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Elite ballplayers, as a rule, don't write much. Oh, they'll scribble: assembly-line autographs, college lecture notes, maybe an occasional warmed-over rap lyric. Generally speaking, though, Dear Diary introspection isn't part of the deal. � Unless you're North Carolina junior forward- guard Rashad McCants. � "I write whenever I feel like I'm too depressed to keep thinking about something," McCants says, brandishing a blue loose-leaf notebook. "So I put it on paper." One day this fall the best player on the nation's most talented team sat in his car, pulled out a pencil and spilled his emotions onto the page: His frustration over all those labels--moody, stone-faced, aloof--that swirl around him like storm clouds. His angst over being cut from the U.S. junior national team in July even though its coach, Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, calls him "without question the best player at that camp." His chagrin over being regarded as Carolina's most dangerous threat ... and its biggest question mark. � The result, captured in letter-perfect script, is titled My Life: � Why is my life so hard, yet extremely easy? The things that I do are so easy to me that people make things hard just so it can be even. Well, everything is not fair. But right now as we speak I am the most criticized athlete ever. Feels like I'm under a microscope, everything I do someone has something to say as if they were waiting for a reaction. Just to see what I would do....
Do you trust Rashad McCants? Because he finally trusts you. Enough to share his most private thoughts. Enough to admit, after two years of denials, that he does care what you think of him. ("Always, always, always.") Enough to reveal that he's a stubborn but sensitive 20year-old who's trying to change. "I want a kid to see my picture and smile, not frown," he says. Last January, after a wretched game against Kentucky, McCants came clean with Tar Heels coach Roy Williams: Coach, I need your trust if you want me to perform the way I can. "He gave it to me," says McCants, who went on to average 21.6 points in the rough-and-tumble ACC, "and I gave him everything I got."
Now, perhaps, it's your turn.
By any measure, North Carolina has all the parts to win Roy Williams's first national title: a jackrabbit point guard in Raymond Felton, a velvet-handed big man in Sean May, three capable seniors, an improved bench and a promising freshman class. Yet the linchpin--or, cynics would say, the grenade pin--is McCants. After battling former coach Matt Doherty as a freshman and chafing under Williams at the start of last season, McCants came into his own after New Year's, gunning more big shots than any Tar Heel in recent memory. Carolina's last 10 points to upset eventual national champion Connecticut. A school-record-tying eight treys to sink Clemson. A series of daggers to sweep rival N.C. State. Many observers thought McCants, not Wolfpack swingman Julius Hodge, deserved the ACC player of the year award.
"Rashad is such an offensive weapon that he's the guy the other coach talks about the most," says Williams. "He has an ability to score and make shots with people guarding him about as good as anybody I've ever had. But the other thing that's important with this team is his moodiness, his indifference, whatever you want to call it. Everybody told me it got so much better last year. Well, that's got to continue getting better."
McCants's Sphinx act would make him a dynamite poker player, but it can be maddening to his fellow Tar Heels. "Rashad is one of the coolest, most down-to-earth people I've ever met, but you have to know how to approach him," says May. "Some days he'll be upbeat, talkative, making fun of people--just how a teammate should be. Then other days he'll come into the locker room and not say anything. I've told him, 'We can't not know what to expect from you.' When you're not sure how someone's feeling or [whether] they're with you, you can't really trust them fully. He's made tremendous strides, but I tell him that's the way he should be every day."
For the past two years McCants Studies has become an unofficial UNC course, with lectures available on what seems like every TV, radio and Internet message board in the Piedmont. Not a nose scratch or a head shake escapes scrutiny. What was that shrug for? What does that X sign with his arms mean? Why doesn't he smile more? That one always kills James McCants back home in Asheville. "Is smiling a prerequisite for basketball?" says Rashad's proud and vocal father. "We smile when we get the W! Who's going to take me seriously when I'm walking down the court smiling and looking like the man on the Enzyte commercial? That's crazy."
Maybe so, but just as McCants's wondrous floor game could land the Tar Heels the biggest W of all at next spring's Final Four in St. Louis, an ill-timed case of his Carolina blues could scuttle everything. "If he stays away from that mood, everybody else isn't worrying about it, so their play is going to be better," says Williams. "Saying that puts an unbelievably heavy load on him, but it's a fact."
So many people are fond of calling McCants complicated, but the crux of the matter is simple.
"I think it's a trust issue," says May.