Nearly 30 years have passed since Jeff Lebo made five consecutive 3-pointers during the final five minutes of a North Carolina comeback victory at Georgia Tech in January 1988, but at the sight of Lebo on Sunday, Roy Williams quickly recalled the moment.
“He knows who he got them against, and so do I,” Williams, the UNC coach, said with a laugh, remembering a time when he was a Tar Heels assistant coach, “but we’re not saying that.”
Lebo is now the head coach at East Carolina, and he brought his team to the Smith Center on Sunday for a four-team exhibition that UNC hosted to raise money for the state’s disaster relief fund. The event was Williams’ idea, “and what a great idea it was,” Lebo said afterward.
Like a lot of Williams’ ideas, though, the one to host a four-team jamboree owed at least some influence to Dean Smith, the patriarch of what came to be known as the “Carolina family.” On Sunday, that family came together to put on a show for charity.
There was Williams, entering his 15th season at UNC, who has embraced his role as the leader of a family he entered during his years as a UNC student in the late 1960s and early ’70s. There was Lebo, whom Williams helped recruit to UNC when Williams was still an assistant under Smith.
C.B. McGrath, who brought his UNC-Wilmington team, played for Williams at Kansas and then served as an assistant to Williams. And UNC-Greensboro coach Wes Miller, the youngest of the four coaches who led teams on Sunday, played on some of Williams’ earliest UNC teams.
“We have a lot of people that would have enjoyed playing an exhibition game against us,” Williams said afterward, with the other three coaches sitting beside him. “But having these three guys here was the most important part to me.”
A crowd of about 5,000 attended the event, which was only announced within the past two weeks. Proceeds from the $20 tickets went to the N.C. Disaster Relief Fund. A UNC spokesman said it wasn’t immediately known how much money the event raised.
“We in North Carolina know and feel the effects of hurricanes, and particularly in eastern North Carolina, where we are,” Lebo said. “And it’s something bigger than basketball that we can give back.”
The four teams each played 13- or 14-minute mini-scrimmages against the other three teams. There were the usual highlights – some dunks and 3-pointers – and the usual tinkering that coaches like to do before the regular season begins.
Williams, for instance, routinely experimented with lineup combinations that he might not often – or, never – consider during the regular season, which begins on Friday against Northern Iowa. During the Tar Heels’ 38-22 victory against UNCW during the final segment of the jamboree, for instance, 10 Tar Heels played for at least one-third of the 14-minute period.
UNC shot 65.2 percent during that segment, which prompted a witty quip from McGrath, who is preparing for his first season as the Seahawks’ head coach.
“I told my wife after the game, I’ve been waiting 14 years to see Carolina shoot like that,” McGrath said. “And I wish it wasn’t against us in that last scrimmage.”
From a basketball perspective, there wasn’t much to be gleaned. UNCG, for instance, defeated the Tar Heels during UNC’s second “game,” though that stretched the definition of the word. Beyond basketball, it was an afternoon in which members of a family could get back together again.
“The things that you hear about him as you go through the program,” Miller said of Smith, “it’s the same type of values that coach (Williams) has. I can’t even describe in words how much he’s done for me, and this is just another example. We’re just so grateful that we were included.”
Miller afterward recalled the primary reason why he chose to play at UNC: He said he believed that Williams was best equipped to teach him how to be a coach, which is the path Miller said he most wanted to follow.
“I didn’t think I had any chance to play in the games,” Miller said. “And he told me that, too.”
McGrath, sitting next to Miller, didn’t miss a beat. Indeed, McGrath said – he didn’t think Miller would play much, either. To which Miller said he didn’t like McGrath “until three years after I graduated.”
Williams sat a few seats down, grinning. He’d either recruited or coached every one of the other three coaches who came back on Sunday. He brought McGrath to Kansas, Miller to UNC and remembered recruiting Lebo – and those 3-pointers he made in that 30-year-old victory at Georgia Tech.
Now Williams, like Smith before him, has become something of a patriarch. Members of his basketball family came together on Sunday. They were there to raise some money and to reunite – and also to remember some of what had brought them together in the first place.