It’s hard to tell when #FreePJ picked up the most momentum.
Was it from former North Carolina center John Henson’s Instagram post? Henson, in his second year with the Milwaukee Bucks, displayed a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt mimicking the trademark blue circle NCAA logo and its font -- but replacing it with the word “Scam.”
Was it when proof of an electronic billboard on Interstate 85 displaying the hashtag went viral? Eastbound drivers approaching Durham city limits could view the message alternating with a hospital surgery advertisement.
It's hard to pinpoint how or when its popularity increased, but Tuesday night, in Cameron Indoor Stadium of all places, confirmed the movement is growing.
Abraham Rubert-Schewel, John Barber, Casey Page and self-confessed Wake Forest fan Robert Coffman brought the “Free P.J.” cause to Duke. During the first half of the Blue Devils' win over Gardner-Webb, Rubert-Schewel held up the poster board and was even picked up by the ESPNU broadcast.
“We were talking about how it was messed up that P.J. wasn’t allowed to play and I was like, ‘What could we do that would be funny?’” said Rubert-Schewel, who graduated from UNC in 2008 but whose father is a Duke professor.
The group didn't write out their message until they reached their seats in Cameron to avoid getting it taken at the door. They drew the letters too big -- that's why they didn't add the hashtag to it -- but the sentiment was the same.
Among those not amused were the security dudes in yellow jackets who quickly confiscated it by simply saying “Sign” and motioning to hand it over. That was a bit more polite than the smaller "Free P.J." sign Barber -- who wore a blue Tar Heels T-shirt -- said he held in his hand until the Duke fan seated behind him took it and ripped it in two.
Ripping a sign won't stop this campaign, though. It will likely continue until the NCAA rules on the status of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. The duo has missed each of North Carolina’s nine games this season stemming from possible rules infractions that occurred during the summer.
Back in October, UNC coach Roy Williams initially gave the impression that Hairston’s discipline would be determined before the regular season began. With nearly a third of the season complete, reasonable people believe it’s dragged on long enough.
Texas coach Rick Barnes, who brings the Longhorns to Chapel Hill on Wednesday, knows the feeling. Last season, the NCAA held his star point guard Myck Kabongo in a similar limbo before ruling on his case in late December.
“It’s tough, believe me, it’s tougher than you can imagine, and I know what Roy is going through and it’s not a lot of fun,” said Barnes.
“The worst part is, again, you’re at the mercy of the NCAA," Barnes added. Whenever they get to it, then you’ll have your answer.”
Barnes said the uncertainty on when Kabongo would return weighed heavily on the team and the player last season. The NCAA eventually announced on Dec. 19, 2012 that Kabongo would miss the entire season. Texas appealed the initial ruling and got it amended to 23 games.
“The emotional stress that it put on him, I can’t even begin to tell you,” Barnes said. “It weighed on him heavily. I’m sure it is for the Carolina players right now because they’re there like we were a year ago.”
While the Longhorns waited to hear Kabongo’s fate, Barnes said it was like having two different teams: the squad he had in practice with Kabongo and the squad he took to games without him. Barnes said when Kabongo did return for the final 11 games, Kabongo tried to overcompensate for the time he missed.
“I know what those guys are going through, and it’s tough because, again, you’re dealing with kids here and they don’t understand it, I can assure you of that,” Barnes said. “They don’t understand why it’s taking so long to get an answer.”
Neither do many Carolina fans. That’s why until then, #FreePJ sightings will only get more frequent.