Main story photo courtesy Jeffrey Camarati/UNC Athletics
Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams addressed his players at a team meal prior to the football game against Cal. He spoke about the defending NCAA champions’ progress in the off-season, the things they’d been doing as a team. Then he mentioned that there was an extra scholarship. Williams then spoke of the contributions of sophomore Shea Rush, the walk-on who’d played 33 minutes across 20 games a year ago.
“He told me some nice things that I’d been doing well, which is always nice to hear, because you don’t hear that very often,” Rush remembers. “And he told me that he was going to give me the scholarship.”
Rush was thrilled. He’d known that this was a possibility, but Williams had made it official. His teammates were overjoyed, cheering and hugging and clapping, supportive of their teammate. Rush excused himself to call his family. “I feel like they were probably crying on the other end of the line, but I wouldn’t know,” he says. “I was glad that I could just kind of share that immediate moment with them, because it is a special moment.”
It was a special moment that had been years, even decades in the making. Because Shea Rush didn’t just show up on campus and decide to try out for basketball; the connection between his family and Williams goes back two decades.
Rush’s father JaRon was perhaps the best prep player in Kansas City basketball history, and naturally was recruited by Williams, then at Kansas. Shea Rush’s maternal grandmother Jane Mobley was involved in JaRon’s recruitment, and four years after Williams had lost his mother to cancer, Mobley herself was involved in a battle with the disease. “He felt for her, and really reached out to her and stayed in touch,” Shea says. “Coach has always had a good relationship with my family.”
Shea Rush was born when his father was a senior in high school. The family got a call from Williams that day. Though JaRon would not play at Kansas –an NCAA investigation into his relationship with Kansas booster Tom Grant and his AAU coach Myron Piggie would chase him to UCLA– Williams maintained close ties with the family.
JaRon Rush would play two years for the Bruins before declaring for the NBA Draft. JaRon would go undrafted and spend three years in the ABA and NBDL. His middle brother Kareem would play at Missouri and spend eight years in the NBA; youngest brother Brandon played for Bill Self at Kansas and will begin his ninth NBA season this fall.
Despite that lineage, JaRon’s son was slow to develop a passion for the game. Shea was raised by his mother Sarah Hofstra and his maternal grandparents Mobley and Phil Hofstra. The family spoke highly of Williams, even after the coach had left Kansas for Carolina. “I wrote him a letter when I was maybe seven or eight,” Shea says, “and he sent me back an autographed picture of him coaching and telling me to follow my dreams, and that’s what I did.”
But he was in middle school before he developed a love for the game that made his father and uncles famous. Shea started attending Roy Williams Basketball Camp and was unpolished, unproven. “I didn’t have very much skill, didn’t have the fundamentals down,” he recalls.
Rush’s favorite Tar Heel, James Michael McAdoo, was assigned to his court at camp. McAdoo looked out for Rush, took him under his wing. They developed a kinship, following one another on social media and exchanging phone numbers. “That was unbelievably cool for me,” Rush says. “I just felt connected to the program even more than I already had.”
Still, Shea was a late bloomer on the court. “They’d watch me,” he says, “but I don’t know if I really had it in me to potentially play here.”
But he had something that matters to Roy Williams: character. “There’s a story about me picking up cups that was floating around,” Shea says. One day after pick-up at camp, Rush went around the court to retrieve the water cups that had been tossed on the ground. “Somebody reported that back to Coach,” Shea says, “and he appreciated that unselfish act. At the time, I just saw cups on the ground and picked them up. I wasn’t doing anything to impress anybody; I was just trying to help out.”
Rush took that “just trying to help out” attitude into his college career. He’d been a standout high school player, averaging nearly 16 points as a senior at The Barstow School, leading the team to three state championship appearances and a state title and making all-conference and all-state teams. He had offers to play at Ivy League schools and could have stayed in Kansas City, but Carolina was his dream school.
“[The Carolina coaching staff] talked to me a couple of times on the phone, came to a couple of games when I was in high school, so it wasn’t the typical process of walking on,” Rush says. Williams discussed the possibility of an eventual scholarship, but nothing was promised. “I was just so ecstatic and thrilled to be a part of the team that that was the least of my concerns,” Rush says, “but he definitely said it was a possibility.”
Though he had a minimal impact on the box score in his freshman year, Rush’s contributions in practice were valued highly by his teammates. Essentially a scout, he would study the tendencies of the standout players that the Tar Heels were due to face —like Oregon’s Dillon Brooks in the Final Four— and mimic them for his teammates. It’s a responsibility he took seriously, and he performed it well.
“It’s extremely rewarding to go out there and play against those guys and push them to be better,” he says, “because in turn, when you’re watching the game and you see something that you were told to focus on in practice, and then they play it right, defend it right, that’s an extremely rewarding feeling, and it’s almost as rewarding as if you were on the court doing it in the actual game.”
Now in his sophomore season, Rush has an opportunity to increase his role. With three starters and two key reserves gone from last year’s team, Rush’s may be called upon to bring his practice experience to games. “I’m playing pretty well right now, trying to find a role that helps the team the best I can. I think that will figure itself out.”
There’s certainly precedent for a walk-on to earn a scholarship and then become a key player. Rush only needs to look down the roster at Luke Maye, who walked on as a freshman, received a scholarship and then sent Carolina to the Final Four with a game-winning shot to beat Kentucky. And now Walker Miller (brother of former Tar Heel Wes) and K.J. Smith (son of Kenny) are invited walk-ons with the chance to make contributions of their own in the future.
Whether or not his minutes increase, whether he has a greater impact on the box score, Rush’s team is better for having him on the roster. “I love this program,” he says, “and so I was willing to give up playing right away (elsewhere) to be able to follow my dream. In another situation, I wouldn’t be nearly as happy. There’s not a day when I’m here when I’m not smiling a full smile.”
It’s that attitude, that enthusiasm that Roy Williams saw in Shea Rush and that he recognized by awarding the scholarship.
“As a kid, this was my dream,” Rush says. “It was my dream to play here, but it was also my dream to be a scholarship player, and I just worked toward that goal. Coach blessed me with the opportunity to play here last year, and I just worked as hard as I could throughout the year, and so for him to give me a scholarship, it’s the ultimate way of him being able to tell me that I’m doing an alright job.
“He could tell you ‘good pass’ or ‘good shot,’ but it’s the whole body of work that I’m concerned about —in the classroom, on the court, in the community— and I think this is the ultimate way to show that appreciation.”