THIS WAS WHAT DANNY GREEN had been waiting for since that dark day in 2006 when his father went away: the chance to shine in front of him on the basketball court in the NCAA tournament. "There were times I thought this day would never come," Green said quietly as he sat on a folding chair in the North Carolina locker room after the Tar Heels had defeated Oklahoma 72-60 to advance to their second-straight Final Four. "My dad being here is what makes this so, so special."
It was Green who was special to his teammates during Carolina's two victories at Memphis's FedEx Forum in the South Regional. A 6' 6", 210-pound senior guard who averaged 13.3 points a game in the regular season, his first as a starter, Green scored 13 against Gonzaga in the Tar Heels' 98-77 third-round victory. More impressive, Green, who was named to the ACC's all-defensive squad, helped limit the Zags to 7-of-23 shooting from beyond the arc. Two days later against the Sooners, Green scored 18 points and helped hold guard Tony Crocker, who had torched Syracuse for 28 in the third round, to four points.
"Danny is the heart and soul of our team, and he sets the tone for our defense," says North Carolina assistant coach Joe Holladay. "He gets everyone on our team excited when he does something well. They all root for him. They all know what a rough time he went through with his family situation."
In late March 2006 Daniel Green, Danny's father, was arrested on multiple drug counts by New York State police and charged with "attempting to negotiate the delivery of a significant quantity of cocaine from Mexico." The elder Green, who maintained his innocence, had his bail set at $7.5 million and was sent to jail as he awaited trial. While he was incarcerated, his son's game deteriorated, slipping in several statistical categories during his sophomore season. Daniel Green spent 22 months in jail and was released after he accepted a plea bargain to a lesser charge of conspiracy. He had to stay in New York State while on probation during his son's junior year, but this season his probation officer allowed him to see Danny play in a handful of games—including the two in Memphis.
With his dad watching from the stands in the regional final, Green delivered the signature play of the game against Oklahoma. With 8:50 left in the first half, Green soared to the basket to grab an offensive rebound. He outjumped both 6' 10" Blake Griffin—the national player of the year—and 6' 7" Taylor Griffin. After grabbing the ball, Green took flight again, leaping over the Griffin brothers to score from point-blank range and give North Carolina a 21-10 lead, a lead it would never surrender.
"Danny does it all for us: rebound, make key shots, dish assists, take charges, block shots and defend like crazy," says guard Bobby Frasor. "We call him the Stat Stuffer."
An hour after helping his team punish the Sooners, Green grabbed his piece of the South Regional championship net and stuffed it into a backpack. Minutes later he walked out of the Carolina locker room and into the Memphis night, looking to give a long, loving hug to his No. 1 fan.