When North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham spoke to journalism faculty at an August retreat, he told them embattled wing P.J. Hairston would play this season but "not all the games."
Turns out Cunningham was a tad too optimistic.
North Carolina announced Friday that it will not seek reinstatement from the NCAA for Hairston, an outcome that appeared increasingly likely over the past few weeks.
One big clue came Wednesday when the NCAA cleared fellow Tar Heels guard Leslie McDonald to play but made it clear North Carolina had not yet submitted the requisite paperwork to get Hairston back on the court. The other clue came hours later when Cunningham promised there would be resolution to the Hairston case in the next few days once he had a chance to speak with the junior's family.
That North Carolina had yet to ask for Hairston's reinstatement suggested school officials believed he had accepted too many extra benefits for the NCAA to grant that request. And Cunningham could not realistically promise resolution within days had he intended to seek reinstatement for Hairston since that process was likely to drag out for at least a week or two, if not longer.
Concerns about Hairston's eligibility first popped up as a result of the cars he was driving during the offseason. He was charged with speeding in Durham on May 13 in a Camaro rented to a woman with ties to convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas. He was charged with marijuana possession and driving without a license on June 5 in a GMC Yukon also rented by Thomas.
Cunningham acknowledged Friday that Hairston "made a number of mistakes that placed his eligibility at risk." In a joint review with the NCAA, the university decided Hairston's transgressions were severe enough that reinstatement "would not be possible."
"I am extremely disappointed for P.J., his family and our team as he will no longer be playing basketball at North Carolina," coach Roy Williams said in a news release. "P.J. made mistakes and I was very disappointed by his actions and now he is suffering the very difficult consequences. He is not a bad kid; he just made some mistakes.
"Since summer, P.J. has been outstanding with our basketball program and with his schoolwork. He went through an extremely intense conditioning program with flying colors. He has been called a 'perfect teammate' by one of our other players. He has dominated our practices and at times has been as good as any perimeter player I have ever coached, giving great effort to help our team. He cares deeply about Carolina and the basketball program."
The Hairston family released a statement through a spokesperson that they were "displeased" by the school's decision not to seek reinstatement. They'll announce Hairston's future plans in the next few weeks.
Hairston averaged a team-high 14.6 points per game as a sophomore, sparking North Carolina's late-season surge when he moved into the starting lineup midway through ACC play. He averaged 18.2 points during the Tar Heels' final 13 games, playing so well that he briefly considered entering the NBA draft this spring before announcing in mid-April that he'd return to school for his junior season.
Not having Hairston will probably have some positive and negative effects for North Carolina.
On one hand, North Carolina cannot replace his scoring punch from the wing even with the return of McDonald providing another outside shooter. On the other hand, Friday's news will finally provide closure to a saga that had to be a distraction for the current Tar Heels with "Free P.J." shirts and signs popping up at games and with questions about Hairston coming daily at press conferences and from fellow students on campus.
With the status of McDonald and Hairston hanging over their heads for the past six weeks, the Tar Heels have been the nation's most maddeningly inconsistent team, toppling Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State but falling to three unranked foes.
Perhaps now that this is behind North Carolina, the Tar Heels can finally establish the consistency they've lacked thus far.
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