Pro 'family' helped mold this UNC team

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When North Carolina beat Wisconsin two weeks ago, a plethora of basketball alums -- most of them members of Final Four or national championship teams -- could be spotted behind the Tar Heels’ bench at the Smith Center, cheering and grinning and yelling occasional instructions.

Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Shammond Williams, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams and Tyler Hansbrough (among others) weren’t there just to support the program, as usual -- but this particular Tar Heel team. Because in their own way, they helped forge it.

“I told the guys: ‘Since I’ve been here, since 2001, I’ve never seen so many pro guys back during the summer, to actually play against, to actually learn from,’’’ said Jackie Manuel, one of those pros who was back during the summer, and was recently named UNC’s assistant strength and conditioning coach. “I told them: ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime, you don’t know when you’re going to have a chance to play against this many of the [veteran] guys, again. Use it to your advantage.’

“And they did.”

Indeed, many of the current Tar Heels credit their predecessors -- which also included Brendan Haywood, Brandan Wright, Bobby Frasor, Jawad Williams, Marcus Ginyard, Vince Carter, Deon Thompson, Sean May and Wayne Ellington -- for pushing the strides they’ve made individually, and as a team.

Big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson got to consistently compete against the likes of Haywood, May and Wallace in pick-up games, “and they gave us size and length that we had never seen before,’’ Zeller said. “It almost seemed easy when they weren’t guarding you, after you’d gone against them for a week.”

Point guard Kendall Marshall got to match up with Felton -- the speedy ballhandler whose school record for assists in a game (18) he is now trying to break.

“He basically showed us on a daily basis why he’s an NBA all-star,’’ Marshall said. “That showed me on a daily basis what I needed to improve … and I respect him a lot for coming back, and still playing with us, and helping me out.”

It’s not that vets haven’t come back before. Since head coach Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill in 2003, there always seems to be alums at the Smith Center during the summers, either working out in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian or popping in to visit with old teammates and assistant coaches.

But the NBA lockout brought more Tar Heels home than in recent memory -- players looking to keep in shape, to compete with other locked-out pros, to hand down a bit of their knowledge to the next potential Final Four squad.

And it made for some lively pick-up games.

“We had some battles,’’ forward Harrison Barnes said. “We used to play seven-game series. Our starting five against Raymond, Brendan Haywood, Rasheed, Marvin, Jackie -- we’d have some pretty intense pick-up games. It would be Game 7, some hard fouls, some words were exchanged … because no one at Carolina ever wants to lose.”

And if a foul was actually called?

“They’d just point up to the banners,’’ Barnes said, referring NCAA commemorations hanging in the Smith Center rafters. “It was intense.”

But always educational.

Zeller said he was able to pick up some tips and tricks that the pros learned in the pros. Henson said he still gets text messages from Wallace after almost every game. Freshman James Michael McAdoo said he met a role model in Marvin Williams -- a forward, like him, who didn’t mind coming off the bench if it was the best thing for the team.

Marshall said the vets also talked to current players about how to deal with expectations and pressure, both on and off the court.

“When you’re guarding these pro players, day in and day out, you’re going to learn a few things and take some beatings,’’ Marshall said. “But ultimately, it’s going to make you better.”

And the team.

And the program.

Manuel said he remembers a time, under former coach Matt Doherty, when there weren’t many alumni around. The willingness of so many pros to return during the summers now, he said, is a testament to the re-bonded Tar Heel family.

The current UNC players recognize that as well. And appreciate it.

“I think that’s what gives Carolina that special edge,” Barnes said. “A lot of former players come back because they want to be here, they want to help out.

“... If you see all the banners and stuff, you always have that enigma of, ‘Oh, I wonder what it was like.’ But to have their actual experiences, to have somebody [that is around] go through what you want to go through, there’s nothing like it.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Twitter: @bylinerp.