CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The boys stood hunched along the baseline under a basket in a New York City gym, gasping for air and waiting for their coach, Terrance "Munch" Williams, to bark the order.
Run -- again.
This was a standard punishment for members of PSA Cardinals, the New York-area Elite Youth Basketball League team on which Cole Anthony was the star. If a player messed up a drill or made a mistake, everybody had to run -- baseline to baseline and back.
This time, however, the running wasn't for Anthony or his teammates. One of the team's lauded alumni -- UConn's Terry Larrier -- was back for a practice. He was three years older than most of the kids on the court but was prepping for the NBA's pre-draft combine and thought a little work would help.
Even Larrier wasn't immune to Williams' direction. There was no favoritism in his gym, and everything mattered. Williams told the group that until Larrier beat every member of the team down and back, they were going to keep running.
Down and back, Larrier crossed the baseline after Anthony.
"Come on, Cole," one boy barked after the first sprint. "Can we please stop?"
Another run. Down and back, and Larrier again crossed the baseline a step or two behind.
"Yo," a boy spoke up, "this is getting old."
Another run. Another win for Anthony.
The players had had enough and begged Anthony to let Larrier win one so they could quit running. They hadn't messed up, so why were they still running? Why was Anthony taking this so seriously?
Finally, on the fourth trip down and back, Larrier beat Anthony by a stride. The rest of the team was relieved; Anthony was furious. He would have stayed out there all day, running sprints just to prove he could do it.
Williams grabbed one of his assistants, Isaac Green, wanting him to appreciate what was happening. Anthony was 16, younger than virtually everyone else on the court. He was being punished for winning but still couldn't help himself.
Anthony's drive -- his relentlessness, as Green describes it -- is what has North Carolina coach Roy Williams so excited about the freshman point guard's arrival in Chapel Hill. The son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, Cole was one of the most heralded recruits in the country, has half-a-million followers on Instagram and has a future as a first-round NBA draft choice. What sets Anthony apart is that none of that is enough for him. He wants more. He has to compete and push as hard as he can.
"He's not Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan," Williams said, "but he's wired that way."
Anthony is about to step onto the biggest stage of his career. In a year, he'll be in the NBA, with an even bigger spotlight trained upon him. But right now, he's ready for the games to begin (No. 9 UNC opens its season tonight against Notre Dame at 7 p.m. ET on ACC Network).
"Honestly, I really don't care what people think," Anthony said. "I'm here to play basketball. I love playing basketball. I'm going to do it as much as possible. Whether you like me or don't, that I love the game of basketball is something you'll have to respect."
COLE ANTHONY wailed. He sobbed. He shook.
Crystal McCrary-McGuire scooped up her then-3-year-old son and did her best to console him, but honestly, she was stunned by the boy's reaction. He was a mess -- all because he lost a footrace.
There was an older boy in the neighborhood, four or five years Anthony's senior, who challenged him to a sprint from one street corner to another, east to west, down a New York city block. They took off, with Anthony's little legs fluttering back and forth, somehow keeping pace with this kid nearly twice his size.
When the pair reached the finish line, Anthony's sneaker tapped down a half-step behind his neighbor's. He'd lost, and even at 3 years old, he absolutely hated losing.
After a few minutes, the sobs began to wane, and McCrary-McGuire looked him in the eyes.
"Why are you so upset?" she begged. "He's older than you, and you almost won."
Anthony shook his head. His mom didn't understand, so he tried to explain it as explicitly as a 3-year-old can.
"My feet," he said, "are supposed to be faster than everybody else's."
"He's not Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, but he's wired that way." Terrance Williams, Anthony's former coach
Ask McCrary-McGuire about her oldest son now, and that's what she remembers. The competitiveness, the need to win -- it's encoded in his DNA, inescapable since the day he was born.
To be sure, there were always high standards for Cole Anthony. His father, Greg Anthony, was a star at UNLV and went on to a long NBA career. McCrary-McGuire is a producer and author, and her husband, Ray McGuire, is a successful banker. As Williams, Anthony's old coach, said, Anthony grew up "privileged."
For a lot of kids in Anthony's position, that might be a slight. But Williams sees it another way. He sees a guy who has had all the advantages and still keeps striving for something else.
There was a time when Anthony was young when his dad assumed he'd go on to play baseball. Hoops just weren't quite his thing. Still, he attacked every moment on the court because he loved being out there.
"Even if all I could do was run into someone," Anthony said, "I was running into them hard."
It wasn't until he was in sixth or seventh grade that his AAU coach, Steve Harris, convinced him he had a real future on the hardwood. Anthony was raw and inconsistent, but the skill set was there, if only he could harness it. Harris told Anthony that the key was to add something new to his game every year, and that's exactly what he did.
"He said I could be the No. 1 player in the country, the top player in the draft," Anthony said. "He's never lied to me."
It's the little things, Williams said, that Anthony does that make him just a regular guy. He can join a pickup game at some neighborhood gym, and he instantly has friends. Williams has worked with his share of kids who expect the perks of stardom, but he remembers a muggy New York afternoon when his team was running laps at a track in the Bronx. Anthony didn't whine for Gatorade or beg his coach for some cash to hit up a store. He cupped his hands, stuck them under a grimy water fountain and drank. It was nothing big, but it told Williams something about the kind of person he was coaching: He didn't want special treatment.
When a crew from PSA Cardinals traveled to Atlanta this summer for the Peach Jam basketball tournament, Anthony came, too. He could have gotten his own room, lived the high life for a few days and enjoyed the star treatment befitting his pedigree. Instead, he crashed with his coach, sliding the mattress off the pull-out couch and sleeping on the floor of Williams' room.
"Most people think he won't have a killer instinct," Williams said. "But it's the opposite. A lot of kids think if they make it in basketball, they'll get their mom this or their dad that. But after they get the house and the car, then what? When things get hard, they're not having fun anymore. Cole's always having fun."
ANTHONY WAS 14 when he came to practice with PSA Cardinals. Most of the kids there were 16 or 17, a roster filled with future stars such as Mo Bamba and Quade Green. Anthony was in over his head, but that's what he liked about it.
That first year, he played second fiddle on the offensive end, with a prototype of his future 6-foot-3 body still unable to mix it up physically with the bigger boys in the paint. Instead, Anthony prided himself on defense.
In his first practice, Anthony went after a loose ball, crashing onto the floor alongside future Arizona star Brandon Randolph. Everyone in the gym took notice. There's always a moment when the new guy gains acceptance, and this was it for Anthony. He went on to win the league's Defensive Player of the Year award. That is the part of Anthony's game that most people miss, his mother said. McCrary-McGuire gets a bit annoyed by this. Her son can score, of course, but he isn't just a scorer, even if that's how outsiders want to portray him.
At Oak Hill Academy, where Anthony was a prep superstar, he nearly averaged a triple-double, falling just a tick shy in both rebounds (9.8 per game) and assists (9.5). His mom rattles off a list of Oak Hill luminaries -- Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo -- who never approached those numbers. And her son is pegged as a score-first, me-first player?
"Cole is about doing everything on the court to win," she said. "He wants to win so badly. It's a source of pride for him and how much he loves the game."
Before last season tipped off at Oak Hill, Anthony approached the mother of teammate Cam Thomas with a plan. Anthony was playing point, and Thomas was going to be his favorite target.
"He told her he was going to make Cam the No. 1 scorer in the country," McCrary-McGuire said.
Thomas put up nearly twice as many shots as Anthony last season en route to averaging more than 26 points per game.
Still, Anthony wants to win -- he says this again and again as he preps for North Carolina's season -- and is every bit an alpha male.
At the end of that first season with PSA Cardinals, assistant coach Andre Charles remembers walking off the court with Anthony as Bamba and Green were set to ship off for the college ranks. Anthony turned to his coach and beamed.
"I'm back," he said, "to No. 1."
THERE WAS A story about Kanye West that Charles read a while back, and it reminds him of Anthony. It was about a visit West made to a record store in Union Square a day before his first album dropped. Everyone knew the music was special, and in 24 hours, West would be a superstar. That day, though, in that record store, he was still just a regular guy.
That's where Anthony stands now: still just a normal kid playing hoops. But tomorrow, the day after, a year from now, 10 years -- it's nearly impossible to know where Anthony's talent might take him.
Anthony laughs about the fact that teammate and fellow five-star recruit Armando Bacot can't hide in a crowd. At 6-foot-10, Bacot is a beacon in the night. But Anthony can still flip up his hood, pull it tight and meander through a crowd with little notice. He likes that.
Still, he's far from shy. Two weeks before the season tips off, he's sitting outside the Heels locker room in Versace sweats, a clash of bright red, yellow and blue, and he speaks with an intensity and polish that showcase how much time he has already spent with a microphone in front of his face.
"Enjoy this time because it'll be the last time where everybody has the same goal in mind," Tucker told him. "It's a time you'll never get back."
Anthony is hoping that's what this season is about: him, his teammates and, if all goes well, a deep run in March. Still, he sees how this narrative is shaping up, with the immense cultural vacuum left along Tobacco Road by Zion Williamson and the equally immense expectations for Anthony to make good on all this promise.
UNC's Williams said Anthony is "a different breed," more worldly and mature than most guys he has coached, but he's still eager to draw comparisons. Anthony has Kendall Marshall's passing acumen, Coby White's attitude and the physical toughness of Raymond Felton. No pressure, kid.
Anthony hasn't played a game yet, but he was picked as a preseason All-American, got votes for player of the year and is pegged as a surefire lottery pick.
What if Anthony ends up checking off every item on this lofty list of accomplishments? Those are just the benchmarks, he said. They're reminders that he is on the right path.
The grind, though? Man, that's the fun stuff.
Roy Williams already has his Cole Anthony story. At the end of summer conditioning, players ran through a series of drills meant to break their spirits. The worst was the tempo drill. It's a brutal sprint, and if a player doesn't better his designated time, he's forced to do it again. Anthony, of course, breezed through his run. Actually, he won nearly every running drill the team performed. Still, a few others struggled, fell short and lined up to do it all again. Anthony joined them and ran the whole thing over again because he wanted to. Because he didn't want anyone doing it alone.
"I don't treat it as work," Anthony said. "I treat it as my favorite thing to do. And it is. And that doesn't mean just playing the game. It means every aspect of the game. You love lifting weights. You love getting reps. You love putting in the extra hours after practice."
A few years ago, Anthony visited his pal Isaac Green in New Jersey. Anthony was dealing with a minor knee injury -- nothing big, but doctors wanted him to stay off it for a bit. His parents kept tabs, too. A few times every day, his mom would call to make sure he wasn't playing ball and testing the swollen knee.
"Nah, mom," Green remembered Anthony singing into the phone. "We're just chilling by the pool."
Then Anthony looked up, grinned at his friend and laced up his sneakers. Nothing was keeping him from the court.