils of each step. He started driving more, cutting more, than he ever did before.

In the week leading up to Late Night With Roy, the team’s kickoff to basketball season, he felt back to full strength.

Off the court, he was stronger than ever.

“I don’t wake up and just try to get through days,” Williams said. “I wake up and I attack days now.”

When the No. 9 Tar Heels open their season at the Smith Center tonight against Northern Iowa, Williams will be there, smile drawn on his face as he takes the court.

Really, he's always been there — hoisting Britt after Maye's miracle shot in Memphis, or singing "One Shining Moment" alongside Jackson as the confetti rained down in Phoenix. But tonight, Williams will officially return to the game he lost with the family that helped guide him back.

It's a feeling he hasn't forgotten.

@CJacksonCowart

photos by Alex Kormann and Smith Hardy