They used special scissors with a gold blade, and one after another, the Tar Heels learned what it felt like to cut down the nets that had just taken them to a Final Four.
Most of the coaches knew the feeling. Roy Williams had climbed that ladder before.
“It is really special,” he said. “And that’s the reason I even know how many times we’ve done it. This is my eighth time in 28 years as a head coach.”
Assistant Steve Robinson has been on Williams’ staff for 20 of those 28 years and has strands from seven Regional Finals nets.
Assistant Hubert Davis climbed the ladder in 1991, as a player for the Tar Heels. Sean May had the experience in 2005.
Among the Tar Heels in uniform in Philadelphia on Sunday, only Kennedy Meeks had experienced what it felt like to cut down the second-to-last net of the year. As he took the scissors and trimmed away a piece of the home net, he experienced a sense of déjà vu.
That’s because he’d just done the same thing at the other end of the floor, not five minutes earlier.
The 2015-16 Tar Heels are a loose bunch, crashing press conferences and giggling as they’ve stormed through the postseason. But Meeks wasn’t clowning around as he took a second-helping at the net on Sunday night. Instead, it was the culmination of a selfless player-to-player-to-player hockey assist that would have made Dean Smith proud.
“It wasn’t for me,” Meeks said of the second strand he clipped from the Wells Fargo Center nets. “I got it for Luke. He didn’t get one. So I went and got one for him.”
That would be freshman Luke Maye. The forward didn’t play in the Regional Final win over Notre Dame, but he seemed capable of climbing a ladder on his own. In fact, when the Tar Heels took down the first net, on the visitors’ end of the floor, he was in line several players behind Meeks.
So why didn’t Maye get a turn with the scissors.
“I got to cut a strand,” Maye said.
Clearly, something was fishy around the budding controversy. Just where did the extra strand end up, and why?
Netgate originated two weeks earlier, when the Tar Heels cut down the nets at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., following their ACC Tournament title.
After each member of the team got a piece, the second net hung from a few slim strands. Coach Williams sent his scholarship seniors—Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James—up the ladder to finish the job.
There was a supply and demand problem: Three seniors and only two nets.
The first net was already around the neck of senior Marcus Paige. A three-year captain, there was no question that Paige would get one.
Johnson and James looked at each other after cutting the second net, but that one was just as much of a no-brainer. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Johnson had turned in one of the best seasons in school history. He cut the last strand and wore the net like a necklace.
James was left out. The huge ACC tournament sign that had been mounted to the backboard would have to serve as a substitute for the senior center’s trophy case.
James’ bulky souvenir led to an outbreak of sign stealing, as the Tar Heel players stripped the Verizon Center of any and all ACC Tournament signage, bringing them back to Chapel Hill to divide among themselves.
Last week, in the NCAA opening weekend in Raleigh, James peeled a giant logo sticker from the wall of the PNC Center to join his ACC sign in a collection of oversized signage.
“I’ve been trying to look around and see what I can take,” James said, while sitting in the locker room in Philadelphia.
He pointed to a dog eared decal on the wall that he’d clearly tried to peel away already. “Those sticky signs are a hassle. They ball up and stick to themselves. So I’m not sure what I’ll take yet.”
When the Tar Heels finished off the Fighting Irish to advance to their first Final Four since 2009, James had his chance to get a more manageable memento.
Whoever was in charge of counting strands on the first net and lining up the players accordingly—assuming there was such a person—had a costly miscalculation, however, and James found himself third in line at net number one, which was hanging by just one strand.
Maye was at the head of the line and took the scissors. He started toward the ladder, then turned and offered the scissors to the upperclassman. James deferred, waving Maye toward the basket.
Maye climbed the ladder, but he had no intention of taking down the net. Instead, he clipped away a small strand from the part of the net already hanging free. He held it up for the crowd, then climbed down.
At that point, Coach Williams saw the situation and stepped in to resolve it. He stopped senior walk-on Toby Egbuna, who was next in line, and directed him to hand the scissors to James.
“Let Joel do it,” Williams said, and James climbed the ladder to finally get his net.
Egbuna was first up the ladder on the other end of the court, getting his strand. That left Maye with a piece of the net far smaller than everyone else’s. Eventually, Meeks noticed the freshman’s bare Final Four hat, because Maye’s strand was too short to tie to the band in back of the hat, as the other players had done.
Maye refused to go up the ladder a second time, but Meeks wasn’t about to let the matter drop. He took it upon himself to cut Maye a strand.
The Tar Heel chain of generosity made sure that everyone got the keepsake they deserved. All the seniors had their nets. Everyone else on the team got a full strand. In typical Carolina fashion, however, getting anyone to take credit for the gesture would be like pulling teeth.
“I got a shorter strand at first, but then I ended up getting one,” Maye said, declining to mention his willingness to sacrifice to get James his net.
“I could care less about the net,” James said, when asked about it. “I was just glad to win the ACC Tournament before. Now, I’m glad to go to the Final Four.”
It turned out that Meeks was the only one willing to point the assist finger, crediting his teammates for their sacrifice and taking a tiny bit of credit for himself.
“I was just being a good friend,” he said.