Charles McNairy ’97 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

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“I knew I would learn some basketball skills and would become a better basketball player, but I had no idea I would become a better person …”

Charles McNairy '97

Charles McNairy ’97

June 10, 2017

Doug, when you called, I was super-excited. I really do love this school. How many of you all have ever been on the receiving end of a prank call? You know, when one of your buddies is trying to get the best of you? I received a call in the spring of 1993, and this call went like this: “Charlie, this is Coach Dean Smith. I saw in the paper you have an academic scholarship. I have watched you play basketball with your high school teammate, Jerry Stackhouse, and I would like to offer you a spot on the basketball team.” And I thought for a second, “Wow, this is the best impersonation I have ever heard of Coach Smith.” I was thinking this could not be true, you are kidding! He quickly said: “Talk to your parents and think about it and sleep on it and come back to me.” I said, “Coach, I’m not talking to anyone or sleeping on it. Count me in, I’m there.”  or me, that was a dream come true.

I was that 8-year-old kid who stayed up and watched every single game in the 1982 season. You remember the late night games, 9 p.m., were past my bedtime. I would pull the cover up on my little twin bed, and I had this little transistor radio. I would secretly listen to the game and stay up every night until the game was over. I can tell you every single statistic Michael Jordan had, line by line. I could also tell you about Timo Makkonen. How many of you remember him? Well, he red-shirted that year.

I heard stories of my parents meeting in history class here at UNC-Chapel Hill and stories of my grandfather buying cars with his buddies and selling raffle tickets at the Old Well to make a little spending money. I heard stories of his dad coming to school here, and of my great-great-grandfather coming here. So, you can tell I really do bleed Carolina blue.

I was that kid who would practice four to five hours a day. I loved to hear the bounce of the ball and swish of the net. I loved the caked dirt on your fingertips after playing so long. And when I got that call from Coach Smith, my life was changed. I had no idea as to why at the time. I knew I would learn some basketball skills and would become a better basketball player, but I had no idea I would become a better person and learn these life skills. He would use the basketball court as a classroom to teach life lessons.

So what did I learn? I learned a relentless focus on execution. He was hyper-organized and hyper-disciplined. I also learned a strong focus on humanity. He always kept coming back to this common theme that we are all in this together, and there is a common thread that moves among us no matter what race or what color or background or what decisions you have made. Finally, he had this ownership mentality of we own it. If we lost, it was because he hadn’t prepared us. And if we won, it was because we had done a great job. Those were lessons I took throughout life.

The first day of practice I went in, and there was a bulletin board with everything so organized: 5:33 practice starts – blows whistle; 5:34 thought for the day (I’ll come back to that); 5:38 Fast Break Drill No. 17; 5:43 Fast Break Drill No. 29; etc. What I learned was that being disciplined and organized led to great execution and great success. I also learned a lot about his respect for humanity. And those thoughts for the day, when we would start, he would blow his whistle, and there was also a thought for the day you had to memorize. That thought for the day was something that would broaden you and grow you as an individual. You would be standing around the circle, and he would call on one of us to answer the thought for the day. And if you didn’t know it, the whole team was running, so you had to know it. I can remember them — things like, “Never judge another until you have walked in his moccasins for a fortnight.” And: “What do you do with a mistake? You RALF it —   Recognize it, Admit it, Learn from it, Forget it.” So all these different sayings he was pouring into saying, “Look, the world is bigger than just yourself.”

After I graduated, he would call us and ask, “What have you done for others?” I don’t know about you all, but after school, I was kind of busy and would say, “You know, Coach, I volunteered a little bit in college, and that counts.” He would come back and say, “Yes, what have you done for others lately?” And I’ll never forget it, he had this abiding, deep belief that we are all created equal, no matter who you are and the choices you have made. Many of you have heard the story about Charlie Scott ’70, where Coach helped integrate ACC basketball, one of the first great African American players. Those stories were great to hear, but they were never personal to me because I wasn’t there. I respected them, but I wasn’t there. Then one day, it happened to me.  It was after practice, and Coach Smith gathered the team and said, “Gentlemen, tomorrow I want you to block off 3½ hours for practice.” I was a little nervous, thinking this was going to be an intense practice. We arrived the next day, and we were standing around the center circle in the Dean Dome, might I add, and he says, “Gentlemen, load up on the bus.” We get on the bus, and we go to I-40 and head east about half an hour. We pull up at this facility, this drab-gray facility, barbed wire all around, and we pull up to the guard gate. Two guys with machine guns let us in. We go to the back of the facility and pull into this old-looking gymnasium. We walk in, and there are cracks in the floor and bleachers on every side. We walk in, and there are inmates surrounding us completely. It feels like they are literally on top of us. Coach blows the whistle, and we go the center court of this dark, dank gym. He says: “Gentlemen, any one of us could be here where they are. One wrong decision could lead to another, and you could be here. And also, any one of those folks could be where we are.” I will never forget it. We held practice that day, and what he was trying to tell us was that in the bond of humanity there is so much more that connects us than separates us. After practice, we were back on the bus. Some of the inmates didn’t have a chance to watch the practice, and those were inmates on death row. Coach Smith went up and talked to every single one of those folks on death row and shook their hands. I remember being so touched, and it completely changed my life.

To pivot, the other thing that was really neat about Coach Smith was that he always wanted us to know that we were in this together, and we sacrifice for all. On a lighter note, some of us would get technical fouls occasionally, and Coach was unhappy with the number of technical fouls. One of our guys had a couple of technical fouls, and I cannot confirm or deny who it was. I cannot confirm whether he played for the Detroit Pistons or not, but we were at practice and Coach gets a nice chair and puts it in the middle of the court and sits our friend in the chair and gives him a glass of lemonade. And says, “OK, all you other guys on the in line are running suicides while those who get a technical are watching.” That made a great point — that we are all in this together. So he instilled in us a great sense of community.

Cultural respect was incredible. It did not matter if you were scoring 20 points or .2 points or if you were an All-American or if you were a manager. If you go to the letterman’s walk down the street, it is pretty incredible. All the managers are listed there with the basketball teams that are listed.

About 10 years after I graduated, I was real excited about my then fiancé (who is now my wife) meeting Coach Smith. We went into his office, and Coach Smith pulled me aside and said, “Hey Charlie, I was just thinking about you the other day.” You know, I was in the decimal club, and my contributions were behind that decimal — just to be clear. I like to say I worked myself up to the seventh man the first year Coach Smith used a six-man rotation. Anyway, so, he says he was thinking about me, and I asked why was that. He said, “I want you to know you really helped turn around our season your senior year.” And I asked him what he meant. And he said: “Well, you remember we lost those first three games in the ACC. You set that pick for Shammond Williams against N.C. State, and we broke our losing streak and we turned the season around.” I just thought to myself — you’ve got to be kidding!  e had a real special way of making you feel special and important.

When I came to UNC-Chapel Hill, I knew my horizons were going to be expanded, but I had no idea how or how much. I knew I would learn x’s and o’s from the greatest coach ever. I had no idea what that meant. I knew I would be around super-smart people at Carolina that would broaden my thinking, and they did. But I had no idea how that would impact my life, and I knew I would be around some great athletes – Rasheed, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison. These are all rafter folks! I had no idea how it would change me as a person.

On Jan. 5, 1995, I walked into the locker room and went to get taped. I was sitting on the bench and reading the practice plan. You have the white squad, which is the top seven guys, and the blue squad, which was the bottom seven guys. I was a perennial blue power player, for sure. But you had the starters and, in parentheses, you had the substitutes. On the substitutes list at the No. 2 guard spot it said (M. Jordan). I thought to myself, I’ll be doggone. He’s playing baseball. Coach Smith is probably trying to make fun of the guy in the No. 2 spot who is trying to be like Michael Jordan. Well, lo and behold, I got to practice really early and went into the locker room, and there were only two of us. And there was that shiny bald head. Literally, it was the greatest of all time – the greatest of all time – who made an industry, created Nike, who played the game better than any other player, anytime, anywhere in the history of the world — and he is sitting right there two seats down from my locker! I could not believe it. He practiced with us that day before he went back to the NBA. It was just incredible. I’m 6-foot-6, the same size as him. His hands are so much longer. He would be at the top of the key and had the ball and would flip it and knock out one our guys underneath the basket. He was on the blue squad. One time I messed up and threw the ball to someone who was out of place, and he was right up in my face, “KYFP,” Know Your F (and I can’t recall what that stands for) Personnel. I was like, “Wow, this is a different league totally!” The best was yet to come, which was at the end of practice we were running a scrimmage, and we were down two points with three seconds to go. Coach Smith was very organized, and execution was everything. I’m taking the ball out. Let’s pretend that this room is the basketball court, and we have to go the length of the court with three seconds to go, down two. We are on the blue squad. Coach hands the ball to me and calls 31 T, so the three man would take it and throw it to the point guard, and the two would come down and set a pick for the one, the one would cross over, and you hit the one right there and you get a shot off. So Michael Jordan was the two, and Shammond Williams was the one. Michael Jordan picked for Shammond, and Shammond was wide open. So I get ready to throw the ball, and then I think for a second – to heck with this play, I’m throwing it to Michael Jordan! So it was a really bad pass to Michael Jordan, and he kind of catches it and has his hip on it protecting himself from Jerry Stackhouse. He catches the ball literally at half court with Jerry all over him and goes up, takes one dribble, goes up to shoot. As he goes up, Jerry tries to block it, and Jerry had been kind of jawing at him all day. Jerry fades past him, and he is hanging in the air, and Rasheed goes up and comes down, and Jordan shoots the ball and spins back – nothing but the bottom of the net! He shakes his head and walks off the court and says, “Somebody tell Stack I do this for a living.” And he left! So that was definitely a highlight for me.

One last story about MJ. The next day at the end of practice, guys are lining up to play one-on-one against him, and it was Jerry’s turn. Jordan was at the top of the key. Jerry is guarding, and Jordan has the ball way out here. He says, “Alright, Jerry, which way do you want me to go?” We are looking around and thinking, “Oh, no.” He says: “Just so you know, I am going to dunk on you. Do you want me to go left or right?” Jerry is being real intense and says, “You are not going to beat me left, and you are not going to beat me right.” So Jordan does this really hard dribble, as hard as I have ever seen right, and crosses it over, and Jerry had been trying to force him to prevent the drive right, and Jerry is kind of tripping over himself, and Jordan crosses over and drives to the basket and just nails it on him, just like he said he would and looks at Jerry and says: “You reach, I teach.” True story.

In conclusion, I thought I was going to be a little bit better of a basketball player. But in reality, I learned life lessons that made me such a better person. Learning how to focus, discipline, execute, really understanding that life is bigger than any one of us. We are all here on a journey together in a broader sense and also taking ownership when things don’t go well, giving credit to others when things do go well. So with that, I hope I can pass that forward in my life, and I hope you all can, too. I am filled with so much gratitude for this incredible institution, and I love it dearly. And “yes,” I am proud to be a Tar Heel!