George Kurney grew up in Sims, three miles east of Bailey, during the 1960s. He shot baskets every day on a dirt court in his yard and dreamed of being Oscar Robertson. By the time Kurney had reached the ninth grade at Rock Ridge High, he could dunk with either hand. Rock Ridge coach James Kent told Kurney that he had the potential to play college ball, but the next season Kurney quit the team. His father, William, had died two years earlier, and his mother, Mildred, had taken a job in the evenings. So if George missed the bus after school to stay for basketball practice, he had to walk the six miles home. Shortly after he dropped basketball, he dropped out of school. He worked odd jobs while becoming a recreation-league hoops mainstay, even playing in a charity game in Wilson, N.C., against NBA-bound Len Bias a week before Bias died of a cocaine overdose.
In 1979 Kurney was driving to a rec game when he spotted Bessie Peppers standing on her porch. A few weeks later he asked her out, and they began a two-year relationship that on Jan. 18, 1980, produced a nine-pound, 14-ounce baby boy. Sensing the tenuousness of their bond, both parents put their stamp on the boy's name. George took the first name from Julius Erving and the middle name from Walt Frazier, NBA stars whose style he admired. Peppers came from Bessie's first husband, Clarence Peppers, whom she had divorced in '78.
George all but vanished from Julius's life before he was seven, leaving Bessie to raise their son. Although Kurney now lives in Bailey, a half mile from Bessie, he and Julius speak infrequently. "A lot of people tell me that I could have done what Julius is doing," says Kurney, age 41. "He got his size from me, and he's using it to fulfill the dream that I never experienced. I hope someday he'll decide to share it with me." Julius says he has no plans to invite his father into his life. "He and I talk sometimes, but not like a father and son," Peppers says. "It's too late for that, but he is my father so I'm not going to ignore him."
One night after a basketball game at Southern Nash, Kent told Julius how much he reminded him of George Kurney. Julius pointedly informed Kent that Kurney was his father, but that he was his mother's son. Bessie made sure Julius was a well-mannered boy. He hasn't forgotten the night in 11th grade when Bessie spotted him chewing gum at halftime of a basketball game. She equated gum chewing with showboating, so she climbed out of the bleachers, popped her son upside the head and made him spit his gum into her hand. Big Head never made that mistake again. Even now, after a sack or a dunk, he heads quietly back to the huddle or downcourt as if nothing had happened.
Among Peppers's most prized possessions is a gray ceramic figurine modeled after Rodin's The Thinker and made by Bessie. It sits on top of the television in his off-campus apartment. "I see myself in that statue," Peppers says. "I sometimes catch myself in a daze for 15 minutes, thinking."
"There are really two Juliuses," Bessie says. "He's normally a quiet, shy, thoughtful kid, but when he puts on a uniform, he can become quite a bully."
Last Jan. 11 Peppers announced that he would not leave school for the 2001 NFL draft, even though some scouts were projecting him among the top 10 picks. Two days later, after Peppers had 13 points and nine rebounds in an 84-54 win over Marquette, Tar Heels basketball coach Matt Doherty began his postgame press conference by saying, "I'd like to announce that Julius Peppers will not be entering the NBA draft."
NFL scouts acknowledge that Peppers has the potential to be the No. 1 selection in the 2002 draft. "I still believe that if I committed to basketball, I could make an impact in the NBA," says Peppers. "But my coaches say that in football I could be another Lawrence Taylor or Jevon Kearse. I now see football as my job and my greatest challenge."
Because of his outstanding NCAA tournament play on national television, as opposed to the North Carolina football team's combined 9-13 record in 1999 and 2000, most casual sports fans still think of Peppers as a basketball player. He'll get a national-TV showcase for his gridiron skills on Aug. 25 when the Tar Heels open at defending champion Oklahoma. Peppers needs 12 sacks to break Greg Ellis's school career record (32.5), but he's more interested in expunging a rap that he doesn't go all out on every snap. "On a learning curve of zero to 10, Julius is still a five," says North Carolina coach John Bunting, who played 11 years at linebacker in the NFL. "That room for growth should be exciting to him and scary to everybody else."
"Now that he's focused on football, I think he'll become a prototype for the next generation of defensive ends," says Illinois assistant coach Donnie Thompson, who coached Peppers at Chapel Hill for the last two seasons. "He's got all the ingredients to never get blocked."