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One-on-one with Rashad McCants

Outspoken Tar Heel discusses everything from Matt Doherty to Jay-Z

Posted: Wednesday November 17, 2004 1:50PM; Updated: Wednesday November 17, 2004 1:50PM
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Rashad McCants
Rashad McCants, who often does not smile on the court, has been labeled as moody.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

I like Rashad McCants.

I like the North Carolina sharpshooter as a player. (In my mind, he's the most dynamic scorer in the country.) And, based on the three-hour-long interview I conducted with McCants in his Durham apartment on Sept. 23, I like McCants as a person.

I like the fact he's as open, honest and thoughtful as any player I've ever interviewed. To be sure, not everyone shares this view, and McCants himself will admit he has given people reason to think that way.

Yet he is nothing if not fascinating -- and easily the most talked-about player in the nation heading into the 2004-05 season. To get an idea of what's going on in McCants' head, check out my profile of the SI coverboy in this week's college basketball preview issue, in which we pick his Tar Heels to win it all in St. Louis next spring.

Make sure to send in your questions for next week's Mailbag (as long as you remember to make 'em smart). For now, here are the best B-sides of my McCants interview that didn't make it into this week's magazine story:

You've made a number of big baskets over the past couple years at Carolina. At what point in your career did you first realize you wanted to take the winning shot at the end of games?

That's a funny story. It was my eighth-grade summer at a YBOA tournament in Florida. We were playing the Maryland Stallions, Jarrett Jack's AAU team. There were three seconds left on the clock, we were down two and needed a three. Coach called a play for me, but I missed it. I missed my first big shot. I was devastated, because I didn't want Jarrett to beat me. From then on I always wanted to be responsible for winning or losing.

You've had people say you're too emotional, while others say you're too distant. Does that confuse you?

My freshman year I was told to calm my emotions down, 'cause coming out of high school I was this monster who wanted to yell after every dunk. Who was always on defense talking: "I got help! I got help!" I was an extreme presence on the court, and some people loved it. On defense I just wanted it. And when I got here [Matt Doherty] took that away from me. He said, "I don't want none of that." I felt like he took a part of my life and just put it in a box, and from there I was just a scorer. He took all my defensive intensity, all the energy I gave the crowd, and locked it up and said I don't want you to use this.

Then it becomes, "You're supposed to be the leader because you're the best player on the team." So I'm trying to talk to the guys. Then I hear: "No, no, no, don't talk to the guys." All right, I'll just lead by example, not saying anything, just going hard, doing my job. "Oh, why are you so quiet?" So I was confused. It seemed like things got worse, and the mixed signals kept on coming. And the more I wanted to be this junkyard dog, the more I was turned into this laid-back grocery-bagger. I'm trying to bring it back, but it seems like so many people aren't ready for it that it's hard for anybody else to handle.

How has Roy Williams' arrival impacted that?

I'm afraid to show that side, 'cause I don't want to see a reaction. Everything's so good right now that anything to disrupt our chemistry could be bad. I just want to keep my path the way it is. I worked on our relationship, and he worked on it too. I don't want to disrupt it.

Is that a way of saying you feel good about this season?

I'm confident -- with my individual play and with the team's play. We're so talented it's scary. And if we can get everybody on the same page it's gonna be scary.

What should we look for if Carolina is going to be as good as you want to be?

My scoring average will have to drop. My rebounding will have to go up. There will be a whole lot more bonding with the team, a whole lot less jealousy and a whole lot more comfortable feelings around one another. Everything else will take care of itself.

At last year's team banquet you said that while you can be hard to be around sometimes, you're also a good person. Could you elaborate?

There were a lot of articles about my attitude, these "two parts of Rashad." Is he here? Or is he there? What about his personality? All those things were stirring up at the same time, so I wanted to clear up everything. Everyone thought me and coach ran into friction at the beginning of the year -- it wasn't that at all. We just had to adjust to what he wanted, and it took us longer than expected. I don't want everybody to think I have an attitude. Because that's not the case.

So if you're being honest, some part of you does care what people think?

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Always, always, always. I'll read the message boards just to see what people are saying. You can't go around saying I don't care what people think. I don't care what people do, but I do care what they think, 'cause that's important. Look at LeBron James. He's a millionaire now just off his smile. Great guy. Nobody ever questioned his personality. Let him be in college for three years. They're gonna question a lot of things. There's a lot more time, a lot more energy he has to put forth before he gets to the next level. So there's a lot more things people want to figure out about him. He's good, but why is he not smiling? That's how the media is sometimes. They want to get deep down into what players are doing and thinking. In college for three years, there's a lot of room to pick your brain.

I know you sometimes write when things are on your mind. [See this week's SI magazine article.] What other outlets do you have?

Music. Jay-Z is my release from the world. I feel like he took a look at my life and just started writing. Seems like everything he says, I can relate. He has such an impact on everything I do. If I feel stressed, I listen to Jay. He'll calm me down.

How'd things go when you met him earlier this year?

It was a dream come true. I bought a ticket to a New Jersey Nets game. I wasn't hoping to see anybody, 'cause I had nosebleeds. But I heard he was there, so I looked down, and he was sitting beside Beyoncé. A guy I know gets me down there at halftime, and I meet him. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I didn't know what to do. I was just shocked. But I wasn't like a fanatic; more like a student. Just like, "Wow, this is Jay-Z." Saying it in my head. Shaking his hand. Joking with him. The thing was, he was interested in me, which surprised me, 'cause not too many people at that level want anything to do with anybody. But he kept asking me questions: "Can you really ball? How you game is?" I was like, "Wow, he's asking questions. I didn't think I was gonna be able to talk when I came down here."

Who have been your biggest influences over time?

My mom and my dad. Vince Carter. Michael Jordan was my biggest growing up. Not because he was MJ, but because I seen somebody get something he worked so hard for. The fame, the label, the championships. A guy from North Carolina. Wilmington. To get all those things let me know that anything's possible. When I was in sixth grade -- I think everybody in the world does this -- I'd go outside in the backyard and want to be this guy for the day. I was always MJ, Shaq or Larry Bird. Or Magic, depending on if I felt like passing the ball that day. But most of the time I was Jordan.

You've got quite a personal rivalry going with N.C. State's Julius Hodge. Before your game in Raleigh last season [which UNC won to sweep the season series], Hodge called you a p---y at the scorer's table. Some people thought you guys might throw down, but you just laughed and scored 22 points. What do you remember from that game?

When somebody like Julius Hodge says that, I know for a fact he means no harm. Because he can do no harm. I just took it as somebody trying to get me fired up so we can play a good game.

So taking a swing at him wasn't an option?

Not at all. 'Cause you know what? Players like that want to do something to get you out of your game. Because he's been jealous [of me] from my freshman year. He wanted what I had: the power to make somebody mad. And I could do that easily trash-talking. He knew we beat them at our place first. I hit the game-winner, and I was talking cash-junk to him. He knew it was on when I came over there. He knew it was his place, and he had to hold his house down. He had every right to say what he did. I would've said the same thing. But he didn't back it up. That's the whole point with me. Don't say nothing if you're not gonna back it up. I laughed before the game, and I laughed after the game.

What sort of academic courses are you interested in?

I'm taking a course right now called Social Psychology. It's about the perceptions and deceptions people have versus other people. My major is African-American studies, but I wish I'd taken Social Psychology as a freshman. I could have probably used psychology as a major. This is a harder course than some, a study-study-study type of course.

Your mother, Brenda, told me the hardest moment for her over the past two years was when a columnist in North Carolina called you "borderline psychotic" on a radio show. What was your take on that?

I've been called "borderline psychotic." I've been called "bipolar." [Shakes head.] Psychotic? Maybe when I dunk. Bipolar? Never. For anybody out there who reads the newspaper and makes a perception on a couple words they read is amazing. And I think it happens every single day, every minute. But that's life.

When you were a freshman, Doherty asked you to meet "a friend" who turned out to be a sports psychologist.

That was the most embarrassing moment of my life. It was an insult to me. Because I felt like I was too smart for someone to pick at my brain and say, "Well, you must have a problem." 'Cause I felt at the time that I wasn't the problem. The problem was beyond anybody's control, because it was with every player on the team. I just had it worse than everybody. I remember he said, "This is Dr. [Richard] Coop [a member of the UNC faculty]. He's a psychologist." I looked at him and said, "You didn't just send me to a psychologist and act like it was all right." I saw him twice simply because Coach asked me, and I'm loyal to my coaches. If he asks me to do something, I'll do it.

But your favorite class right now is a psychology class, so you must respect the study of it, right?

It was just, how could he think or even dream of me needing a psychologist? You could ask anybody -- any Carolina fan -- my freshman year if I needed psychological help, those who read the papers would say yes. Those who watched the games live, who know me, will say get outta my face.

But you don't dismiss the idea of therapy being helpful to some people, do you?

Not at all. It was very relaxing to talk to him. Because I got to open up and tell him how I felt and get some things off my chest I couldn't tell anyone else. But just the thought of [Doherty] thinking I needed it was something else.

What do you want your national image to be?

Positive. Just positive. I want a kid to see my picture and smile, not frown 'cause his parent says, "No, no, no, you can't like him. He's not a good person." That's the one thing I never want, is a negative image. I want a positive one, not only for my career, but if I ever meet anybody who's never met me.

As much media coverage as you have here in North Carolina, your national image has hardly been formed at all.

I was totally in the dark on that. Because around here the local media is the national media to us. This is Blue Heaven. All the stuff I read here, I'm like, I know everybody else is reading this. So I'm like, the whole world is against me. I've got the world on my shoulders, but it keeps rolling off.

Jawad Williams
Jawad Williams is one of three senior captains, on a UNC team dominated by talented juniors.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

You have three senior captains on this team [Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott], but you and two other juniors [Sean May and Raymond Felton] are the best players. How will the leadership situation work out this season?

We haven't been successful because we haven't had leaders on our team. Everybody wants to be the leader. Nobody wants to follow. For the last two years I've been in that situation where I followed by voice, led by example. I didn't say anything at all.

So what now?

It's gonna be a hard adjustment to see who wants to follow and who wants to lead. We have three seniors who have to lead. They've been forced into a situation. But we can lead by example. It's fine. I've always wanted to be the leader on every team I was on. I wanted to do the coin toss, wanted to be the coach's player, wanted the coach to come to me and say, "This is what we want. We need to figure out why our defense isn't working. What do you think?" I want to be that type of player, but I never got that opportunity to be a coach's player here, so I fell back and became a follower. I just came to work every day, busted my butt and went home.

What do you want college hoops fans to know about you?

That I love other people. I love being around people. I can be a very giving person. I've never been out of the country, and I'd like to see the world. I have a dry sense of humor. You've gotta catch on for it to be funny. Little things like that.

That's all for this week, folks. Drop me a line, and we'll spend next week looking at the season ahead.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl covers college basketball for the magazine and SI.com.