No scholarships, no fanfare, UNC's JV squad just plays
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As a kid, James Gallagher owned two types of clothing: his school uniform and his Carolina gear.
If he wasn't wearing his school threads, he was in his Tar Heels blue, sporting the colors of his parents' alma mater.
So when Gallagher found himself inside a locker room at the Dean Dome, about to don a North Carolina jersey and represent the Tar Heels in a real college basketball game, he sat mesmerized as if he were holding some sort of sacred object.
"I just stared at the jersey for five minutes," he said. "When I put it on, I couldn't believe it was real."
Gallagher, a 6-foot-5 forward, wears No. 34 and unlike virtually every other player suiting up for Carolina, he has no shot at the NBA, no chance of making "SportsCenter," no one clamoring for his autograph or stopping to shake his hand.
And he couldn't be happier if you gave him a scholarship.
Yeah, he doesn't have one of them, either.
Gallagher is one of 14 players on Carolina's jayvee team, a throwback notion that went the way of the two-handed set shot once freshman eligibility became the norm.
Today only a handful of Division I teams even have jayvee programs, most of them military academies or Ivy League schools.
The reason one of the most acclaimed programs in the country still has a jayvee program is the same reason most things associated with North Carolina basketball exist: Dean Smith wanted it that way.
While everyone else was busy disbanding jayvee teams once freshman eligibility was no longer an issue, Smith decided to keep his. He viewed the jayvee program as an opportunity for regular students as well as a great teaching experience for young assistant coaches. Roy Williams, Phil Ford and Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik all spent time tutoring the jayvee team at Carolina.
"Whoever tells me to stop is going to have to have an awful lot of power," said Williams, who spent eight years coaching the jayvee as an assistant to Smith. "I love it and I think it's something we should always have here at the university. As Coach Smith explained it, everybody who comes to school here should have a chance to play on the basketball team."
The program has blossomed into a sort of college fantasy camp for former high school players who may have tap-danced with a Division II school or two. The word "dream" -- living the dream, a dream come true -- is a recurring theme among the players. These are kids who grew up entrenched in the history of Carolina basketball, kids whose backyard games always ended with them a Tar Heels hero.
But unlike kids whose dreams crash and burn when the backyard gives way to the high school gym, these guys have found the perfect place to meld their love of basketball with their passion for Carolina.
"It was quite possibly the happiest day of my life," junior Robert Johnson said of the day he learned he had survived the cuts to make the jayvee squad. "I'm dead serious about that."
This is no glorified intramural program run by the rec department.
Jerod Haase, the former Kansas floor-burning shooting guard and current Williams assistant who serves as the team's head coach, whittled down a tryout camp of about 70 students to get his current 14-player roster.
These Heels play a 14-game schedule against area junior varsity and prep school programs (Haase said teams from as far away as California have called to ask for games simply to give their own players a chance to play at Carolina) and practice in the Dean Dome right after the varsity (as the crew made up of the more familiar Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington is referred to).
The players and coaches take their basketball very seriously and only last week suffered their first loss of the season, blowing an early lead to fall to Fork Union Military Academy 92-87.
"I do take it very seriously with the understanding where it fits in the grand scheme of things," Haase said. "I can't devote six hours a day but the hour and a half I'm with them, I'm going to work extra hard."
Even among the overscheduled subspecies of Division I assistant basketball coaches, Haase's day is crammed. Along with his regular assistant coaching duties, Haase runs the entire jayvee show. On this particular Wednesday afternoon, he will fine-tune the Boston College scouting report for the next day's game, work on the Florida State scouting report for Saturday's game, work varsity practice at 3:30 p.m. and then run the jayvee practice at 6:30 p.m.
It is a grueling schedule with virtually no break. But it is also an unbelievable internship that virtually no one else in the country is getting.
"Going into my first year as jayvee coach, I made so many mistakes," said the 33-year-old Haase, who has been heading up the junior varsity for three seasons now. "I was so uncomfortable but it's a smaller stage."
He knows that when the day comes for him to interview for a head-coaching job, he will be hired because he was on Williams' staff, not because of the jayvee team's record.
But as another ex-jayvee coach can attest, the transition will be made all the smoother because of this job.
Now among the deans of college basketball, Williams once spent Sunday afternoons schlepping tapes of the coach's show to affiliates around the state and then running bleary-eyed through two practices. He knew how to coach Xs and Os. It was the logistics he had to figure out.
"Are you comfortable screaming or not screaming? Are you comfortable sitting down or standing up?" Williams said. "It's the greatest on-the-job training you can have. For 10 years I made suggestions [to Smith], but for eight of those 10 I also made the decisions with the jayvee. Both of those were beneficial to me. Needless to say varsity preparation was more beneficial but you need to have a comfort zone."
The difference between this fantasy camp and the ones where guys with spare tires shag flies at spring training is this: The guy down in Florida has no chance of turning two with Derek Jeter.
A jayvee player just might get in a live layup line with Hansbrough.
This year's team carries three jayvee alums.
Jack Wooten was sitting in a philosophy of religion class back in September when his cell phone buzzed. Haase was on the phone. When class ended, Wooten bolted outside to check the message.
He had been invited to try out. Thrilled, he called his parents and best friends but asked them to keep the news on the QT since he wasn't officially on the team yet.
"Like two hours later I had all these messages on Facebook, text messages," Wooten said. "They told the world."
For two weeks, Wooten sweated out the nerves of trying to make the varsity. A three-sport athlete in high school, he grew up sitting in the nosebleeds at the Dean Dome alongside his father, Ed. Making the junior varsity was a father-son dream come true.
To actually sit on the bench for the varsity games, to practice with the roster of All-Americans, to travel, to maybe go to the NCAA Tournament, is like something out of a Frank Capra movie for a kid from Burlington, N.C.
"We do discussion at the beginning of practice and coach was real casual, 'OK, we're going to keep J.B. [Tanner], Jack and Patrick [Moody]. OK, fast-break drill No. 1,' " Wooten said. "I was like, 'Now I have to practice?' The three of us were all looking at one another. It was the coolest thing in the world."
The jayvee game isn't necessarily as fast or as skilled but it isn't altogether different. Haase's team runs the same stuff that Williams' group runs, which might explain why the jayvee is averaging 100.2 points per game.
"Except we don't have someone down on the low block like they have," Johnson deadpanned, referring to Hansbrough.
When jayvee guard Terrence Petree tells you that after the jayvee scored 127 points against Johnston Community College and no one cared how many points the team had, he's not just offering some Bull Durham platitudes. This could be about the least me-centric team in the country, the team that truly plays for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back (and not only because the jerseys don't have names).
"I just look up at Jordan's jersey," Petree, a junior, said. "This is really the chance of a lifetime."
Indeed there's no glory here. Half the students on campus don't even know there is a jayvee team. Tanner said he had to tell his friends about it, and then explain that they can come in anytime, no ticket necessary, to watch.
At tip-off one Thursday, maybe 50 people were scattered around the Dean Dome seats and at least 15 of them were Fork Union fans. "Hope you can find a good seat for this game," Haase joked, as tens of thousands of Carolina blue chairs sat folded up and empty around the arena.
Toward the end of the first half, students trickled in. In blue wigs with faces painted, they were there to snag the best seats for the varsity's 7 p.m. tip-off against Boston College. While the jayvee played, most of the students standing within inches of the court didn't even pay attention, instead whipping out their cell phones to send text messages or make phone calls. Some chatted amongst themselves and since the gym was so empty, you could actually hear their conversations.
When the jayvee game ended, the players left to a smattering of applause. An hour later, the varsity team entered as cheerleaders turned happy backflips, music blared and the same students who looked almost bored an hour ago screamed until their voices were hoarse.
"It's pretty comical," Wooten said. "It's like we're the pregame show or the circus. It's wild how the same students arbitrarily cheer for one team with Carolina uniforms and don't even pay attention to the other one. But it's not like we're offended. We understand."
As a player, before he would go to his own freshman team practice each day, Williams would sit in the varsity's sessions taking copious notes. He had no grand illusions about his own playing ability, but was so enamored by the game of basketball that he spent the hours he wasn't playing, learning.
Nearly four decades later, Williams has produced 16 first-round picks, been surrounded by All-American talent and coached in five Final Fours. He is in the rarest of basketball airs.
But it is in the anonymous players of the jayvee squad that he sees himself. His own sentiment and that of Smith, his mentor, has made Williams as fiercely loyal to his jayvee team as he is to his Carolina roots. His own son, Scott, played two years on the jayvee squad and Williams believed so strongly in the concept of a jayvee program that he started one at Kansas. Mark Turgeon, now the Texas A&M head coach, and Steve Robinson, Williams' assistant at Kansas and now at Carolina, ran the team.
But after two years the administration put the kibosh on it, arguing that although there were no scholarships involved, the male participant numbers of the jayvee team skewed the university's Title IX balance.
"That made me so mad," Williams said. "It was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. People will use excuses, money, time. I think it's hogwash because the value you get from it is so much more."
Williams also knows there are more guys like Gallagher and Johnson than there are guys like Hansbrough and Lawson, guys who get nothing out of basketball but simple joy. He believes fervently in keeping that purity alive.
Frankly he envies it a little bit.
Just this season, Division I coaches in a Seattle Times survey voted Williams' job the best in college basketball.
Williams begs to differ. He thinks they should have chosen Haase.
"I would do it right now, I'd love to," Williams said. "You're coaching because you love to coach and they're playing because they love to play. I think maybe that's really what college athletics should be all about."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.