"He has to realize we need him just as much as he needs us," says senior forward Jawad Williams.
"Trust is the Number 1 thing with him," says Roy Williams.
Taking that leap is no small task if you're Rashad McCants. Sometimes it's easier trusting a blank sheet of paper.
It seems like every girl I meet, they have the same exact thing to say. "I HEARD ABOUT YOU!!!" Like, damn, how much can people really be talking about me? It's not like I do anything wrong. I get up, shower, get really fresh, go to school, lift weights, go home, sleep, wake up and do it all over again. So what is so bad about doing all of this?
"i'm probably one of the realest people you'll meet," says Rashad McCants during a three-hour conversation in his off-campus apartment. "I don't sugarcoat. I don't lie. And for that reason I sense a lot of fakeness in people. I can feel it. I can see it. I can smell it. That's what makes it hard to earn my trust. There's so many fake people out there, you never know. So I'll put up a shield."
If only McCants would lift the shield more often. Then everyone could see the Rashad who hangs not one but two pictures of the World Trade Center on his otherwise bare apartment walls to honor the victims of 9/11. Who makes sure to visit his godmother, a housebound diabetic named Julia Darity, every time he's in Asheville. Who got all giddy last spring when he met the rapper Jay-Z at a New Jersey Nets game. Who crouches down low to connect with a Special Olympian. Who calls a friend having a bad day and says, "Talk to me. Tell me what the problem is." Who happens to have a magnetic, All-American smile. Says Carolina sophomore guard Wes Miller, McCants's former roommate at the New Hampton ( N.H.) School, where McCants spent his junior and senior high school years, "If you have the privilege to be Rashad's friend, you'll find that he's a great friend back to you."
But no, for the most part the shield stays up. Always has. "Certain things in your life will make you protect yourself," says his mother, Brenda Muckelvene. Here's one: During the summer before his sophomore year at Asheville's Erwin High, McCants attended a preseason meeting of his AAU team, the WNC Storm. He remembers everything about that day: How the coaches said a player was going to be cut. How he shrugged, assuming it was someone else. It couldn't be him. He was the star. The co-MVP of his high school league as a freshman. The main reason the Storm had won the state title the previous year. Why, Rashad had turned down other teams to play a third season with this one.
Two days later the coach, Andy Ray, visited Brenda to tell her: Rashad was the player he no longer wanted. Rashad was crushed. How could they let him sit there like a fool at that meeting? "I'm thinking, Man, how did I get cut from a team that I've led?" he says. When asked, Ray traces his decision to the behavior of James McCants, who he says would yell at Rashad's teammates and opponents from the stands. (James claims he'd heckle the referees but nothing more.) Nevertheless, Rashad felt betrayed.
Ultimately, McCants's new outfit, the Charlotte Royals, would win a national AAU title, beating his previous team along the way, but Rashad burned the pain of being cut into his mental hard drive. It was just one of several examples of how James, a bail bondsman, and Brenda, a hairstylist, had given the oldest of their three children a powder keg of traits. "My dad is a stubborn bull, and I'm the same way," Rashad says. "I see it every day, and I hate it more and more. But at the same time I love him, because he's one of the smartest men I've ever been around. The sensitivity I get from my mom. It's a mean combination, but I'll get through it."
From the moment James McCants wrote his one-line entry in his one-year-old's baby book--4-12-86 next michael jordan--it seemed as if the son was destined to play in Chapel Hill. Brenda proudly shows visitors an old Polaroid of toddler Rashad dribbling a Carolina-blue miniball in their Asheville apartment. (Remarkably, he's already working on his left hand.) There's a reason why Rashad wears number 32, the inverse of a certain number 23 who also hailed from Carolina. "I want to see if anybody in the world can be better than Mike," says McCants, who admits he got schooled by his idol during Jordan's invitation-only camp in August. "Mike said it himself: Somebody will be greater than him. We never know who it'll be. I'm not saying it's me, but I wish it was. It's all about being competitive and trying to have that spirit, to be the best you can be."