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Lucas: Home Again

Lucas: Home Again

By Adam Lucas

No one knows everything about Rashad McCants, which I suspect is just the way he wants it. But anyone who knows anything about him can tell you this: he has never, ever been able to completely hide what he's feeling.

That's how he became one of the most dissected players in Tar Heel basketball history. Rashad is crossing his arms over his chest--Rashad is mad at someone! Rashad is throwing up the diamond sign--Rashad is happy! Rashad isn't smiling while everyone else is smiling--Rashad is frustrated!

I firmly believe that his inability to mask his feelings cost him potential allies in the media, because when you ask Rashad McCants a dumb question, he will give you a look that says, "That's a dumb question." He may roll his eyes. He might shrug his shoulders. He will definitely react, and that's something that almost everyone else tries to avoid.

But that's the thing about McCants: his emotions are visible. Sometimes, it can cause problems. Sometimes, though, it provides one of the best available windows into what he's thinking.

With 10:39 remaining in Carolina's otherwise forgettable 79-63 win over Georgia Tech--that's a good sign of how far these Tar Heels have come, because two weeks ago we were thirsty for any victory, and now we're picky about how artistic they are--the game went to a timeout. McCants was standing near the tunnel, and he was shown on the Smith Center video board, with the caption, "Rashad McCants, 2005 national champion."

You may not be able to identify with some of McCants's life choices, or with his prodigious raw talent, but you can identify with this: he grew up in Asheville a Carolina fan and dreamed of being a Carolina player. When he shot baskets in the driveway, he imagined wearing a Tar Heel jersey. Most of us know what that's like.

Most of us don't know what it's like to see our picture with the caption describing us as a national champion, and as a wide smile spread across McCants's face, you could see--with him, you can always see--what it meant to him.

"It was exhilarating," he said after the game. "I felt the energy again. I always embraced the crowd and wanted to entertain them by playing the game the way it's supposed to be played. It brought back so many memories for me."

It was the first time McCants had been back for a game since Dec. 31, 2006, when his jersey was honored along with national champion teammates Raymond Felton and Sean May. Both of those players have been Chapel Hill regulars in the years since they left. McCants has been a sporadic enough visitor that it still raises an eyebrow when he calls, as he did on Monday, and says he's in town to visit his parents and wants to get some shots up at the Smith Center.

On Tuesday, he played a few games of one-on-one against many of the current Tar Heel guards. So, Reggie Bullock, how did it go against the "old" guy, the one you said you don't even really remember watching play for Carolina?

"Ummmm..."

 Bullock is usually quick to reply. The pause tells you everything, but then Bullock comes clean.

"Offensively, he's probably the toughest player I've ever had to guard," he says. "I don't see how anyone guards him for 40 minutes. Basically, my strategy was to hope he missed."

What about you, Dexter Strickland?

"It didn't go well for me," he said. "He's the toughest guard I've ever played against, and that's a big compliment coming from me because I like to think I'm very good on defense. There were times I played my best defense, and he just had better offense...In my opinion, he would start on any NBA team."

But he's not. Instead, he just signed with the Texas Legends, an NBDL team with which he has had an on-again, off-again relationship. He expects to play for them Friday night in Frisco, and in the moments after the Tar Heel win, McCants was in the players' lounge trying to book a flight to Texas. He'll leave town tomorrow.

There is absolutely no way to know for sure when he'll be back. We might see him again this season. We might have to wait seven more years before we see him again at a game.

He is, to me, the single most interesting character of the Roy Williams era. He can be incredibly engaging. He can be sullen. And just when you start to forget about him, there he is, behind the bench wearing a James Michael McAdoo jersey ("I think it was the only one they were selling in stores," McAdoo said of the odd sight of a player with an honored Carolina jersey wearing his jersey. "I don't think he walked in there and said, 'Give me the McAdoo jersey.'"). That's when all the memories come rushing back, about how one of the greatest shows of the Williams era was watching McCants in pregame, when he would effortlessly start out shooting 20-footers, and eventually work his way back to 30-footers without even a hint of strain in his jump shot.

With McCants, it almost always comes back to his talent. What was it that Williams told the current players in the locker room this week? "Rashad McCants was probably the most talented offensive player we've had since I've been back here," he told them. That's high praise.

I don't pretend to know everything about McCants. But I know the current players were in awe of his talent, and I know he seemed genuinely pleased to have connected with them. I know he bristled when it was mentioned that his commitment to Carolina has sometimes been questioned. "I chose to come to Carolina, it wasn't the other way around," he said. "This place has always been in my heart. I've always been a Carolina fan and always will be, and I'm always very proud that I was part of it."

In the span of a month, we've seen Matt Doherty and Rashad McCants sitting behind the Tar Heel bench at the Smith Center. Six months ago, I would have given you better odds on Roy Williams coaching at the PNC Center in Sidney Lowe's red jacket than in both of those gentlemen sitting in the Smith Center for a game. Both received warm welcomes that seemed to ever so slightly take them by surprise. Here, you can make mistakes, and here, you can struggle, and here, you can fall out of favor, but also here--eventually--you can come back and you will be home again. Here is where Matt Doherty is a 1982 national champion and Rashad McCants is a 2005 national champion, and time seems much too short for anything else to matter very much right now.

I know for sure McCants is a national champion because I watched him when he walked through the Smith Center tunnel, and his eyes immediately snuck a glimpse at the rafters, trying to find his number-32 jersey and the 2005 national championship banner in which he played a significant role.

"It's the first thing you have to do when you come back here," he said when his wandering eyes were mentioned to him. "My main goal was to leave an imprint here and win a championship. So after you've been away for a while, you have to make sure those things are still here."

Then he stood back, arms folded, and watched the 2012-13 Tar Heels do their postgame media interviews. He has been where they are. And on this night, at this particular moment, it finally didn't seem very complicated at all. Carolina seemed like a good memory for Rashad McCants. Which is all you'd want it to be.

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.