July 14, 2010
When John Henson's phone kept buzzing with calls and texts from friends this week trying to confirm that he'd be playing in Tuesday night's pro-am game in Durham, the North Carolina sophomore couldn't help but chuckle.
"It was funny to me that people were so excited," Henson said by phone. "I was like, 'It's just a pro-am game. Is it that big of a deal?'"
Team Stackhouse's 82-72 victory over Team McGladrey may not have counted in next season's ACC standings, but the Greater NC Pro-Am matchup was clearly an intriguing taste of what's ahead.
Starring for Team Stackhouse was Henson and highly touted North Carolina incoming freshmen Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock. Starring for Team McGladrey was NC State senior Tracy Smith and promising incoming freshmen Ryan Harrow, Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie.
A swarm of fans clad in either NC State red or North Carolina blue began filing into tiny 3,000-seat McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium hours before Tuesday's 8 p.m. tip-off to ensure they got a seat to watch the decorated newcomers. Event organizers allowed in a standing-room-only crowd and turned away another 1,000 fans, yet so many people attempted to push their way through the turnstiles that the previous game had to be suspended for 30 minutes while officials dealt with the fire hazard.
"It was a precursor of a matchup a lot of people want to see, so it was by far our biggest crowd," said Erroll Reese, the Pro-Am's community relations director. "It felt like the ACC tournament. It was crazy."
It's not unusual for a few hundred diehard fans to flock to a summer-league game for an early glimpse of their team's most prized freshman, but a perfect storm of factors turned Tuesday night's game into a must-see spectacle.
Both North Carolina and NC State are coming off discouraging seasons. Both rival schools inked top-five recruiting classes expected to reverse their fortunes. And both campuses are located less than 25 miles from McLendon-McDougald Gym in the heart of one of college basketball's most passionate regions.
Fans who came early and managed to find parking were rewarded with a high-intensity game that featured more body-to-body defense and more jabbering than a typical summer exhibition. Still there were no set plays and minimal half-court offense, so it would be wise not to draw too many conclusions.
Bullock scored 30 points and Barnes had 25 to allow Team Stackhouse to maintain a narrow lead for the final three quarters. Leslie had 21 points and Brown and Harrow chipped in 15 and 12, respectively.
"This was one of the best pro-am games I've seen," NC State power forward Tracy Smith said by phone. "It was filled to capacity. Everyone wanted to come out to see the freshmen, and they all put on a show. There was definitely trash talk going back and forth."
As he stood in the middle of a rapidly emptying gymnasium a few minutes after the game ended Tuesday night, Henson still wasn't ready to say the game was as fiercely contested as rivalry games during ACC play will be.
"It was kind of a big deal," he conceded. "People came out to watch, which is a good thing. The young guys went out and did their thing. Everybody got to have fun."