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LAWSON'S BURDEN WAS MORE PERSONAL, BUT THE decision just as crucial. He is a supremely gifted athlete, a blur in white Nikes. "Foul line to foul line," says Villanova assistant Patrick Chambers, "he is the fastest player in the nation." But the NBA scouts wanted more: a consistent jump shot, which Lawson is still developing.
After his senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., Lawson worked with shooting coach Buzz Braman, who has tutored many college and NBA players. But in his first two years at North Carolina, Lawson forgot many of those lessons. "Buzz taught me about getting my release point up and jumping into the shot," he says. "I realized I wasn't doing those things anymore. The NBA was right about my game."
His father had other concerns. "I thought he was ready to go, basketball-wise," George Lawson says. "But as a father, I was looking at his maturity. I wasn't sure he was ready for the lifestyle." Lawson, who is 21, hit the craps tables at a downtown casino in Detroit shortly after the Tar Heels checked in. That move created a minor media stir, but it was a far smaller gamble than jumping too early to the NBA.
North Carolina came to Detroit with a goal, but also with one last demon to cast out. The Tar Heels not only lost to eventual national champion Kansas in 2008, but they had also trailed by the embarrassing margin of 40-12 early in the game. In the Ford Field locker room before the Saturday-night semifinal, a team not given to speechmaking made several small ones. "I just said, 'Remember what happened last year,' " says senior guard Bobby Frasor. Williams had never shown the team the Kansas tape, but he had gently referenced it twice during Final Four week.
Barely eight minutes into the Villanova game, the Tar Heels led by 14 points, and they had racked up 45 points with more than five minutes left in the first half. While the final seconds ticked away, Hansbrough held the ball on his left hip and pumped his right fist. "I was thinking, O.K., now we're back where we want to be," he said.
By 11 the next morning Williams and his assistants were huddled in a private room at the team's hotel, studying video. They cued up MSU's upset of UConn, breaking down the Spartans. They did this, as always, with the sound off. A day later they would silence the Spartans more forcefully.
In the 48 hours preceding the final, Williams had grown agitated from hearing his team portrayed as emotionless and gifted (while Michigan State was impassioned and overachieving). "If you tell me that if Michigan State wins, it's gonna satisfy the nation's economy, then I'd say, Hell, let's stay poor for a little while longer," he said on Sunday. Surely some of the boos that rained down on the Tar Heels on the night of the final were directed at Williams. In a private stadium lounge after the game, Williams said, "Heck, North Carolina's not doing so great, either."
An hour later he stood on a stage in the Renaissance Center, the towering glass atrium of a hotel and business complex on the Detroit River. Hundreds of North Carolina fans surrounded Williams as he spoke from a stage. "You balanced out all that green," he said, and the fans in their powder blue raised a roar skyward. It was not their city or their state, but it was their moment.