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"That's cold, man," Felton says, never looking up from his plate of fried chicken.
The only topic treated with reverence is Carolina basketball. The pull remains strong. Six nights later May and Felton will receive a raucous ovation when they show up at the Dean Dome for the UNC-Duke game, and all four plan to spend the summer in Chapel Hill working toward their degrees and playing pickup ball with various current and former Tar Heels. "It's their program," North Carolina coach Roy Williams says of his four departed stars. "They remain very close to all of us here."
The ex-Heels keep close tabs on their former teammates with frequent phone calls and text messages. Over lunch at Simmons the specificity of the UNC gossip was impressive--which coach recently had a traffic mishap, who's slacking off in the conditioning drills.... "It hurts to watch when they lose," Marvin Williams says. "It kills me."
"Man, I lose it," says May, whose extended stay on the injured list has afforded him plenty of time to watch his old team. "I'll throw stuff at the TV. Somebody does something stupid, I pick up the phone and call them and leave a message right then: 'Man, what you doin' out there?'"
It's impossible not to wonder whether any of these freshly minted millionaires regret their decision to leave school early. May asked himself that very question in November when he returned to Chapel Hill to watch North Carolina play Cleveland State. "Walking around campus, I missed it so much," he says. "I was so nostalgic. Then I went to the game, and Coach called timeout and started yelling at the guys, and I was like, I don't miss this place at all."
As March Madness begins without them, each of these very different personalities continues to perform their own balancing act--pining for their glory days and looking ahead to better things in the NBA.
Rashad McCants was the first to make the move, announcing his decision to turn pro nine days after North Carolina beat Illinois 75-70 in the national championship game. His three teammates would later trumpet their decision to go pro together at a festive press conference, but McCants's solo act was typical of a player who so often distanced himself from his teammates. It's perhaps fitting that the last image of McCants as a Tar Heel came moments after the buzzer sounded against Illinois, when he stripped off his jersey and preened for the crowd in St. Louis. To McCants this was an expression of unbridled joy, but many in Tar Heels Nation cringed at the lack of decorum from someone in a program that has always been defined by its buttoned-down demeanor.
"Sean and Marvin and Ray will always think about what might have been," McCants says of leaving school early. "They loved Carolina and the people loved them back, but for me it was time to go. The media scrutiny was so bad by the end. When I got drafted, what I mostly felt was relief to have a fresh start."
The scrutiny did not end when he arrived in Minnesota, where everyone wanted to know how such a talent could have fallen to 14th in the draft. On the eve of the season Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey related this story about McCants to the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "I called all of my coaches and friends in the NCAA, and they all said, 'Don't take the guy, don't take him, don't take him, he's this, he's that.'" Such is McCants's potential that Minnesota took him anyway.