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The matter of why Hubert Davis was the right man for the job from North Carolina’s perspective was never very much in question.
If there was any uncertainty to it, the chancellor and athletic director left none Tuesday. To them, and to many others, Davis epitomizes everything North Carolina basketball is supposed to be about.
In the day since his hiring was announced, less clear were Davis’ motivations. While a familiar figure on the North Carolina bench beside Roy Williams, Davis had more or less spent the past nine years at North Carolina in the background. He went from a very public figure on ESPN to a cog in the mighty UNC machine.
Why him? For North Carolina, the answer was clear. For Davis, less so, at least until he stepped to the dais Tuesday for the first time as North Carolina’s basketball coach, a DES pin from Dean Smith’s funeral on his lapel, and let his love for the university pour out.
“I always wanted to be a head coach. I just have always wanted to be a head coach only here,” Davis said. “I’ve always wanted to walk the same road, the same path as Coach Smith and Coach (Bill) Guthridge and Coach (Roy) Williams.”
This was the why, less a vocation than the fulfillment of a calling. In some ways, Davis has spent his entire life circling this place, the gravity of it pulling him closer and closer with each orbit, toward this moment.
Davis had to talk Smith and Williams even into letting him play at North Carolina. They told him to go play at George Mason for Rick Barnes, whose name was uttered at the Smith Center without being booed perhaps for the first time in the 21st Century, before relenting in the face of the force of his personality.
“Because Coach Williams and Coach Smith gave me that chance to come here, everything significant in my life has happened,” Davis said.
He so desperately wanted to be at North Carolina, where his uncle Walter starred, where Charlie Scott broke the kind of barriers Davis is now breaking. He pursued North Carolina then. The dynamic has been reversed ever since.
While he was already living in Chapel Hill after retiring from the NBA, he still gave up a lucrative and high-profile job at ESPN when Williams asked him to come back as an assistant coach nine years ago, the single climactic event that sent the cosmic dice tumbling to come up, almost a decade later, with Davis’ number.
After Williams offered him the job, he sat at his kitchen table with his wife, both crying. Curiously, in the telling of the story now, there’s never even a question of having a decision to make. There was none. It was a given.
“We cried, not because we were leaving ESPN or crying because we didn’t know what we were getting into,” Davis said. “We were crying tears of joy and happiness, knowing this is exactly the direction we needed to go and exactly what we needed to do.”
Davis called his nine years working for Williams, “missionary work, an act of service.” It was the only place he ever wanted to be. It was the only place he ever wanted to coach.
The basketball part of it will have to work itself out. There’s going to be a learning curve, changes to the staff, tweaks to the blueprint. Davis talked about getting “better in the transfer portal,” starting with outbound freshman Walker Kessler. It’s hard to imagine Williams making a public plea for a player to stay.
Still, in terms of what makes North Carolina basketball North Carolina basketball, Davis intends to reinforce, not renovate. It’s the history, the community, the tradition that drew him here in the first place, that brought him back, and will keep him here.
Now he will make it his own. He said he would only have “Carolina guys” on his staff. He referred to Williams, sitting with Davis’ wife and kids and father in the audience, as “the greatest coach I’ve ever been around,” an interesting turn of phrase for someone who played for Smith to deliver in the building named after him.
This is the mark of a new generation: Williams revered Smith, but Davis reveres both.
It’s a reminder that Davis is the custodian of the program now, and in his eyes Smith and Williams (and Guthridge) are all parts of the same legacy, the one he so badly wanted to join, the one whose fate he now controls.