For his first two seasons, McCants Studies was an unofficial UNC course, with lectures available on what seemed like every TV, radio and Internet message board in the Piedmont. Not a nose scratch or a head shake escaped 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 can lift the Tar Heels above almost any problem, an ill-timed case of his Carolina blues can bring them crashing down to earth. "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.
"Trust is the Number 1 thing with him," says Williams.
Taking that leap is no small task if you're 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 when he met the rapper Jay-Z at a New Jersey Nets game in 2004. 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."
But no, for the most part the shield stays up. "Certain things in your life will make you protect yourself," says his mother, Brenda Muckelvene. Here's one: 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 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. Two days later the coach, Andy Ray, visited Brenda to tell her: Rashad was the player he no longer wanted. Rashad was crushed. "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.