CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- C.J. Skender was up well before dawn last Thursday, pulling his car into a gas station near campus for a fill-up. Skender, a popular accounting professor at North Carolina, let his mind wander to the Tar Heels' Sweet 16 matchup against Butler as the fuel splashed into his tank, until the pump clicked to a stop and jarred him back to reality. As he completed the transaction, he glanced at his total -- $32 even.
"Oh man, that's Luke Maye's number," Skender thought to himself. "I hope it's a good weekend for him."
Four days later, the raspy vocals of Rod Stewart boomed through Skender's classroom, "Maggie May" serving to wake up bleary-eyed students for the 8 a.m. Business 101 class. This is ritual for Skender, who plays music before each session. The day's catalogue also included the Bee Gees' "First of May," The Crickets' "Maybe Baby" and a beach music cut called "May I." The theme of the day's playlist wasn't lost on his students.
Just as the clock ticked to 8, Luke Maye crept through the door and into the 400-person lecture hall. One student began to clap. More followed. Another student quickly fumbled for his cellphone to record the moment, and within seconds, the entire class was standing and applauding the UNC sophomore, No. 32, a former walk-on and second-generation Tar Heels athlete, whose 18-foot jumper pushed his team to the Final Four with a victory Kentucky just hours earlier.
The video of the impromptu celebration quickly went viral, another in a seemingly endless deluge of attention lathered on an overnight star. The kid who'd shocked the world Sunday night in Memphis also made it to an 8 a.m. class Monday morning? The story was too good to ignore.
When class ended, students lined up for pictures and autographs with their classmate, and Maye was happy to oblige. Skender waited until the crowd cleared, then pulled out his gas receipt and asked Maye to sign it.
"It was an omen," Skender said.
The phone in the office at Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, had been ringing all morning. Hours earlier, Luke Maye sank a shot that was already being compared to some of the most memorable in the state's impressive basketball history. He'd received a note from former Duke star Christian Laettner, congratulating Maye on felling Kentucky 25 years after Laettner had done the same in legendary fashion. Maye was the talk of the basketball world, and the celebrity status quickly trickled down to his old high school, where he'd already been something of a legend.
"I've known Luke Maye since I was taller than he was," Hough's receptionist said before transferring a call to the school's basketball coach.
Want a story on Maye? Everyone in this small Charlotte suburb seems to have one, in part because his family has deep ties to North Carolina -- his dad, Mark, was a popular quarterback for the Tar Heels, one of Roy Williams' favorite players in the 1980s, the current UNC hoops coach noted -- but also because Luke Maye was so likable off the court.
Stacey Best was Maye's math teacher in 11th grade. Each day after class, Maye would stop and thank her for the lesson as he left the room.
"I've never had a kid do that before," Best said. "Always said 'thank you.'"
Lisa Alexander's oldest son played baseball with Maye at Hough. She remembers watching a video the boys made of the team departing for a big game on the road, whooping and hollering until the camera panned to Maye, sitting on the bus studying for class.
"He's just a role model," said Lisa's husband, David, proudly wearing a Tar Heels T-shirt as he watched his son play a little league game on a field just a half-mile from Maye's former high school.
David Alexander gleefully recalled watching Maye's shot swish through the net a day earlier, how he'd leapt from his couch with so much excitement that he nearly clipped his head on the ceiling fan. Now he was eager to share the text he'd received from Lisa's daughter, a classmate of Maye's at Hough who is now a sophomore at Auburn. It was a link to the video of the packed UNC classroom applauding a local hero.
"He sort of has a cult following around here," said Jason Grube, Maye's basketball coach during his senior season at Hough.
Basketball was a big reason for Maye's status as a local star. He'd been among the most productive scorers in Hough history, the kid Roy Williams came to see play. Off the court, however, Maye was kind and genial and driven, and it was impossible not to take notice.
Throughout Maye's senior season, as the buzz about a walk-on offer at North Carolina grew, Grube answered countless questions about his star player's qualifications for the ACC. Grube insisted Maye's shooting ability would be enough to earn a look and that his work ethic would put him over the top.
"He was a really good basketball player," Grube said to everyone who asked Monday. "But he was an even better kid."
When the Tar Heels fell behind Kentucky late, Grube was screaming at the TV, urging Williams to put Maye back in the game. Grube tracked his former player closely, and he knew Maye had the hot hand. When a shooter as good as Maye gets a little confidence, Grube thought, he's deadly. One timeout later, Maye was back on the floor for a stunning late-game stretch that included two key free throws, a dive across the court for a loose ball and, of course, the game-winning jumper.
When the game was over and the town was celebrating, Best got word that the school's principal wanted everyone to wear Tar Heels gear to school the next day to celebrate their now-famous alumnus. Any excuse for casual attire is welcomed, Best said with a laugh, but she was simply eager to celebrate one of her favorite students.
"The biggest compliment I could probably give him, and I've told his parents, is I hope my boys grow up to be half the man he is," Best said.
Luke Maye didn't see a replay of his shot until teammates included it in a text chain Monday afternoon. Theo Pinson joked that his brilliant pass was the key to the play, and teammates ribbed Maye about his star turn, but there was a genuine appreciation for the magnitude of what he'd done.
"I'm trying to stay humble," Maye said Tuesday, hunched over a microphone at North Carolina's news conference. "But my teammates keep bringing it up."
This is far from Maye's comfort zone. He's affable and confident, but this sudden spotlight is beyond anything he'd imagined for himself. One day, he's a little-known sophomore with a niche role off the bench. The next day, he's headlining news shows, getting messages from college basketball legends, seeing social media posts swooning over his lush eyebrows.
Two years ago, Maye didn't even have a scholarship at North Carolina. Williams assured him that could be remedied eventually, but it was Davidson, a small school close to home, that was in hot pursuit. At Davidson, he might become a star. At UNC, however, he'd fulfill a dream.
Maye decided to roll the dice with Williams, planning to pay his way for a year in hopes a scholarship would open up for his sophomore season. As it turned out, it didn't take quite that long.
Williams called Maye late in the spring semester of his senior year at Hough with a request.
"I want you to tell your mom and dad you need $1,000 to take your buddies to Myrtle Beach this weekend," Williams said.
Maye was confused, sitting in silence for a few moments before confessing he wouldn't be comfortable asking for that kind of money for something so frivolous.
"Well, when they look at you like you're crazy," Williams said, "Just tell them your coach just offered you a scholarship worth $25,000, so the least they can do is give you $1,000."
That's the story Williams tells anyway -- and he's told it a lot. Maye said he "vaguely" remembers that pitch. He notes that Williams is never wrong, so it must be true. But beyond the narrative, the more telling detail is probably Maye's explanation of how he might have spent that $1,000.
"I guess I'd take my family and, well, we really like putt-putt," he said.
The irony of instant stardom thrust upon a kid who'd happily spend $1,000 playing miniature golf with his family isn't lost on anyone.
Maye's rise to fame isn't so much about one momentous shot, after all. He's gotten hundreds of text messages and emails in the aftermath and, while he promises to respond to all of them, he's focused now on the ones from the folks back home who helped him get here. He can't walk to class without being mobbed by fans hoping for a picture, but he isn't even interested in rewatching the shot that made him a star. He's become, in an instant, a cult hero.
But when he talked with his mom Monday, he made a point to allay her worries about his sudden celebrity, insisting he felt no pressure to live up to the hype when North Carolina plays Oregon in the Final Four.
When Maye's news conference ended, he thanked reporters just as he had his high school math teacher, grinned as he exited the stage and sauntered into the hallway. Outside, he found All-American Justin Jackson waiting.
"No pictures, please," Jackson whooped loudly, feigning concern over his teammate's safety amid so much excitement. "Get security here. It's Luke Maye!"