CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The pickup games at Ronnie and Janet McAdoo’s house were a neighborhood fixture. Kids flocked to the court knowing they’d get the best competition, and they might even get a message from Ronnie, who works full time in ministry.
Ronnie McAdoo didn’t tolerate any fighting or cursing, and he didn’t play favorites, either. His son, James Michael McAdoo, had to win like every other kid from the block if he wanted to keep playing. That’s why the son’s consistent choice of a teammate no one else would ever pick initially surprised his father.
“I would say, ‘Jay, if you pick him, chances are you’re going to lose. And if you lose, you’ve got to sit out because you’ve got 15 other kids waiting to play,’ ” Ronnie McAdoo said. “He said, ‘Dad, I don’t care. If I don’t pick him, no one else will.’ He would always pick this kid every time he showed up to play basketball. That’s James Michael.”
A greater sense of purpose seems behind even the smallest gestures of North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo. That includes the reason why he goes by his full first name.
Recruiting services and coaches originally knew the 6-foot-9 junior forward from Norfolk, Va., as James McAdoo. Before arriving at Carolina, he requested that Michael be added. It was far from a decision shaped by reasons of vanity.
Ronnie McAdoo considered James McPherson his best friend. Along with James' older brother, Michael, they grew up together in Mebane, N.C. James McPherson attended Old Dominion with McAdoo. The brothers were making a trip back home from ODU when they were killed in a car accident.
Ray Broxton, who also played at Old Dominion, was another close friend who met a tragic end. Ronnie McAdoo said Broxton had gone to play professionally in South America, where he died in an accident.
“I told my wife my first son would be named after my three best friends -- James McPherson, Michael McPherson and Ray Broxton,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “So his name is James Michael Ray McAdoo.”
The McAdoos have pictures of all three around their house. When James Michael was a toddler, he’d often point to those frames just as his parents had, knowing there was more to the story but not knowing why.
“It probably wasn’t until I got to high school that I could really understand the magnitude of being named after them,” he said. “ . . . I was, like, I should probably really take on that first name and really honor both of them and I knew it’d be really huge to my father.”
It was a huge name, all right, and not just to his parents. By his senior season at Norfolk Christian High School, he was a big deal in the world of college basketball recruiting.
McAdoo won USA Basketball’s 2009 Male Athlete of the Year award, adding him to an elite list that includes Carolina recipients Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Sean May. McAdoo accumulated more honors and accolades than he cared to receive, admitting many of his trophies are “collecting dust somewhere.”
Dust doesn’t settle on expectations, though. And those piled up before McAdoo ever put on a Tar Heels uniform. There were not-so-silent whispers that he’d be a one-and-done talent. He was projected as a NBA lottery pick.
“It doesn’t really affect me when I hear or see what other people might be thinking just because I know what I’m capable of doing and I expect what I expect out of myself,” McAdoo said. “When I know I don’t get the results I want, I beat myself up, but I don’t lose sleep at night. It just adds to the fire, adds to the motivation.”
There’s a crazy kind of peer pressure among elite college basketball players, that somehow if you stay in school for more than a year, it indicates some type of flaw. McAdoo has twice returned to Chapel Hill to play.
“Last year that might have gotten in his head a little bit as people where hyping him up at the beginning of the season,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “He’s ready to come in and play his game. I think that’s a different mindset he has coming into the year.”
McAdoo found it silly that he even had to have a formal announcement that he was returning for his junior year. If it were up to him, he would have slipped back on campus without having to say a word.
The decision mirrored one he made before completing his junior year of high school. McAdoo could have reclassified and enrolled at Carolina for the 2010-11 season. He opted against it, partly because “it just didn’t feel right.”
He received confirmation that he did the right thing when he joined his classmates on a mission trip to Nicaragua, where no one looked at him as a basketball player, even though he towered over everyone.
“You go down on trips like that and you ... think you might be the one giving back to the people,” McAdoo said. “But in the end, after like two weeks, I was definitely one that changed. It’s an experience that I will never forget.”
McAdoo said the school chosen to receive help was located next to a wasteland. People lived in shanties among heaps of trash. He helped hoist plastic tarps to shield them from the rain, handed out food, and “just tried to help where we could.”
It’s why McAdoo keeps his seasons at Carolina in perspective.
McAdoo admits that in his freshman year, he relied a little too much on his talent and didn’t spend enough time cultivating it.
“Coming to college just as a regular student, there’s already enough distractions,” McAdoo said. “Being known by everybody and knowing that you’re on the basketball team, you can lose sight of what got you here.”
That led to McAdoo putting too much pressure on himself as a sophomore. It didn’t help matters when he had to play center in a four-guard lineup. As a junior, he finally feels as if he’s found his comfort zone.
UNC coach Roy Williams said McAdoo was a more “focused player than I’ve ever seen” during the offseason. It showed in the season opener against Oakland, when he led the team with 21 points and nine rebounds.
McAdoo still wants to fulfill that NBA dream, but he doesn't believe he's completed his purpose yet in Chapel Hill.
“I would have loved for our team to have won the national championship my freshman year, me to have balled out and be in the NBA right now making millions, but God had a different plan,” McAdoo said. “So with that, I’m having a great time. Great teammates. I love my family. I’ve got nothing to complain about.”