GREENSBORO, N.C. -- There are plenty of reasons for North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston to get excited about playing his first NCAA tournament game here Friday in his hometown: friendly fans, a familiar arena, plenty of family to cheer him on.
“And maybe,’’ he added, grinning, “I can get my dad to sneak me over some peach cobbler.”
Not just any peach cobbler, mind you, but the cobbler at Boss Hog's Bar-B-Que, a soul food joint on East Bessemer Avenue that his dad’s family has run for 22 years. Hairston grew up there -- standing on a Coca-Cola box while his grandma taught him to count change; grabbing dinner after practice; wiping tables in-between.
“To this day we still have people coming in, asking about P.J. They can remember when he used to sweep up, or fall asleep in a booth,’’ said William Turner, who was technically Hairston's step-father, but who the player calls "Dad." “And people seem pretty excited that they’re going to be able to see him play here, again.”
It’s actually been more than a year since Hairston, now averaging 5.9 points per game as a Tar Heels reserve, has played an official game in his hometown.
He starred for three seasons at Greensboro’s Dudley High once setting a school record with 53 points in one game -- before opting to transfer to Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., for his senior season.
It was a tough decision, mom Wendy Mailey said, because had he stayed, he may have set state scoring records, and probably been in contention for NC Player of the Year. Plus, “being a part of Dudley High is like being a part of Greensboro tradition.”
But her oldest son needed the move, she said, to both re-gain focus and expand his skills.
“When he left, I think everyone thought, ‘Oh, he’s flunking out of school,’ or ‘Oh, he’s a discipline problem,’ but it wasn’t either of the two,” Mailey said. “Being in Greensboro, when Roy Williams is at your games, you become a local celebrity -- and it becomes a little difficult not to read your own press, especially at that age.
“And we decided we had to do something different for him; he had kind of become one-dimensional. All he wanted to do was stand and shoot a 3-point shot.”
Hairston, too, had heard the chatter that he had become too chubby, too content with his skillset.
He first learned to shoot (two-handed back then) when his great-grandfather Walter put up a basketball goal when he was 3. And he grew up having dreams of playing in the McDonalds High School All-American game, of being a key contributor for the Tar Heels, of maybe playing in the NBA one day.
So although he missed his parents and his little brothers -- and the fish plate with a side of mac and cheese and green beans at Boss Hog’s -- he knew he had to take the opportunity to expand his skills (while narrowing his waistline).
“It was hard to be away from Greensboro,’’ he said, especially considering the strict discipline, the tough practices, and the sometimes-bland meals at Hargrave. “But it was good for me.”
In his first weeks of conditioning at his new prep school, he said, he lost 10 pounds. Throughout the season, he dropped 10 more. He was still hitting the smooth outside jumpers that made him one of the top wing recruits in the country at Dudley, but all of a sudden he could run faster, contest more shots, even take charges. “That [taking charges] actually became one of my favorite things,’’ he said earlier this season, “because I knew I could make a difference on both ends of the floor.”
Indeed, in his first months in Chapel Hill, 6-foot-5 Hairston (who had slimmed down to about 220 pounds) impressed UNC’s Williams not just with his shooting, but with his defense.
His transition from high school (where he did play in the McDonalds game) to college, however, wasn't exactly easy. Hairston lost one grandfather right before the official start of practice, then another grandfather a few months later. The player suffered a wrist injury, followed by a sprained ankle and sore foot.
And after looking so pinpoint from 3-point land early-on (making 5-of-8 against South Carolina, and 3-of-4 at Kentucky in December), his shooting went awry. During 15 regular-season ACC games, he made only 8 of his 50 3-point attempts.
“There was a lot going on with him, emotionally and physically,’’ his mom said. “… But I don’t think he ever lost confidence.”
Indeed, Hairston kept shooting, buoyed by the teammates and coaches who he said never lost faith that his shot would eventually fall.
And his dad said he had to hold back tears Sunday, when Hairston -- who hadn’t scored in double figures since New Year’s Day – hit the second of three 3-pointers in a three-minute span during the second half of the ACC tournament championship, helping to spur a UNC comeback. The Tar Heels ended up losing to Florida State when Hairston’s 3-point, game-tying attempt hit the back of the rim.
But after his 13-point game, he said he knew his shot was back.
In the stands, his parents knew it as well.
“He had a good game Sunday,’’ his mom said. “But he has so much more to offer than that.”
The hope is that Hairston shows it here this weekend in his hometown, where his mom had to stop answering the phone earlier this week because she had no more tickets to divvy out. And where his dad, over the last season at Boss Hog's, has served more and more Tar Heels fans.
Hairston, who last played in Greensboro during a loss in the 2010 high school state playoffs, wants to give his family, friends and old coaches a better memory this time.
(And maybe have some celebratory peach cobbler if the Tar Heels win Friday and Sunday to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16.)
"It's good,'' he said smiling, "to be playing at home."
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.