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Tim Layden
April 15, 2009
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April 15, 2009

Promise Fulfilled


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Nearly two more months would pass before the Tar Heels were assuredly whole again. On June 16 Ellington, Green and Lawson all withdrew their names from the draft an hour before the deadline. Their choices would conform better to a fairy-tale version of college basketball had they stayed strictly out of loyalty to the powder blue. But only Lawson turned down certain millions—and even in his case, it was millions less than he had hoped for. They were simply disappointed by what they heard from the NBA scouts.

So they joined Hansbrough back on the North Carolina roster, prompting a chorus of proclamations from college hoops insiders that this could be one of the greatest teams of all time. They would lay waste not only to the venerable Atlantic Coast Conference but also to the entire nation. They might not lose a game. The only issue would be how to keep so many talented players happy.

Williams saw something different. He saw a new team with new issues. Not long after Ellington, Green and Lawson withdrew from the draft, Williams met with each of them. "I felt some things needed to be addressed," says Williams. "I said, 'Let's make sure we understand each other here. If you're coming back to help your own personal situation, if you're coming back expecting 30 shots a game, we're going to have a problem. You're coming back to help our program, to help us win games.' "

One of North Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian's off-season workouts involves players flipping 500-pound tractor tires in slow laps around the Smith Center, a form of moving, barnyard squats. This year Sahratian not so subtly called the drill "the Drive to Detroit." He pushed the high-profile returnees hardest of all. "[With] Tyler, from Day One this year it was, What can I do to become the best basketball player possible?" says Sahratian. "Danny was more along those lines. Ty and Wayne were a little bit slower in coming along. They are two really gifted kids. But I think the draft experience was a wake-up call. It was like, Hey, man, these guys are really good, and I do need to get a little bit better."

None of this guaranteed that the season would be smooth, and it was not. Injuries struck. Senior wing Marcus Ginyard, the Tar Heels' best defender, underwent surgery in October for a stress fracture in his left foot, returned briefly in late December, but then was shut down for the year. On Oct. 30 Hansbrough, who had not sat out a game in three seasons, was found to have a stress reaction in his right shin and missed the first two games; then he sprained his left ankle and missed two more in late November. "I like to be working, so I hated sitting," says Hansbrough.

Tyler Zeller, a 7-foot freshman, played two games early and then missed 13 weeks after he broke his left wrist when he was fouled hard in a win over Kentucky. Most alarming, Lawson jammed his right big toe against the base of the basket support in practice on March 5 and limped off the floor. "He called me that night and said, 'Dad, it's broken,' " recalls Lawson's father, George, who works for a security firm. "That was a terrible phone call." It was not broken, but after playing the regular-season finale against Duke in pain, Lawson missed 12 days before returning to score 23 points against LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament. "People said we had too many players," says Williams. "Actually, we didn't have enough."

YET EVEN AS THE TAR HEELS SUBLIMATED THEIR talents to the team, individuals flourished. The centerpiece was Hansbrough, the 6' 9" 250-pounder whose inartistic game has made him the target of opponents (and opponents' fans) throughout his career. "People have been coming at me harder than ever [this season]," he says. "And that's fine." In the second half of the 83-69 win over Villanova in the NCAA semifinal, Hansbrough had to take a short break to get bleeding stopped on a forearm scratch; after the game he obliged a writer by pointing out the cut, which was not as telling as the multiple scars up and down both arms, the by-products of his uniquely frantic work and his constantly awkward and frequently violent collisions.

On the eve of that game Hansbrough had sat beneath a staircase in the Tar Heels' team hotel, two blocks from Ford Field. This season was Hansbrough's retirement tour, minus the rocking chairs a professional athlete might receive as he passed through visiting arenas for the last time. Yet at every turn he found himself fighting the urge to smell the roses. "It's been tough all year to just stay with the job," said Hansbrough last Friday. "I think I've prepared myself mentally for the fact that I'm moving on. But every time we lost in the tournament the last three years, I was able to say that there's another chance next year. Now there's none of that. So I'm trying to block out the emotions and just play hard. I'm not gonna lie—it's tough."

Tough for Williams as well. During a rare quiet moment in the North Carolina locker room at Ford Field on the Thursday before the final, he pondered the subject of Hansbrough's final game. Williams became acutely emotional, raising his chin, pausing and blinking back tears. "I don't mean to get upset," he said, chuckling self-consciously. "I'm being really corny here. Once Tyler decided to come back, I wanted this kid to have the greatest senior year he could possibly have. Heck, I'm going to have more chances to win, but this is his last chance. And he is so special."

Williams pulled out a sheet with the day's practice schedule, listing the drills and the minutes assigned for each session. It was practice number 89 for the season. "Here's a drill that's supposed to last seven minutes," Williams said. "Back when Tyler was coming off his injuries, I was sweating out every frickin' drill. If we'd get through six minutes, I'd think we should call it off before Tyler got hurt. Because if he gets hurt, every agent in the world is going to say he made the wrong decision to come back. It's like the kid has the good of college basketball on his back."

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